Successful Grant Application Writing

14 Jan 2019

By Luz María Rodriguez MD, FACS

This is the first of a series focusing on the components involved in writing a successful grant application.

Surgeons by nature are natural scientists. Our curiosity, determination, and dedication to improve patient outcomes, including survival, new surgical approaches and translational research  is part of our DNA. The United States supports an enormous research enterprise and spends more money than any other country on research and development, which is a great asset to practicing surgeons in this country. How can surgeons write a successful grant application regardless of the institutional environment? The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest source of funding for medical research, provides the template prototype for a successful grant application. The guidance principal by the NIH provides resources to fund research proposals that excel in every one of the 5 NIH Review Criteria: Significance, Innovation, Investigators, Approach, and Environment. Below, 6 key items are outlined that every researcher should follow if she or he is to be successful.


1. Understanding the process

Get an early start by doing your homework; find experienced staff at your institution who can assist. This person may be in a central grant’s office, or it may be another investigator such as a departmental administrator.  Allow ample time to plan, organize and write your application. You may need as few as 2-3 weeks for a small project and as long as a year or more for a larger project. Your grants office can also:

  • Provide guidance on NIH policies and processes;
  • Guide you through the application process, inform you of any institutional deadlines you must meet;
  • Offer specific advice, especially the budget;

You must register in the Electronic Research Administration (eRA Commons) and create a PI account. This is the site where you will be submitting your application.

Search literature and grant databases using PubMed and Google Scholar.  Review the  NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORTER), which provides access to reports, data, and analyses of NIH research activities, including information on NIH expenditures and the results of NIH supported research.

Establish a timeline for your grant. The grant cycle consists of 3 cycles for submission. For the R01 application, the deadlines are June 5, Oct 5, Feb 5.  Grants submitted June 5th will be typically reviewed in October. Usually, there are 9 months between 1st and 2nd submission assignment of the study section.  A completed grant application is due by 5pm local time of the applicant’s organization.


2. KEY Resources

Keeping informed of all funding opportunities is a must.  You may subscribe to the NIH Guide to Grants and Contracts, which is a weekly publication of new funding opportunities and guide notices or check the new Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) at To Subscribe, send an e-mail to with the following text in the message body (not the “Subject” line):

subscribe NIH Seminars your name (Example: subscribe NIH_Seminars John Smith)

Other resources:

Office of Extramural Research

Grants Policy

Official publication for Grant Policies, Guidelines and Funding Opportunities

Another great source of information is the Application Guide within the NIH and other PHS Agencies is (SF424 (R&R)).


3. Mechanisms

The  most common grants for clinical investigators are: K-awards, R03, R21, and R01.  The Research Project grant (R01) provides support for health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH. It can be investigator-initiated or can be in response to a program announcement or request for application.


4. Key application elements

Grants have basically the same structure. Below detailed information about these basic sections is provided.  The most important part of any grant application is the written proposal itself. It consists of a 12 pages scientific research strategy with the following elements:

  •    Specific Aims
  •    Approach
  •    Significance
  •    Innovation
  •    Research plan

The Biographical sketch for each listed Senior /Key personnel and the Personal Statement are critical in the submission of a grant. 

Each Specific Aim should provide a concise statement of exactly what you want to accomplish. Convey the importance of your area of interest for medicine/ medical care/public health/health policy.  Current state of knowledge in your area of interest. Discuss Expected outcomes (payoffs) from pursuing each specific aim. It is ONE PAGE MAX and is often the only page most Reviewers read

Describe the overall Research Approach & Strategy you will use to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted.  Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims. Include preliminary studies-demonstrate productivity and feasibility.  Summarize what is known from existing literature. Clearly point out the gaps and highlight how this proposal will fill those gaps in knowledge to establish the significance of your proposed research.  Highlight the Innovation of your proposal by discussing novel concepts, approaches, methodology, and how the application challenges or shifts the current state


5. Grantsmanship

No matter how innovative one’s ideas are, sloppy or unfocused writing can completely obscure these ideas. The basic writing skills, such as sentence structure and grammar, are essential as one’s writing needs to flow clearly from one idea to the next. It is important to “tell a story” clearly. Define acronyms the first time you use them and incorporate all figures.  Get it reviewed internally and use spell check and grammar check.

In summary, write what you are going to tell; tell what you want to tell and summarize what you told. Remember to incorporate the players, discuss their role in the proposal- PI, Co-PI, any facility, core etc.


6. Help the Reviewers Help YOU

Writing with the reviewers in mind can be summarized to one simple concept: Do not make the reviewers work harder than they have to. Reviewers may not have the same depth of knowledge you do, but do not assume they cannot find relevant literature.  They are busy people, with lives and careers outside of reviewing grants; they are asked to read multiple grant applications in a short period of time. Reviewers’ time is of the essence and the majority of reviewers will make up their minds very quickly. Write brief summary statements at the end of each section to help guide the reviewer.

  •    Highlight sentences that spell out the Significance, and Innovation
  •    “This research is significant because…”
  •    “These aims are innovative as they show…”
  •    “Our work is important because…”
  •    Write statements that justify your approach (rule in or rule out)
  •    Why using this approach is better?
  •    Use Preliminary Data to demonstrate your Expertise and Environment
  •    Include experts. Use graphs or picture whenever possible



The essentials of Successful Grant Applications must include a strong idea – back it up with strong supporting preliminary data. You must emphasize how your previous work demonstrates project feasibility. You must have the right team and communicate scientific content accurately and concisely. Follow all the directions, start early, seek advice and critical input, including from your Program Officer, and remember to EDIT.


Additional Resources:

National Institutes of Health

Center for Scientific Review

NIH Grant Writing Workshops in 2019

NIH Faculty Sponsored Grant Writing  2019

Grant Writing for Success NIH by Dr. Paula Stricklan

The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook, 2018, Russell & Morrison

The Elements of Style, 4th ed.  By Strunk & White

Join @womensurgeons with moderators Dr. Genevieve Boland (@gmboland) and Dr. Carrie Sims (@carriesims20) for a tweetchat on January 21st at 8 pm Eastern Time on how to write a successful grant application by following #AWSchat. If you haven’t participated in a tweetchat with us before, check out this tutorial written by Dr. Heather Yeo (@heatheryeomd) to know more.



Dr. Luz María Rodriguez is a dual fellowship trained surgical oncologist and colorectal surgeon. She works at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Division of Cancer Prevention (DCP). Prior to joining the DCP she spent nearly a decade as a translational physician-scientist in the Genetics Branch at the NCI. Her lab studied genome-wide gene expression profiles in colonic mucosa of populations at risk. This expression profiling created a foundation for biomarkers of early colon cancer detection and prevention. She developed a Clinical Cancer Genetics Program devoted to risk surveillance, assessment, genetic testing, counseling, prevention and targeted intervention for individuals at increased risk for specific cancers

At DCP, Dr. Rodriguez supports ongoing clinical trial efforts of the NCI Division of Cancer Prevention Early Phase 0-II prevention trials through protocol development, scientific review, strategic planning. DCP’s early phase clinical trials fill the void between preclinical studies and Phase III. The Early Phase trials places emphasis on intervention effects on at-risk tissue-intensive tissue collections (e.g. biopsies), invasive biomarker monitoring. Dr. Rodriguez oversees chemopreventive and treatment trials in organ sites such as the liver, pancreas, stomach, and colon using study agents such as vaccines, and drug agents such as Simvastatin, Berberine, Curcumin, Metformin, Erlotinib and Aspirin. She also serves as a consultant nationally and internationally with various scientific and clinical groups with special focus on high risk cancer families, cancer immunoprevention and health disparity with the hope of narrowing the gap in cancer intervention

Dr. Rodriguez is a senior faculty and surgeon at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUH) and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) serving domestic and foreign military families in the area of GI diseases, pelvic floor disorders, soft tissue sarcoma, breast and anorectal diseases. She also trains medical students, residents and fellows in surgery, oncology and cancer prevention

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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