Fighting with the New Biosketch format

May 19, 2015

I have been flailing around, of and on for a few months, trying to write my Biosketch into the new format [Word doc Instructions and Sample].


I am not someone who likes to prance around bragging about “discoveries” and unique contributions and how my lab’s work is I am so awesomely unique because, let’s face it, I don’t do that kind of work. I am much more of a work-a-day type of scientist who likes to demonstrate stuff that has never been shown before. I like to answer what are seemingly obvious questions for which there should be lots of literature but then it turns out that there is not. I like to work on what interests me about the world and I am mostly uninterested in what some gang of screechy monkey GlamourHumpers think is the latest and greatest.


This is getting in the way of my ability to:

Briefly describe up to five of your most significant contributions to science. For each contribution, indicate the historical background that frames the scientific problem; the central finding(s); the influence of the finding(s) on the progress of science or the application of those finding(s) to health or technology; and your specific role in the described work.

Now interestingly, it was someone who works in a way most unlike the way I do that showed me the light. Actually, he gave me the courage to think about ignoring this supposed charge in the sample / instruction document. This person recommended just writing a brief sentence or two about the area of work without trying to contextualize the importance or significance of the “contribution”. I believe I actually saw one of the five permitted subheadings on his version that was more or less “And here’s some other stuff we work on that wasn’t easily categorized with the rest of it.

I am at least starting from this minimalist standpoint. I don’t know if I will have the courage to actually submit it like this, but I’m leaning towards doing so.

I have been hearing from quite a number of you that you are struggling with creating this new version of the NIH Biosketch. So I thought I’d open it up to comment and observation. Anyone have any brilliant solutions / approaches to recommend?

One of the things that has been bothering me most about this is that it takes the focus off of your work that is specific to the particular application in question. In the most recent version of the Biosketch, you selected 15 pubs that were most directly relevant to the topic at hand. These may not be your “most significant contributions” but they are the ones that are most significant for the newly proposed studies.

If one is now to list “your most significant contributions”, well, presumably some of these may not have much to do with the current application. And if you take the five sections seriously, it is hard to parse the subset of your work that is relevant to one focal R01 sized project into multiple headings and still show now those particular aspects are a significant contribution.

I still think it is ridiculous that they didn’t simply make this an optional way to do the Biosketch so as to accommodate those people that needed to talk about non-published scholarly works.

65 Responses to “Fighting with the New Biosketch format”

  1. Philapodia Says:

    I’m currently writing a couple of proposals for the June 5 deadline on different topics, and the way I approached it was to write two versions of the biosketch that highlighted the things that are important for each proposal. I think it helps highlight what skills you can bring to bear for that proposal. I didn’t say that I cured cancer or anything, just that I have a strong history in these relevant areas and how that expertise helps this project. I think it may actually make it easier on the reviewer to see that I can, in fact, actually do the work that I say I’m going to do.


  2. Dr Becca Says:

    Honestly, it was WAY easier than I thought it would be. It might actually be easier for an early career PI, since there’s less to sort through. I just kind of compartmentalized my papers into 3 broad concept categories (the impact of X on Y; the neurobio basis of Z; etc), and wrote a 2-3 sentence summary for each category about what I did and what the major findings were. I found the example biosketch on the NIH website really helpful and basically just followed that format.


  3. Spike Lee Says:

    Would it be so wrong to highlight the studies that /are/ the most relevant to the current application? E.g. discuss them first? This means you’re going to be putting in a slightly different biosketch with each application, but this seems like a venial sin.


  4. Philapodia Says:

    Re: update

    I think you’re overthinking this, DM.


  5. meshugena313 Says:

    I was dreading doing it, but I had to last month for my student’s F31 resubmission. I actually enjoyed it and found that it established a stronger overall rationale and direction for my career’s work, and therefore strengthened the application. I think I will readjust the order and/or completely replace some sections depending on the particular application.

    Now whether or not reviewers will look at it… prob not.


  6. sopscientist Says:

    I reformatted mine for a big T32 grant last month and ended up with a “And here’s some other stuff we work on that wasn’t easily categorized with the rest of it” section too. I think that I agree with Philapodia that I’ll have different versions for different grants. I’ll have modules that I can swap in depending on the focus of the grant.

    I am also reviewing a few grants that submitted the new format for this current round. As a reviewer I do not find the new format useful at all. Actually I think it hinders my evaluation and I’ve ended up having to spend way more time evaluating each investigator through their full online bibliography (which only about 50% of the new bioSketches bothered to add a link to) or PubMed.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    I think you’re overthinking this, DM.

    How so? When I list out four pubs in five areas that comprise my career long most significant contributions there are going to be several that have nothing whatsoever to do with any given R01 that I might submit. Similarly, whereas before I could list 15 pubs that might be highly relevant, it is going to look weird to divide those up into four groups of four that each represent a “significant contribution”. It’s bullshit.


  8. Dr Becca Says:

    Shouldn’t your past work that’s relevant to the proposal be included in the proposal itself, as either the basis for the experiments or at least as technical feasibility? I thought the whole point of this new biosketch was to get a more holistic view of the PI’s ouvre, their journey, what a great scientist they are in general. Focusing on big-picture achievements as opposed to IF bean counting, etc. No?


  9. SidVic Says:

    I am a little surprised by this discussion. DM ..Can’t you come up with a couple of unique contributions- first to find/clone/establish – this led to the original conceptual paradigm that… I don’t buy the retiring, don’t like to brag upon oneself, stoic meme you are putting forward. I’ve read enuf to know that- you know- that if you don’t toot your own horn nobody will.


  10. Philapodia Says:

    I view “significant contributions to science” as relative to the proposal you are submitting. Had the NIH, in their infinite wisdom, been talking about all of science they would tell you to list them by citation count/IF. I really doubt that the SROs are going to DQ your grant because you view significance as relative to your application. As long as it puts you in a light with the reviewers, that’s what counts. If you really want to, make your 5th category “other cool shitte” and dump your unrelated CNS papers in there.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    Dr Becca I believe you have put your finger on the problem. This is a nice tricky little move towards person-not-project award of grants. And I object to that.


  12. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    (1) You’re welcome.

    (2) No reviewers are gonna do anything more than superficially skim this gibberish. It is much more useful to go to PubMed and view the real chronological arc of the PI’s scientific contributions.


  13. jmz4gtu Says:

    I’d suggest, though this is a wholly naive opinion, that you simply look at the 5 sections as an opportunity to group your papers by theme or subject, as opposed to chronological order, and then give a short description of the relevant atmosphere surrounding them (health impact, amount of study, interesting applications, etc).

    I think if you make it useful and coherent for a reviewer, it’ll earn you more points that throwing around buzzwords and talking up your novelty.


  14. MF Says:

    I sort of enjoyed redoing my biosketch because it gave me a (long-awaited) opportunity to mention that I was the first to observe a particular phenomenon (even though it was later popularized via higher IF publications).

    I also used it as a chance to brag that one of my papers has been cited almost 400 times (not sure if mentioning this was a good idea or not).


  15. Established PI Says:

    Just pretend you are meeting with a really talented new student who knows nothing about you or your field; you are trying to catch them up on your past work and how it fit into the evolution of your field and/or your science. Don’t stretch – you don’t need to list five distinct accomplishments, especially if you are relatively junior. Then go back and take it up a notch or two – kind of what you might have said to the student if you weren’t too embarrassed to brag so shamelessly (or maybe you weren’t embarassed?). Finally, cut and paste the narrative from the previous format biosketch and add relevant references that you didn’t already list. Voila, new biosketch. And please, don’t forget the Pubmed link for those of us who want to wade through your pubs anyway.


  16. Ola Says:

    One thing picked up by our screener before the T32 went out (most recent grant for which I had to redo the bio), is that you’re not allowed a preamble. It’s 5 vignettes and that’s your lot. I had a little intro in there, detailing publication philosophy (average IF 6, no holding out for glamor etc), plus the 5 earth-shattering contribs, and was told to cut one or cut the intro. Launch straight into the meat, in other words.

    Divvying up the 15 pubs between the 5 was the toughest part, since some big things are further along than other big things. Also, I threw in some PMIDs for follow up work by other groups that built on our findings – don’t know if that’s kosher, but we’ll find out.

    Hey, it’s not my T32, so I saw it as a good opportunity to practice the new format while not screwing up one of my own grants! Yeah I’m selfish like that.


  17. E-Rook Says:

    The samples seem to indicate a link to an investigator’s PubMed bibliography (as CPP mentioned), so I think this should be done. What’s annoying is that clickable links aren’t do-able with how the grants are submitted, so there’s a loss in functionality that many of us are accustomed to.

    I’ve now transitioned to writing R13’s for a non-profit, and I am drafting these biosketches anew for the Key Personnel, it’s …. challenging, I agree.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    Thanks PP!


  19. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Spinoff from MF’s point — what do people think about putting citation counts next to the listed papers?


  20. E-Rook Says:

    NC- I’ve never seen that and I don’t think it (specifically) would impress me. If their citation count reflects the (holy shit that’s cool!) of their science, maybe it would reinforce, but it if were low number and a (wow, this is an interesting question that no one’s looked at before) … or relatively impressive numbers on recent pubs for a NI, I would think “desperate pleading.” I, personally, do not appreciate when someone deviates from the stated instructions. But I realize that reviewers regularly deviate from instructions with impunity. So for this exercise in changing the biosketch, I think we will learn more about SS behavior than actual teh scienz.


  21. potnia theron Says:

    NC – I would say do NOT put IF/cit counts in. While some might be impressed, most will think “what a dick”.


  22. Pinko Punko Says:

    Ola, there is still a personal statement, is there not?

    The new format sucks in that it clearly does the opposite of what was claimed to be its intent, is burdensome for applicant and reviewer, and has a much greater chance of being offputting. That being said, DM and his mellifluous keyboard likely will kill this, and claims of flailing strike a disingenuous chord. Which is how most of these Biosketches will read.


  23. MF Says:

    OK, I am glad I ran this past the commentariat – I will probably take the mention of the citation count out before submitting (I only mentioned it in one place but it sounds like this would not be looked at kindly).

    Yes, there still is a personal statement, and I have been customizing it for each project and changing out the four citations in the personal statement to suit each specific application.

    I am using sciencv to put together the biosketch, and it works really well.


  24. DJMH Says:

    Maybe the secret genius of the new format is that enough Old Farts will look at it, throw up their hands in disgust, and retire rather than submitting another renewal.



  25. drugmonkey Says:

    Or better yet, N-c, the average of citations in the first two years divided by the JIF of the journal when that paper was accepted.


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    In all seriousness MF, this is not a common thing IME and would look pretty weird. Maybe someday….but not right now.


  27. jmz4gtu Says:

    I had little notes next to my publications indicating if they’d been written up in news papers or nominated by the F1000. I was told I should take out the news paper links, since a lot of reviewers would find it gauche (F1000 was okay since it was scholarly). Left them in for my industry resume, though.


  28. AcademicLurker Says:

    Agree with E-Rook and others about citation counts on CVs in general.

    Interestingly, though, the CV I submitted as part of my tenure package was required to have citation counts listed for each publication.


  29. Dave Says:

    Do people still care about F1000? Whenever I see big-ups like that on someones sketch/CV, there is much eye-rolling.

    I’m doing my biosketch now for June 5th. It doesn’t seem too bad, and like CPP says, nobody really reads it. They just check for pubs, as usual.


  30. Dave Says:

    Maybe the secret genius of the new format is that enough Old Farts will look at it, throw up their hands in disgust, and retire rather than submitting another renewal.

    No way. They have special super-secret permission to keep submitting the old format. We all know their good for it. No need to play with the riff-raff.


  31. AcademicLurker Says:

    Whenever I see big-ups like that on someones sketch/CV, there is much eye-rolling.

    But ResearchGate informs me that my “ResearchGate score” (whatever that is) is higher than that of 93% of RG members.

    Are you telling me that that won’t totally impress the study section if I mention it on my biosketch?


  32. Dave Says:

    Dammit my RG score is only higher than 87.5% of RG members!!!!!!

    Hope you are not in the same SS as me……


  33. drugmonkey Says:

    AL- different CVs for different purposes. Yes, internal Uni documentation tends to be the most comprehensive. Doesn’t mean that study section reviewers want to know each and every journal your manuscript has been submitted to…. For example.


  34. qaz Says:

    Citation count varies too much by field to be safe to put into a biosketch in a grant. What looks like a lot of cites to a monkey neurophysiolofist looks like nothing to a molecular biologist. Similarly, I’ve heard disparaging comments from ephysologists when they see the “inflated” cite counts of molbio.


  35. another young FSP Says:

    My take:

    First 2-3 categories are the ones most relevant to the proposal, with elements of the old narrative to explain why you and the assembled team are perfect to carry out this work. Since reviewers will typically focus on the first few categories first, this is your chance to support your proposal. If you have pre-existing collaborations with your co-PIs, talk them up here as well.

    Remaining categories, the other reasons you are awesome. These are your breadth categories, and your high impact paper listings to take away as many Stock Critiques as you can.

    Sure, the directions say to list your most significant contributions – but you define what that means. We all thought the narrative was weird when it was first introduced, but it proved to be a very useful support tool for the sort of information that doesn’t fit in the body of the proposal. Extend that here!


  36. newbie PI Says:

    So far it seems that everyone finds it obnoxious to list impact factors on the biosketch. But here’s my quandry. I have papers from grad school in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (which has a high impact factor and is a pretty big deal for chemists), but I’m submitting my grant to a study section where I’m quite sure that no one will have had any experience with JACS. I guess I have to figure out a way to non-obnoxiously add that info to the description of the work.


  37. Curiosity Says:

    Fitting in with reviewer expectations is a key part of gaining credibility on applications, especially as a newbie. With the new format, I don’t know what those expectations are. One thing I am struggling through with the new format is getting the tenor right. Am I bragging? Not bragging enough? It’s altogether not the kind of thing I am interested in evaluating at length in my own writing, but I end up anguishing over it at length. Maybe I am over thinking it, but geez, I’d like to just relax and send in the old version! Much happier to stick to the facts.


  38. physioprof Says:

    Don’t overthink this. Reviewers aren’t gonna even read the shittio. They just wanna see your grants and publications history.


  39. My top 10 tips of these new biosketch.



  40. Established PI Says:

    @Newbie PI – It is true that many biologists are unaware of JACS’s status in the chemistry world. I think you could tastefully work in something about its status among chemists, perhaps in describing how gratified you were as a newbie student postdoc to get your work in a top journal.

    @Curiosity – get some of your colleagues with study section experience to read it over and give you advice. It isn’t clear yet how much reviewers will even pay attention to this, but it doesn’t hurt to get it right.

    No one here has mentioned including figures, which are allowed according to the instructions. A figure could be helpful, particularly if you have a particularly compelling image or a good summary figure.


  41. UCProf Says:

    Breaking News from the world of Political Science. . .

    A UCLA grad student faked his data and published a paper in Science based on it.
    This paper:

    He leveraged that paper into a job offer at Princeton as an Assistant Professor. (No postdocs in polysci.)

    Discussion on this site if you want to follow the rumors:


  42. CD0 Says:

    As others have commented, I am reviewing grants for the June cycle and I find the new biosketch completely useless. I am forced to go to PubMed and find the recent record of publications, and then interpret how they are relevant for the proposed work. I suspect that they have really killed the value of the biosketch in the eyes of most reviewers.
    I also find an interesting trend between lack of recent productivity and the early (volunteer) implementation of the new format by applicants.
    I do not even like the new format as a fatuous grant writer typically full of myself when I work on a project. As an applicant with seminal papers in at least 4 glamorous journals, I still find annoying to change my own propaganda for every specific application…meaning the entire 5 pages…just wait… this will become like the Vertebrates section, which you check to make sure that everything is in order but you do not really evaluate.


  43. drugmonkey Says:

    So you are saying this is a great thing for people who may have slowed down recently but can brag about seminal contributions from 20 years ago?


  44. MoBio Says:

    @DM: yes indeed. Agree with CPP as well–now I’ll just be going to PubMed and REPORTER and use the biosketch to make sure I have the PI’s name and initials correct before doing the search….

    The biosketch is now nearly useless.


  45. Adam Says:

    “I am not someone who likes to prance around bragging about ‘discoveries’ and unique contributions… I… [like] to demonstrate stuff that has never been shown before.”

    For the record, demonstrating something that has never been shown before is called a “discovery”. If you’re the only one to do it, then it is also a “unique contribution”.

    Personally, I think the point of a biosketch should be to demonstrate competence to do the proposed research. The old format was fine for that. The new format seems more like it would be good for an award to an individual, not to a specific project, so I think it’s a step in the wrong direction.

    Still, I think tooting one’s own horn and putting as much razzle-dazzle as possible on the personal statements is and always has been par for the course with grant applications, no? I’m a post-doc that’s snagged several NIH fellowships, and my reviewers always remark, “Boy, this guy is really overstating his accomplishments”… but I’ve also always gotten the award. I used to work in sales, and writing grants is the same sort of thing…


  46. Dave Says:

    So you are saying this is a great thing for people who may have slowed down recently but can brag about seminal contributions from 20 years ago?

    In many ways this was the basis for much of the criticism of the new biosketch. On face value it benefits the more established regardless of recent productivity.

    I have to say that now that I am preparing mine, it is definitely a major pain in the arse, but I’m not quite as negative about it as I was. For me it gives me the chance to explain some of the collaborative (co-author pubs) clinical research that I am involved in more directly. Whether or not it is read is another story.


  47. Namesaste_Ish Says:

    I am struggling with this as well. In fact, I loathe the idea so much that I’m actually working on IACUC protocols to avoid changing my biosketch. You have to have some hard core hatred to make that choice.

    I was sort of pissed off in my last grant review to get a person on SS point out 5 pubs in 5 years on topic/technique that were in good journals (IF 7 ish) saying my productivity had lapsed as the others were more backgroundy pubs in glam I had.

    Totally fuckken annoying to be asked for relevant pubs, give them and then have a swipe at total productivity.

    I guess this gets around it. But you can be damn sure I’m working on my website to parallel themes and add depth to my new biosketch.


  48. drugmonkey Says:

    Adam- interesting, nay fascinating. You are suggesting that while people overtly think “oversell” it still works on them covertly to impress them???

    That is the territory of an experimental psych study just begging to be done (or maybe it has been done).


  49. another young FSP Says:

    DM always advises proposal writers to look at how they are addressing proposal critiques. For this new biosketch, you are writing to the Investigator critique. Look at the usual stock critiques, and directly hand your reviewers what you want them to say in your introduction to each of your five points, just as you do for Significance in your main proposal.

    I avoided reworking my biosketch until T32 time just as many others above did, but I actually found it fun to prepare once I got into it. The most annoying thing is that the entire biosketch will have to be rewritten for each proposal to frame the discussion. On the other hand, it gives you 5 paragraphs to sell yourself rather than just one! Bonus!


  50. physioprof Says:

    Based on my experience with the personal statement, I don’t think reviewers are going to pay any attention to applicants’ claims of “influence” or “impact” of their previous work. The only cases I have seen for such narrative sections of the Biosketch making a difference are to explain gaps in productivity or funding. I could maybe see some circumstances where explanation of roles in collaborative papers could be meaningful. But bloviating verbiage about how important and impactful your previous work has been will be ignored.


  51. CD0 Says:

    “So you are saying this is a great thing for people who may have slowed down recently but can brag about seminal contributions from 20 years ago?”

    Wasn’t that the purpose of thee change when HV first implemented them at NCI?


  52. Eli Rabett Says:

    It seems that you want the tree sections to be in order

    First: Work most relevant to this proposal

    Second: Other recent research

    then TL;DR

    Third: Previous notable contributions

    Also, if you are shy, get the press person at your place to lend a hand.


  53. newbie PI Says:

    I’m working on my Contributions to Science section right now. I absolutely hate this. It’s not because I don’t have contributions, but because I have to make these artificial categories to fit my publications into. I have lots of papers on the same general topic, so putting them into groups of four with different headings really makes no sense at all.

    The more I work on this, the more I think it hurts me as compared to the old format where my list of 15 papers (all first or last author) in chronological order was much more impressive. I look at what I’ve written for this new section and I don’t see how reviewers will be able to decifer how productive I was as a grad student, how productive I was as a postdoc, and how productive I’ve been as a PI, whereas the old list told this story very clearly. I can’t help but agree with other commenters that the only people this serves are older scientists who can obscure their lack of recent productivity by discussing at length the forgotten importance of their ancient Nature papers.


  54. newbie PI Says:

    Another Young FSP — you make a 100% wrong assumption/statement that the previous biosketch format limited your personal statement to only one paragraph. As a new PI I’ve never submitted a personal statement less than a page long with multiple paragraphs. I know the reviewers read it because they quote lines directly from it in my reviews. A chronological personal narrative was much more effective for me than chopping up my work into 5 artificial units of 4 papers.


  55. newbie PI Says:

    I’m back with another complaint! The NCBI My Bibliography, which we are now required to link to at the bottom of our biosketch cuts off any authors after the 5th, so the reviewers are just left to guess who the last author might be unless they click each and every paper. SO STUPID!!


  56. I look at what I’ve written for this new section and I don’t see how reviewers will be able to decifer how productive I was as a grad student, how productive I was as a postdoc, and how productive I’ve been as a PI, whereas the old list told this story very clearly.

    Don’t worry. Reviewers will go to Pubmed to look up your publications.

    The NCBI My Bibliography, which we are now required to link to at the bottom of our biosketch cuts off any authors after the 5th, so the reviewers are just left to guess who the last author might be unless they click each and every paper.

    You are not required to use NCBI My Bibliography. You are allowed to link to other publicly available databases. I link to a Pubmed search on my name as author.


  57. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Question for the HiveMind: Yes or No on boldface for your own name in the publications listed?


  58. Philapodia Says:

    @NC: I do this, I think it helps the reviewer quickly determine your contribution to the paper (first, middle, last author). I don’t think it can hurt.


  59. AcademicLurker Says:

    I do the boldface thing. It seems common in other people’s bios that I’ve seen.


  60. drugmonkey Says:

    Yes on bolding your own name, I do it and it seems common.

    Thought: anyone use the contributions subsections to highlight collaborations between the coinvestigating labs? Seems like that might be a thing to try.


  61. Adam Says:

    “Adam- interesting, nay fascinating. You are suggesting that while people overtly think ‘oversell’ it still works on them covertly to impress them???”

    Seems to. I mean, I do have a decent CV already, and I’m not sure it would work if I had been doing basket-weaving all along and then tried to get a neuroscience grant, but it does seem to work. I think the effect is akin to what Daniel Kahneman termed “anchoring” in negotiations: start absurdly high, and even though your negotiating partner is going to apply downward pressure, they are more likely to settle in on a higher value than if you didn’t start absurdly high.


  62. drugmonkey Says:



  63. Crystaldoc Says:

    As far as highlighting the most relevant work to the current application, you still have the personal statement front and center, and I have seen several very effective examples using the personal statement as the component personalized for the specific application, including citing of pubs that establish specific expertise and strength of collaborative team *for this specific application*. If used this way, the Contributions section may not need to be fiddled with quite so much from one application to the next.


  64. qaz Says:

    DM – I’m not sure that this format is that much of a change from the previous ones. The most successful grants I saw in study section were ones that included both relevant papers (depth) and important/impactful papers from irrelevant topics (breadth) in the 15 samples. (BTW, this is how NSF does it, explicitly listing 5 relevant and 5 breadth papers.) The best personal statements were used to point out how they were the best person for the job.

    My difficulty at this point is to determine how easy it will be for the reviewers to handle the extra text, but IME, I agree with CrystalDoc that CPP is wrong on the history of this one. IME, lots of reviewers read the personal statements and used them to understand the investigator to write a better investigator critique. For young PIs, it was helpful to know their trajectory; for old PIs, it was helpful to be reminded that they had worked on lots of important stuff over their careers. But I never saw an old PI successfully snow a study section with a list of decades-old irrelevant papers. (I did see several try.)

    I’m beginning to think that the new format might not be so bad, except for the danger of over-writing it. (Note: over-writing is not over-selling. Those are different issues.)

    Honestly, my biggest frustration is that it means yet another database to make sure has my full publication list.


  65. […] dealing with the “contributions to science” change, I more or less refused to do what was requested. As someone who had been a PI for some time, had mostly senior author pubs […]


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