Grant-Writing Tips: Preparing Your Biosketch and Proving Your Expertise

By Sara Rockwell, PhD
Associate Dean for Scientific Affairs
Yale University School of Medicine
March 9, 2009

Reprinted with permission

Among the most important factors considered by reviewers in rating a grant are the past track record of the applicant and the ability of the applicant to perform the studies outlined in the application. For a young applicant, whose work and skills are still unfamiliar to members of the review committee, the grant application must convey all of the information needed to convince the review committee that the applicant is able to direct the project and that he or she merits support. Because of this, the applicant’s Biographical Sketch, or Curriculum Vitae, is often the most important section of the application. The information on this page, the letters of support (if required), along with the quality of the preliminary data and experimental plans in the application will be critical during the committee’s evaluation of the applicant.

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Tips and Tricks

Some Hints on Preparing the Biographical Sketch Expand answer

The Biographical Sketch or CV included in a grant application is a different document than the resume you would prepare to apply for a job or the academic CV you maintain to document your full professional career. The grantmaker usually limits its length, sometimes to as little as 1-2 pages. There may be very detailed instructions for the format and contents of the CV. Even when the grantmaker does not specify the format, the biographical information should be limited in scope and carefully prepared, and should focus on information relevant to your research career. If the grantmaker provides no guidance, look at instructions from other agencies and/or seek the advice of senior researchers working in the same area.

General Guidelines Expand answer

If the grantmaker gives specific instructions, follow them explicitly. Do not alter the order of the information from that specified in the instructions. If the application includes a form, use it. Be sure to use the correct, current form. (NIH has changed its Biosketch form several times in the last few years… check to be sure you are using the correct form for your specific application).

The reviewers judging your grant may have dozens or even hundreds of grants to review. They almost certainly will not have read all of the grants before the review meeting (if you are lucky the primary and secondary reviewers will have read the application thoroughly and a few other members of the committee will have looked at it briefly). Most members of the committee will be looking at your CV some time during the review, especially if someone raises a potential problem or asks a question about the your expertise. The reviewers need to be able to find the information they need rapidly and easily, which means it needs to be where they expect to find it and in the format they expect.

For the same reason, use an easy to read font, in a large enough size. A specific font and size may be specified in the instructions. Use reasonable margins (check instructions, they may be specified). Make ample use of spaces, bold fonts, section headings, etc. to separate elements. Avoid underlining and fancy fonts, which get hard to read on the bad photocopies the reviewers receive. (Reviewers get very grouchy when they have to read something that looks like this.)

The major purpose of this CV is to establish your research credentials. It should focus on your professional life. Do not include personal data that is irrelevant to your research. Do not include your home address and telephone number, spouse’s name, names and ages of your children or pets, your hobbies, etc.

Education and Experience Expand answer

Focus on your life as an adult. Begin the education section with your undergraduate college. Do not include high school activities or honors (unless they are truly extraordinary or relevant … for example if you published a paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal on research done while you were still in high school, include it in your bibliography).

In listing education, include areas of study as well as degrees earned. Non-degree programs or educational experiences related to the project may also warrant inclusion. For example, if you recently took a course in a new area or on a new technique that you will be using in the project, this merits mention.

Most instructions ask you to describe your “Professional Experience.” This is not the same as a full employment history. Exclude such jobs as a lifeguard or camp counselor during summer college vacations, a job in the dining hall or a restaurant while at college, etc. It may be of value to include relevant collegiate experience if you are a young investigator. For example, if you worked while you were an undergraduate in the Biology Department as a research assistant in a molecular biology laboratory, as a computer programmer, or as an engineering assistant in an electronics company you may want to include this in your early grant applications in related areas. As your CV grows, focus on your postdoctoral experience. If there is a long period between your undergraduate and graduate degrees because you worked in an area that did not require a doctoral degree, you may or may not want to include information on this period. Decide whether it is helpful. For example, if you were an engineer, working in industry in a field related to your current research, this experience would be helpful in establishing your credentials.

All postdoctoral experience generally should be included. List only broad outlines: years begun and ended, position title, department, institution, and location. Do not include detailed descriptions of your responsibilities, full addresses, etc. Some grantmakers tell you to include the name of your mentor for graduate and postdoctoral positions.

When listing your present position on your CV, be sure it matches the position title listed elsewhere in the application. Use your official University title.

If you are to receive a promotion that will be effective before the grant begins, list the effective date of the pending promotion. Be very careful here. List only promotions that are assured (e.g., the position has been approved by the institution, offered in writing, and accepted in writing). You may be asked to prove or document this pending promotion. If your application includes a letter from the chair or the dean, be sure this letter describes the pending promotion.

“Experience” can go beyond full time jobs and primary appointments. Include secondary academic appointments to other departments or other schools. Include memberships on major advisory panels. (Note: USPHS applications require that you list present memberships on federal advisory boards.) You may want to include memberships on editorial boards (not just reviewing papers for journals), major offices held in professional societies, etc.; invitations to assume these roles imply professional recognition from senior investigators in the field.

Awards and Honors Expand answer

“Awards” and “honors” should be selected with care. Major awards that recognize you scientific promise or accomplishments should be included (e.g., your Nobel Prize). Named Scholars Awards, young investigator awards, and awards received for research performed during graduate or postdoctoral training also merit inclusion. The implications of some named awards may not be obvious to outside observers; in this case you may want to include a brief description of their implication, e.g., “Francis Lou Kallman Award (recognizing the outstanding PhD candidate in biological sciences), Stanford University, 19XX.”

Do not list trivial awards or awards irrelevant to your professional development. (e.g., all the “Who’s Who” books you have been in, your prize for winning last year’s Bass Masters tournament, your third place finish in the New Haven 20K road race.)

The Bibliography Expand answer

This is a critical element of the biographical sketch. Prepare it with great care.

It will be used by the reviewers to assess the quality of your work, your overall productivity, and the consistency of your productivity.

The reviewers will look at the number of publications. However, they will go well beyond this.

They will also look at the quality of the publications. Are they in peer-reviewed journals? Are they in high quality, high impact journals? Are they in the respected specialty journals in your field? Are they full articles, or just brief notes, letters to the editor or case reports? Are they original articles or reviews? A full, peer reviewed publication in a good journal is far more valuable than a paper in a conference proceedings or a short note in a minor journal.

They will look at your position as author. How often are you first author or sole author? Second author? How many authors are there? The first author will be assumed to have been the person doing most of the work and writing the paper. The last author is often assumed to be the PI or group leader. Sometimes you will be in the middle of a list of authors, showing that you contributed to a group effort. Because this shows that you are a good collaborator, these papers are valuable in building your CV.

However, someone who is always buried in the middle of a list of 5-10 authors will be assumed to be playing a supportive, technical role, rather than having lead role in the research. Negotiate your authorships carefully. Senior scientists should be careful to consider the impact of authorships on the careers of their trainees and should ensure that they get appropriate recognition through appropriate authorship and appropriate position in the list of authors.

The reviewers will look at your coauthors. Are they your mentors, your peers, or your students? Where was the work done? Does the work reflect your independent ideas and initiatives? At a certain point in your career you will begin to have numerous articles in which you are the last author and your trainees are the primary authors; this is good and shows that you are transitioning to leadership and are mentoring your students appropriately.

Prepare the bibliography carefully, following all instructions as to content or format given by the grantmaker.

What should you include in the list?

  • Papers published in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Papers in press (i.e., accepted for publication by the journal).
  • Do not include papers in preparation or submitted for publication and still in the review process. Submit papers early, so that they are accepted by the time the grant is submitted. If this is not possible, you can usually send the review committee a letter telling them that additional papers have been accepted for publication.
  • Book chapters, papers in conference proceedings and review articles. Some grantmakers will want these separated from peer-reviewed publications.
  • Published abstracts, clearly listed as abstracts, may be listed under certain limited circumstances: i.e., if you are just beginning your career and have only a few papers, but do have a significant body of recent work that is mature enough to have been presented at meetings; if you are newly independent and want to document that your lab is up and running; or if you have moved into a new area of research and want to document your progress in this new area.

Unless instructed otherwise, include complete citations: All authors, full titles, and complete citations with first and last pages. If you include only the first page number, some reviewers will assume the papers are abstracts or short notes (and in fact they are sensitive to this because some applicants attempt to pad their CVs in this way).

Unless instructed otherwise, list the papers in chronological order (generally oldest to newest but check the instructions). This makes it easy for reviewers to assess your professional growth and the trajectory of your publication.
Reviewers like to see a consistent pattern of publication, without large unexplained gaps. In faculty they look for evidence of a trajectory towards independence and leadership in a research group.

You will probably have limited space, and may not be able to list all your publications. Follow the grantmaker’s instructions as to which papers to include in this case.

Avoid the temptation to use smaller type and margins. The few additional papers you squeeze in will not be worth the loss of clarity and aesthetics.

If you have more publications than can fit in this space, you may want to include a statement at the beginning that says, “selected from a total of 195 publications.” Some grantmakers tell you to include the total number of papers you have published.

Some agencies severely limit the number of papers you can cite. NSF specifies that applicants list five papers related to the proposed project. Choose these publications with great care. Consider their relevance as well as their importance and your role in the paper.

Letters of Recommendation Expand answer

Some grant and fellowship applications ask for letters of recommendation. When these are included, they are examined with great care by the reviewers.

Follow the instructions for sending these letters carefully – they vary greatly from agency to agency. Some want them sent in sealed signed envelopes along with the application. Some want them included as part of the application. Some want them sent directly to the grantmaker by mail or through a secure website.

Select your sponsors carefully.
Scientific references, not personal references.

Ideally: A young investigator should include his/her thesis advisor and postdoctoral advisor, plus someone who knows his/her current work.

Select people who know your work, who are reasonably senior, and who know how to write good letters.

Many agencies want a letter from your chair, a few want letters from the Dean or the President. (The Grants and Contracts office can help to arrange for letters from the Dean and President.)

Give your sponsors the guidelines for the grant you are seeking (including any specific instructions related to the letters), a good draft of the grant, your full CV, and a brief draft letter giving your overview of the project and its importance. Talk with them about your career plans and goals, if you haven’t done so previously. Give them plenty of time to write the letters (at least 2-3 weeks).

The letters should discuss not only your past work and current project, but also your long range potential in your chosen profession.

Do not be shy about asking for letters; it is part of the senior faculty member’s job to mentor you. Writing these letters is part of that responsibility.

Never be hesitant to ask the same person for several letters for different grants and awards. The first letter we write for someone may take a lot of thought and effort, but with word processors it’s easy to modify that letter for the second, third, or nineteenth agency.

Be sure to let your sponsors know when you receive an award.

Other information the reviewers will use to evaluate your expertise:

  • The preparation of the application
    • It should follow the instructions.
    • It should be clear and logical in its presentation of the project.
    • It should be grammatically correct and without spelling errors.
    • It should be internally consistent: the budget, budget justification, personnel descriptions, facilities described, etc., should all match the science presented in the project.
  • The quality of the preliminary data
    • Quality of experimental design: Are your approaches, techniques, controls, etc. appropriate and well thought out?
    • Quality of preliminary data: This provides evidence that the techniques are in place in your group and that you can use them effectively. The reviewers will examine your graphs, gels, blots, sections, etc. very critically and carefully.
    • Quality of analyses: This shows that you understand the limitations of the techniques, and understanding of the statistical approaches needed for the appropriate analysis of your data.
    • Quality of conclusions drawn for the data: Can you interpret your findings rigorously and appropriately?
    • Quality of any reprints or manuscripts you submit as appendices.
    • Overall, the preliminary data section is absolutely critical in establishing your expertise and research skills. Poor quality data, lack of appropriate controls, inadequate statistical analyses, incorrect analyses, or flawed interpretations of the data can absolutely doom your application.
  • The quality of the background and significance section of the application.
    • Do you know the literature?
    • Have you referenced and interpreted it well?
    • Can you put your work into a broader perspective and explain why it is interesting and important?
    • Remember that some reviewers will be from very different areas of science than your own. You must convince these reviewers, as well as the experts in the field, that this project is worth funding.
  • The quality of your experimental plan and the description of the methods you will use in the project
    • Are the hypotheses reasonable and well formulated?
    • Is the overall plan for the project appropriate? Is the scope reasonable? Can you do the proposed work with the time and budget available?
    • Is the methodology appropriate? Have you included the appropriate controls? Have you considered the possible limitations of the methods and approaches? Have you thought of alternative approaches to use if needed?
    • Are the analyses appropriate? Have sample sizes, statistical problems, etc. been considered? (If you have consulted a statistician while developing your project, name them.)
    • Have you documented that you have access to the resources and expertise you will need to perform the studies?
      Access to … outstanding core facilities can strengthen your application. When you will use these
      facilities, say so. Access to strong collaborators who can assist you in areas where you need expertise can be very valuable. Name and describe these collaborators in your grant. Get letters of collaboration where appropriate.
Conclusion Expand answer

Remember as you write your grant: you are making an impression on a very important group of people. This impression will not only affect your success with this particular grant application, but will also influence the success of your future grant applications and impact your career. Submit the strongest possible application.