Ultimate Guide to Writing NIH Grants


phase one: planning

Don’t waste your own time: choose the right funding opportunities and plan ahead

Most people skip over the first few phases in this process I’m outlining here - in part because it’s time-consuming, and in part because it seems pretty boring.

But if you want to give yourself an edge over the competition, and—more importantly—you want to avoid wasting your own time, I *highly* recommend that you work through these early phases before you dive into the writing part.

If this first phase is a review for you (and it probably should be), ask yourself how well you’re following the steps in the planning phase and make any adjustments to your process.

Step One: Search for funding opportunity announcements (FOAs)

The first step to writing a strong NIH grant application is choosing which competition you should apply to. You can find out about available funding opportunities specific to your area of interest through FOAs, either on grants.gov or in the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts.

There are three main types of FOAs: Program Announcements (PAs), Requests for Applications (RFAs), and Parent Announcements. The first two (PAs and RFAs) are solicited by NIH to fund specific priorities, and the third (Parent Announcements) are more general and investigator-initiated.

  1. Program Announcements are issued by one or more Institutes or Centers (ICs) to highlight areas of specific scientific interest.

  2. Requests for Proposals are issued by one or more ICs to accomplish specific program objectives.

  3. Parent Announcements are broad funding opportunities that accept investigator-initiated applications for specific activity codes (e.g., R01, R03, R21, etc.) You’ll need to figure out which activity code is the best fit for your study.

If you’re new to NIH, it’s worth reading their overview of funding opportunities to help you understand what your options are.

Need more info on how to choose the right FOA? Check out the NIH’s walk-through video.

Step Two: Make sure you’re eligible to apply

Eligibility requirements are listed in every FOA, but they can differ by grant program. Read the requirements carefully to make sure you’re eligible.

Learn more about who is eligible for NIH grants.

Step Three: Assess your potential for funding

You need to find an NIH program that wants to fund your work. In other words: no matter how great your proposal is, it won’t get funded if none of the programs is interested in your study. The program official may not be interested because your proposal doesn’t fall within their mission, or because they’ve funded something similar fairly recently.

So. You need to know whether your idea has funding potential. The first place to start is to check the missions of the NIH Institutes that are most likely to be aligned with the work you’re proposing. (If you’re responding to a Program Announcement (PA) or Request for Applications (RFA), this will be relatively easy because the participating Institutes and Centers (ICs) will be listed in the FOA. If you’re responding to a Parent Announcement, you’ll need to do a lot more digging to figure out where your application belongs, especially if your work spans several ICs.)

You’ll also need to check whether your study idea is already funded. The easiest way to do this is to use the NIH RePORTER database. You can input keywords or even the names of researchers in your field who have been active in the last decade or so. Check NIH RePORTER to see whether someone is already funded to do the work you want to do: https://projectreporter.nih.gov

Step Four: Plan your annual grant writing strategy

So...How much time does it take to write an NIH grant?

Well, that depends: do you want to do it well?

Technically speaking, you could probably throw something together in four to six weeks of flat-out, hair-on-fire writing. Many people have. Some of them have probably been funded.

But the likelihood of being successful with a thrown-together application is pretty slim.

To put in a great application, you probably need four to six months, not weeks.

Here are some factors you need to consider for grant writing timeline:

  1. Time to actually write the proposal (it will take WAY longer than you expect)

  2. Time to read and learn from successful NIH grant examples from your colleagues and mentors (you can also access NIH grant samples for R01 and K grants here)

  3. Time to prepare the budget and justification (including getting any quotes or arrangements for contractors/equipment/subcontracts)

  4. Time to ask for letters of support (which includes following up with reminders)

  5. Time waiting for feedback from your co-investigators

  6. Time waiting for feedback from colleagues/mentors/advisors not on the grant

  7. Time to go through an internal review (if your institution offers that kind of service)

  8. Time to edit (or have someone edit) your full proposal

  9. Time to do the rest of your job (so that you don’t have to set everything aside for six weeks so you can meet this deadline)

  10. Time to spend with your loved ones (including pets, obvi)

  11. Time to eat, sleep, exercise, and shower

  12. Time to recover from any unexpected events or circumstances

    When you’re planning your annual grant writing strategy, make sure you consider these factors.


  1. Search for FOAs

  2. Make sure you’re eligible to apply

  3. Assess your potential for funding

  4. Plan your annual grant writing strategy

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