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Common Mistakes of Senior and Junior Researchers

Posted on January 15, 2009

Courtney Ferrell Aklin (bio) describes two pitfalls to avoid when submitting a research proposal.


Generally, for junior investigators, they're gung-ho. They have great ideas, but they're proposing a whole line of research in one grant. So typically, what I say to them is, "You know, keep it simple. To be quite honest, we're not looking for a Pulitzer Prize. We're looking for a really tight, sound, scientific study. Small still works." I always tell junior investigators, a lot of times, that secondary data analysis can get funded. You don't have to necessarily collect your own data. That's probably one of the biggest fallbacks for junior investigators.

For more senior investigators, it tends to be, "Well, I've been here before, so I'm going to ride a little bit on my coattails," which nowadays, really does not work. We're really looking for the best science, not necessarily because you have a track record of best science. So for every application you have to consider a new application, sort of starting from scratch.

A couple of other things for junior investigators, let's see. In some cases for junior investigators, there's what we call a "training plan," because the idea is we want to support you as your career development, not just the research. A lot of times, I don't think individuals take that seriously enough. So what we'll see are proposals that really, for example, would be what they would do anyway, or training they would get when they come into the program anyway. And we say, "Well, if we're going to give you money for training; we want to see that you've actually put some thought into it." That's the area where you get to think big.

If there's something that you didn't get in graduate school, for example, that you think would be important to your career advancement, propose it. That's really where we focus in on the career development mechanisms and any training mechanism, really. I interestingly find that individuals are scared to put forth really great ideas because they're afraid, "Well, this may cost too much money or they may not think that it's relevant to what I want to study." Let us make the decision. Generally, if it looks like you've put a lot of thought into it, more than likely, we'll support you on it. It's just taking the time to really think it through and find those opportunities that make sense for you.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2008 Leadership Training Institute in Bethesda, MD.


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