Laying the Groundwork

Before you get started, you need to lay the groundwork for your success

  1. Why do you want this grant?
  2. Where are you in your Career?
  3. Mentorship
  4. Protected Time
  5. Preliminary Data
  6. Training
  7. Institutional Resources
  8. Creating a Timeline


The importance of mentorship should not be underestimated. There are generally 2 types of mentors; career mentor and topic mentors. The career mentor should be a senior EM person with a history of research experience/success. THE TOPIC MENTOR DOES NOT NEED TO BE IN EM!!.  In fact, many research areas are better supported by those outside of EM with a history of extramural (NIH) funding in the content area. 

Protected time

You must earn protected time. This can be accomplished by (1) up front negotiation prior to taking a faculty position (2) grant funding. Researchers graduating from a research fellowship should negotiate for protected time; 10-50% effort for 2 years to establish research mentorship and obtain a grant is common. Grant funding can provide protected time as well. Grant mechanisms with a maximum clinical obligation, like EMF or SAEM research fellowships, MUST be discussed with your chair prior to application. Also, you must discuss how much time will be protected by salary support included in a grant.  Ultimately, you must be productive to earn protected time. Use your time efficiently and publish!

Preliminary Data

Preliminary data is a critical component of your grant submission.  Think of preliminary data and prior publications in your area of interest as building your “street credibility” – this is your opportunity to convince the reviewers that (1) you have evidence that conducting your project is promising and (2) you have the resources and the knowledge necessary to conduct the procedures you propose in your grant.  These data do not necessarily need to be publication-quality, but they do have to be tantalizing enough to make your reviewers “want more.”

Preliminary data can take many forms, depending on the nature of your proposed project.  Preliminary data can come from prior published reports, animal data, clinical pilot studies, or observational/epidemiologic analyses of your local data.  These data will be used to tie observations together into an argument that supports your hypothesis.  Think about how your project fits into answering a bigger question of explaining a disease, demonstrating effectiveness of a therapy, validating a diagnostic test, or improving care.

In addition to making your case for the promising nature of your question, you can use your preliminary data to prove you are capable of performing the procedures you propose.  If your study involves a complicated laboratory analysis, conducting that analysis to show that you have the knowledge, equipment, and skills to do it is helpful.  If you will be enrolling patients in a clinical study in the prehospital environment, actually enrolling a few patients in a small study to show that you have the coordination, relationships with EMS agencies, etc., is helpful to demonstrate that you can conduct your proposed trial.  Often it is not possible to actually present the entire protocol as preliminary data, but identifying the portions of your protocol where proving your ability to perform the study will strengthen your grant.  

The challenge with collecting preliminary data is that early in your career, these data are collected prior to your first grant being funded.  Often, these data can be collected with funding from small intramural pilot grants, resources from a mentor’s funding, or departmental seed funding (see section B1-B3 above).  Collecting convincing data efficiently requires a well-considered plan of what pieces of your argument can come from literature and what pieces should come from your own data.  The better your preliminary data are and the more of your research procedures you can demonstrate, the less risk reviewers of your grant feel they will be taking by funding your project.  In general, larger grants will require more promising preliminary data than smaller grants.

Training (see training above)

Few investigators in emergency medicine are fully trained in residency in the skill set that they need to become independently funded researchers.  Successfully acquiring this skill set is critical to having a grant successfully funded (see section A1 above for information on research training programs).

Similarly, grant writing is skill that improves over time with practice, guidance, and mentorship. Several programs are available to help you in this process.           

    • SAEM Grant-Writing Workshop (link) – The SAEM grant-writing workshop is a 1-day workshop at the annual meeting.  Presenters will discuss topics about developing a research program, approaching sections of your grant, the submission process, and navigating the funding landscape.
    • Grant writing courses – Many research universities have courses dedicated to grant writing.  These courses are often included in K30 or clinical research training programs that often culminate in a Master’s degree.
    • Emergency Medicine Basic Research Skills (EMBRS) workshop (link) – The EMBRS course has a component dedicated to finding funding sources and writing grants for research funding.
    • Institutional Grant Writing Workshops – Many universities sponsor grant writing workshops for faculty at their institutions.  These vary in depth and scope, but can both improve your grant writing abilities and can introduce you to others at your institution who are interested in extramural funding for future collaborations.
    • Review a workbook on grant writing – One text that has been used by many applicants is the Grant Application Writer’s Workbook (NIH version) by Stephen Russell and David Morrison.  It clearly and concisely lays out how to develop your grant and the considerations in doing so.
    • Serve as a Grant Reviewer – Consider volunteering to review grants for an intramural program or a foundation.  You will meet great mentors in this process, and you will learn to read a grant like a reviewer.  For applicants with a little more experience, this can be a great way to improve your own grant writing.         

Whichever training you pursue, there is no substitute for good collaboration, good mentorship, and experience in submitting grants for improving your personal grant writing.  Good grantsmanship alone will not get a poorly conceived project funded, but poor grantsmanship will prevent even high-quality projects from funding.

Institutional Resources

While the amount and breadth of resources vary by institution, the general structures are fairly similar. After assessing the resources you need, there are several places to start applying for help:

  • EM departmental resources. This can vary from seed grants within the department to protected time and funding for classes to free use of research assistants and data collection sources managed within the department.
  • External departmental resources. Collaborative departments may have separate funding pools to start projects with cross-over appeal, especially within trauma, cardiology, and neurology.
  • Intradepartmental and campus-wide resources. Internal academic funding is often targeted towards projects showing a strong collaborative environment between multiple departments.
    Speaking with established researchers within your research setting, as well as chairmen and research committee leaders, will help find the best ways to access these funding pools.

Creating a Timeline

Like managing multiple patients in a busy ED, anticipating the next step is crucial in managing a research career. There will be natural periods of business and waiting in all research projects and overlapping these will lead towards a better “big picture” of where your research efforts are leading. Awareness of what you are currently working on, and what you will need to be working on as your project closes, will help the timeline of one project fit inside the timeline of your career.

Mentors and co-investigators will be able to give you a sense of how long many of the steps of beginning a research project will take. IRB development, patient recruitment, data collection, analysis, and submission will each vary in speed depending on the project. Using any of these steps to feed into multiple manuscripts or sub-projects under a larger idea will help this flow easily, i.e. using one IRB with a strong goal but several aims may help overlapping projects flow together well.

Be realistic about this timeline. A three or four-year residency, or a two-year fellowship, is a short period of time to carry a large project from conception to publication. However, it helps to be able to project when manuscript publication will start developing from your project. Overlapping elements will help in managing your time well.

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