Should a Newb PI Go Big or Run Long?

January 28, 2015

The latest version of the query was on the Twotts:

My advice, of course, is to do both of these things. Start up a new line of attack right away as well as do a good job with the line of work that your R00 is for, with the thought of converting that into an R01 project later.


Before anyone gets to that they need to sit themselves down for a little pondering.

This advice that I give (go big right from the start) has to be modulated by two critical factors. What kind of scientist you want to be and what kind of scientist you are expected to be.

So, first question that you need to ask yourself is what you see as your ideal lab operation both right now (next 2 yrs) and into the future (say, year 10). What do you prefer? What is going to make you happy both scientifically and mental-health wise? How much can you handle? How much can you handle five years from now (because, dear n00b PI, what seems overwhelming in year 2 is much easier in year 4 or 8)?

This has to be your starting point. If you can’t see your way to a sustainable, desired future operation of your little cottage industry of science……well you aren’t going to be happy. What do you want to do? This is critical for deciding how to go about attaining your goal and for deciding what strategy to pursue right now.

The second question has to do with what you are supposed to be doing given your job category, University type, subfield, etc. Are you expected to be a two-grant lab? Are the sorts of production rates that are expected of you only possible with more support than one R00 can provide? Look around you. What are your peers in your Department, in your School of X and in your subfield doing?

Do you have a huge teaching burden? Do you get a lot of free undergraduate labor for your sciencing or do you need to be able to hire technicians and postdocs?

There was a followup…

Which implies that local advice was to focus on the one project, then ask for more money later.

Danger, Will Robinson.

This could be the answer to the local expectations question. Could be. But it could also be the voice of long outdated, or generationally privileged, experiences talking.

Older colleagues may think you young pups are in the same era that they enjoyed. An era when the expectations of renewing a funded project (that was reasonably productive) were very high. Those expectations are not high anymore. It is career suicide, imnsho, to assume that you can submit a new application in the final year of your current single-grant support and get refunded immediately. Suicide, that is, assuming that you are in a place which demands essentially continual funding. Now, of course, if all the people around you have gaps in funding all the time, and it never seems to perturb tenure chances, then this changes the equation for your individual situation.

R00-holders, and those who have managed to acquire major funding in the first 1-2 years, face another strategic consideration. A little bit ago, someone was proposing a “twins” strategy of simultaneous submission so as to game the ESI designation. It’s worth a read. There is another consideration for the first couple of years of appointment. The study section sympathy for lack of independent productivity (read, papers) from your own lab diminishes quickly with time. In year 1-2, the sane reviewers are not going to expect that you have generated substantial amounts of data or published papers “from your new lab” yet. They will review you accordingly. Once you start into year 4? Well, you will be hard pressed to find any reviewers being sympathetic. So this gives you a sort of grace period to send up grant proposals with very minimal supporting data and without a Biosketch filled with your senior-author pubs.

So, as always, you need to do your career research and some hard introspecting about your plans. Nobody can hand you the answer. You need to collect relevant evidence, determine what is the best path forward for you given your situation and select the best course of action.

Kind of like doing the science itself.

28 Responses to “Should a Newb PI Go Big or Run Long?”

  1. Dr Becca Says:

    Early and often! The idea of not submitting a single R-mech proposal until 2-3 years in seems insane to me. As of next week I’ll have submitted 7 (including resubs), and my experience is that you never know what the reviewers will and won’t like, which will vary from study section to study section, so you have to factor in a little bit of randomness into your schedule planning. Also, it has taken time to refine my approach to writing, and I definitely think I’ve improved a lot in grantsmanship.

    And gaps in funding may not perturb tenure chances, but what about general lab functioning? Nobody wants to have to fire people.


  2. R00 veteran Says:

    1. Maybe it’s good practice with grantsmanship, but unless your new project is truly revolutionary and perfectly reasoned, there is no way you will be awarded an R01 without a track record in that area of investigation. You need publications and lots of preliminary data. You’re competing with all the famous labs (and the other noobs) who are submitting their bread and butter projects, not half-baked side projects.

    2. NIH will take away your R00 if you are awarded an R01 on the same topic. Maybe not ALWAYS, but it has happened. Best to wait until at least the end of year 2 to submit on that topic and resubmit as necessary. Presumably you will have startup left over if there is any gap. Then once you get the R01 you sail right through tenure because you still have a few years of funding left at year 6 when you’re evaluated.


  3. I-75 scientist Says:

    Appreciate the responses. My impression is that the advice given was due to both the institutional environment and the individual’s experiences. It came from chair of department interviewing in, which is why I asked, because of implications that it could have on me developing my path forward.
    Personally I’m of the mindset presented at the end, and of Dr. Becca’s. I think I have the aims/plans/data to develop a “2nd” project that would be my first R01 submission, and that it would be better to submit this before I’d have the aims to “convert” the R00 into a R01 project.


  4. lurker Says:

    Since I’m procrastinating from the grants I’m suppose to be writing (#14, 15, 16 to NIH), I’ll chime in and say Go Big Now, not because you’ll win the lottery (which you might, but don’t count on it, but if you do, more power to you).

    Go Big Now for Survival sake because you won’t really learn how to play this lottery till it might be too late. I was a late comer to the Church of DM, where I finally learned the gospel of Rehashing Thy Grant in Many Forms from the same Fukken Prelim Data, and Shoppe that thing till you find Study Section Salvation. It is in this online bible Book of DM that I learned you gotta be creative and conjure 3-4 directions to make your small pile of Prelim Data look like the next Swiss Army Knife.

    I also did not realize the double-edge sword of the R00. It can mark you so that while you are thinking you’ll be judged like the rest of the noobs out there viyng for their first R01, the Riff Raff is actually going to judge you like a midcareer renewing their first R01 despite the R00 lasting only 3 years.

    I don’t know if I’ll survive if none of my hail-mary’s this Feb become a touchdown. Maybe I should have deflated my footballs more. But I should ahve definitely thrown alot more passes and gotten better and faster at submitting them. And now that the Banned A2 policy that fucked my ass the last 2 years is out, you can submit alot more of them with alot less rewriting to make it “original”. Shoppe at least 3-4 different SS’s because who knows what shitte SS values these days. I shit you not, a Computational SS triaged me for not enough mechanism, and the Mechanism SS wanted a more convincing algorithm.

    Happy dice rolling.


  5. There is about a three year grace period where you won’t be judged on the publication productivity of your lab. Make use of this to fire off as many R01s as you can. Starting around year four, reviewers are gonna judge whether you are publishing senior author papers from your lab.


  6. SidVic Says:

    My experience was that the reviewers criticized lack of productivity earlier i.e. yrs 2-3 in. While I agree with becca and CPP that one should take advantage of new investigator status/grace period and aggressively apply early/often as possible; several caveats apply.
    You must balance time and be working to get manuscripts and preliminary data out too. Applications should be of reasonable quality and not appear forced. For one glorious nanosecond in my 2nd faculty year it looked as if i might get 2 independent ro1s funded under new investigator status (a 33% on an a0 and a 22% on a a1). Ultimately i squeaked 1 ro1 with help from my PO. Man, what might have been; 2 ro1s, plenty of start-up cash and youthful vigor.
    When they began in on me about productivity i directly addressed it in my rebuttal. Essentially i said (in a diplomatic way of course) hey com’on guys i have submitted 7 applications and that obviously it cuts into my productivity. It shut that line of criticism down. I have had good luck by very explicitly explaining circumstances although obvious pitfalls in coming across as a excuse-maker exist if not done judiciously.


  7. mytchondria Says:

    The advice given on this point is dead on. Write early, write often and reapply. One of the best things you can learn in the grant writing process as a noob tenure track prof is whose advice you want to follow and who really is going to read your fuckken grant. The idea of having a couple of ideas you can flip into Ro1s is not really tenable for most postdoc imnsho. I think it IS a good idea to write a couple of Specific Aims pages on different projects or angles on projects and circulate them. Our Uni offers a ‘grant forum’ where nOObs can either brain storm for ideas or hand out a couple of diffent angles on projects and have 10 faculty murder you. This incredibly painful process of actually getting people togehter in a room to talk rather than doing the one on one shuffle from office to office is sooooo helpful.
    There will be scads of promises from potentially helpful folks, advice galore and many more people sharing their successful grants then back when I was a wee pup of a unfissed mytchondria. Use the group setting if possible and get your arse kicked. And record it because you won’t remember it all.
    It will likely turn out that your pet project is not at all appealing to the scope of your study section.


  8. Crystaldoc Says:

    Anecdotes: A new investigator in my department ~2 years in recently got an R01 funded through exception without senior author pubs yet, his last paper was 2012 1st author Cell paper, so I know it can happen. But I’ve been serving on an NIH study section for ~2 years and yet to see any NI grant in fundable range without significant independent productivity on the topic. It’s not that the study section is going out of their way to ding the NI on productivity in the first few years, but we see maybe 20-30 NI R01s each cycle of which probably 1 will get funded. It is maybe not surprising that the very most competitive applications come from investigators already demonstrating a track record of independent productivity on their topic, and with the strong preliminary data and strong local collaborations that take time to develop. Also, my impression is it is always on their main project that they are already pouring every resource into.

    I agree it is good and maybe even essential to develop a second project within your research program, and writing grants for it is a good way to develop it. But on the other hand, time/energy/money is limited and you need to be efficient. You have to realize that the 2nd stream R01 may be an extreme long shot, and under no circumstance should be allowed to slow you down from getting independent research papers published as early as possible. If there are foundation, state, or institutional grant opportunities with happier paylines then that may be the better place to aim initial submissions for the 2nd project, and revising/reformulating for these mechanisms will eventually roll together enough material for an R01 on the 2nd topic, without making so big of a project that everything else needs to stop to accommodate it.


  9. Grumble Says:

    @myto: “and who really is going to read your fuckken grant”

    IME it’s really, REALLY hard to find people to read your fuckken grant in any more than a cursory, “looks good, fix the tiny print in that figure there” way. No one has time and reading grants is just painful.

    You know what would convince me to read someone’s grant and comment in depth? Money. A $1000 check would be nice.


  10. eeke Says:

    “There is about a three year grace period where you won’t be judged on the publication productivity of your lab.”

    CPP – if only this was true. It wasn’t in my experience, nor in anyone else’s that I know.


  11. Established PI Says:

    I haven’t seen this approach of flailing about and throwing multiple R01s at study sections work for junior PIs. You were hired because you had a focused set of ideas – write a great grant on that. You need good preliminary data, so I don’t see how you can have more than one iron in the fire with a new lab. Once you get that first R01, you aren’t going to get a second until you demonstrate productivity on the first.

    @Grumble: Get your institution to put together grant review committee if it hasn’t already, preferably with people who have served on study sections and who ARE willing to help their colleagues. We have this and the comments are invaluable (and we do it for free). Two people read your grant and put together an NIH-style critique, along with detailed comments. It can be painful but it is hugely helpful.


  12. K99er Says:

    Established PI is right on the money here. Getting an R01 early in your R00 phase is almost unheard of (at least among my cohort). And when it does happen, as someone noted above, the NIH will sometimes require negotations in which you relinquish the R00. The idea that you’re going to get 2 R01s on two different topics in your first few years is just unrealistic. Unless you are truly the cream of the crop at the world’s most famous institution, it isn’t going to happen. Wait until you have a grant that you feel in your gut is a home run. That’s what it takes to get under the payline right now, and even then you’ll probably have to submit it at least twice. What worked for me with a new research direction (after I made the mistake of trying to submit it as an R01) was to submit that project for internal university grants and foundation grants.


  13. SidVic Says:

    Yes, I agree with EP and K99 but… The issue isn’t getting 2 ro1s but getting any ro1..
    Say one studies a new transcription factor that they have discovered. It has has relevance to PO heart failure and, maybe cardiotoxicity/ toxicology. Submit two grants- nearly same preliminary data with divergent research plans. Maybe the toxicologist will like it alot and the heart guys will not. Of course you can’t flail around, or at least appear to flail. However, with the mechanics of review, a window exists for new investigators where one might have fundable score on one grant yet still submit applications and not have funded grant to count against them. Though i fully agree if you have a ro1 funded forget about another until you show you won’t blow it (maybe the same with a ROO?).
    I’m not sure how the roo works in practice. In my case i had a 300k k23 starter grant and they definitely held it against me. NIH dropped the starter grants from the 80s because they just provided enough money for people to hang themselves- funded, but low productivity- and first ro1 failure rate was high.

    Waiting until you have a homerun has pitfalls. It is so tight right now that one less than highly enthused reviewer sinks your boat.


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    R01 is better than R00. So I don’t see where the relinquishment is any sort of problem.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    Wait until you have a grant that you feel in your gut is a home run.

    This is a recipe for disaster. Don’t do this!


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    (To be clear, I still feel like every grant is a home run about three hours before I submit it. But it hardly ever feels like this when I sit down and start one)


  17. Me Says:

    In response to Crystaldoc.

    Perhaps at the study sections you are looking at this is indeed the case. But I was awarded both a R01 and R21 with zero senior author papers. Both were reviewed at study section >2 years after I had started my TT job. The prelim data for both was gathered exclusively from my lab, but no senior publications. Additionally, I know of many other colleagues that have obtained a R01 without any papers where they are senior author.

    When I first started I also applied for a R01 with only postdoc data and published data at that. The grant missed the payline by 1 percentile.

    Point being, there are no rules. Write a solid, innovative grant. Make sure your writing interesting and engaging. Lots of people do good science; if you can write really well you will have a true leg up on the competition.


  18. Dave Says:

    I haven’t seen this approach of flailing about and throwing multiple R01s at study sections work for junior PIs

    There is evidence in this thread that it hasn’t worked for some……


  19. Dr Becca Says:

    There is evidence in this thread that it hasn’t worked for some……

    Who said anything about intentionally flailing? The point is, if you wait, and you submit your first ever R01 in year 3, is it as good as an R01 you submit in year 3 after some experience with the current study sections? Everyone knows someone who hit on their first try (including yours truly with an R21), but the reality is that it’s rare, and I think experience when the stakes are lower (i.e. when you’ve still got startup and an R00) can improve your chances when they’re higher (when everything’s about to run out).


  20. meshugena313 Says:

    6th year faculty, now with an R01 and an ACS Research Scholar (close to R01 $, especially 24% cut modulars…). My experience was that I had 2 distinct, but generally related, projects that I bounced back and forth between the NIH and the ACS. I used comments from one round of reviews to improve the next submission for the other agency. both ended up funded (the R01 on an A1 after many conversations with the sympathetic PO).

    I definitely got credit on all the reviews for productivity after publishing 1 paper 1.5 yrs after starting, including some data remaining from my postdoc. So the newbie benefit in my study sections was useful.

    I did shop around some other applications on a whim, for a new experimental approach, but that study section killed me. I also shopped some rejiggered applications on the main projects to different study sections and also got triaged, and got less credit for my scientific pedigree.

    My advice – definitely don’t bet the farm on the perfect app. Submit many! I agree with DM, every application I submit is a home run 3 hours before I submit! But then it’s shit when I log on to ERA commons and see the score or the ND…


  21. meshugena313 Says:

    And a smaller local scholar award that I won 2 years into my appointment helped sustain the lab by extending my startup account. So apply, and apply widely.


  22. “. . . . was proposing a “twins” strategy of simultaneous submission so as to game the ESI designation.”
    This has paid off big time for some investigators I know: actually, not “twins” but “triplets.”
    I wrote about his last May:


  23. drugmonkey Says:

    You seem to object to this notion.


  24. Dave Says:

    …….I know exactly who you are talking about. This person also had an R00 that overlapped the DP2 (I think) and one of the R01s. They are doing very nicely, thanks very much, and I guess can sit out a few cycles.


  25. You need good preliminary data, so I don’t see how you can have more than one iron in the fire with a new lab. Once you get that first R01, you aren’t going to get a second until you demonstrate productivity on the first.

    Both untrue. With regard to the first, the exact same preliminary data should be usable to support multiple distinct R01 applications. If you think this isn’t true with regard to your preliminary data, then you aren’t thinking creatively enough. With regard to the second, if the project is quite distinct, and super compelling, you can score a second R01. I had two before I had published a paper from my lab, and this was at a time when paylines were even lower than they are now at my relevant IC, and before there was any ESI payline break.


  26. DrugMonkey:
    Thanks for mentioning my blog in your main feed.
    I admire your writings on this site: I think you’re a natural at this.
    And thanks for providing others a much needed place to vent/kvetch.

    (reply 1 of 2)


  27. 1. “You seem to object to this notion.”
    –My concern is that the ESI/new investigator mechanism is meant to be used to help get a first award (singular, not plural). That is why applicants become ineligible as soon as they receive an award. This somehow came up in an informal conversation I had with a program officer at the NIH. Her take was 1) that it was surprising that brand new independent investigators were receiving such large sums in this way and 2) that they would likely run into trouble because they would not have enough experience, resources, staffing, etc to efficiently deploy the funds in a timely manner. My other concern is that applying for NIH funds is a zero-sum game. Elsewhere on your site there is talk of established labs with ongoing projects running into huge financial problems and even shutting down. One could argue that it would be a better use of funds to save one of these endangered labs than to *unintentionally*–via the ESI mechanism–risk a second or third(!) lucrative grant on someone with no track record. “Unintentionally” here is important. If an informed decision was being made to risk this level of funding on someone new with huge promise, that would be a different story. But there is no reason to think the awarding of these multiple grants is coordinated between the different institutes.

    2. “I know exactly who you are talking about”
    I just looked up the two individuals I know personally with 1 DP2 and 2 R01s (awarded with ESI status). Neither had an R00. Both had K08s before.

    (reply 2 of 2)


  28. john Says:

    I am planning to write a DP2 – the instructions say no specific aims are required. Does anyone have tips on how to organize a grant without specific aims?

    Also, theoretically speaking, can one simultaneously hold a R00 and a DP2?


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