Strategies for the New NIH Biosketch Format (Part I)

I led a seminar on the new NIH biosketch format earlier this week, and it was rough going. People don’t like change, and, as a result, almost every change will meet a certain amount of pushback. Those of us on the front lines are used to hearing the static from those affected by changes, but this was exceptional (although not unexpected). The online feedback regarding NIH’s initial post in May about the new format was mostly negative and sometimes fairly hostile, and some in the room this week voiced many of the same complaints about the format. I understand the anxiety researchers are feeling with this change; however, rather than go into any detail about the complaints about the new format (you can read them online at the link above and in response to NIH’s post on the subject this week), I would suggest it is wise to accept the inevitability of the change to the NIH biosketch format and put that energy into focusing on some strategies for making yourself and your team shine in your new biosketches.

For my part, for the next few days I will share some strategies for writing a competitive NIH biosketch using the new format.

In this post, let’s start by reviewing the basics of writing a strategic biosketch. My subsequent posts will get more specific to the new format.

  1. First, it is imperative that you see your team’s biosketches as part of a business proposal. Review your proposal and identify all the expertise and experience needed to do your proposed research well. Then, look at the biosketches you have collected for your team. The expertise and experience required by your proposal should be obvious in your biosketches. Further, while your scientific and technical expertise and experience are valuable, so are your administrative and managerial expertise and experience. Just as if you were seeking funding in the private sector for a new business, of course someone on your team needs to have the experience managing research projects of comparable size and scope to the one you are proposing for funding. And of course, that experience needs to be clearly articulated to the biosketch reader.
  2. Do not boilerplate your biosketch. It should be obvious from the preceding point that each biosketch should be written/revised for each project. The Personal Statement, Contribution to Science, and Research Support sections of the new biosketch format should all be written with your role on this specific project in mind. Essentially, the biosketch is an argument that you have the appropriate expertise and experience to complete your part of the proposed research project. Extraneous information not pertinent to your current role on this project will weaken your argument and frustrate the reviewer. If you dismiss the gravity of frustrating the reviewer, you may want to gain some perspective by revisiting the overarching strategic concept of business and grantsmanship: the Golden Rule.
  3. Write your biosketch like it will be skimmed, because it will be. The purpose of the biosketch is to assure reviewers, who are tasked with assessing the scientific and technical merit of your proposal, that your team has the expertise and experience required to do the proposed project well. Don’t fatigue and frustrate the reviewers by burying this information in dense, obscure prose. In order to write a complete biosketch that provides enough information for both the deep readers and the skimmers, remember your basic writing skills from grammar school:
    • Understand the purpose of each section (i.e., read the instructions) and include only information salient to those instructions in the section you write.
    • Write in a straightforward style, minimizing jargon and emphasizing clarity.
    • Start each paragraph with a strong topic sentence that summarizes the point of the paragraph. Review the NIH’s sample biosketch (MS Word) to see how this is done (although you should most definitely avoid making the redundancy error the sample has in its first sentence!).
    • Identify the key terms used in the Personal Statement and assure that they appear in your Contribution to Science paragraphs. Any key terms that appear in the Personal Statement are either not relevant to your argument, or you need to reconsider what has been included in the Contribution to Science.
  4. As always, not having a product of Completed Research Support apparent in the biosketch can be inferred as an inability to carry through. Remember, grant funding is provided to further the mission of the granter. In terms of the NIH, that means peer-reviewed publications and, now, non-publication products as well. It is strategic to include a product in one of your lists of products in either the Personal Statement or Contribution to Science sections.
  5. Don’t leave the biosketch for last. Successful teams task an individual with collecting, reviewing, developing, and editing the team’s biosketches. This takes time, skill, and an understanding of what the proposed project requires in terms of expertise and experience. Although a great biosketch doesn’t “add” to the proposed project, it does support the argument that the team is appropriate for the task. Conversely, a poor set of biosketches may lead reviewers to question if the team’s expertise and experience are appropriate, which is a serious consideration that does prevent projects from being funded. Time and again, I have seen projects go unfunded because the team’s experience and expertise were in fact appropriate but not clearly articulated to reviewers.

Tomorrow’s post will review strategies specific to the new format.

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