Repost: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

Nov 03 2011 Published by under Careerism, NIH Careerism, Society for Neuroscience

As those of us in the neurosciences prepare for our largest annual scientific gathering, we should attend to a certain little task to assist with the odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. Part of that process is a long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".

This post originally went up Nov 12, 2008. I've edited a few things for links and content.

One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in Washington DC is to stroll around NIH row. Right?

I have a few thoughts for the trainees after the jump. I did mention that this is a long game, did I not?

We talk quite a bit around here about the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Hopefully by this point my readers realize that although the priority scores assigned by the study section (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs frequently reshuffle the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up (outside of the percentile order) is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.

In short, social factors matter. These factors matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not. I'm sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing......HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.

This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. Nor to pretend that POs do nothing...just because you don't like the job they are doing. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like Society for Neuroscience or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like Research Society on Alcoholism, College on Problems of Drug Dependence) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.

So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in Washington DC. This is an unbelievably good time since one might assume the density of POs is higher at DC meetings than any other location.The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you'd be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.

Hi, My Name is....

SfNBadge.jpgMy closest collaborator and PI on a most critically important, low-N developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to "go schmooze" are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I'll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone's social intelligence.


First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit RePORTER] if you need to; it is simple to search with the name field for your PI. If you want a broader hit because your PI doesn't have all that many grants relevant to your future plans, look at the abstract page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the CRISP search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.

Two, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO! (And I simply must remind the too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing by having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I've known peers who don't know who their PO is.)

Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the "Organization" structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you'll see a bunch of "Offices and Divisions" listed. Click on "Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science" and over to the right you will see a sidebar of "Components". From there you might, perhaps, select the "Molecular, Cellular, and Genomic Neuroscience Research Branch". If the Branch mission is not your mission, go back up and try another one. If it is, glance down to find the POs. In this case only Lois Winsky is listed, bingo that's who you are going to try to introduce yourself to at the meeting!

In your respective searches down the Division and Branch structure of your favorite ICs, you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of "Branches" also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed, as with the above NIMH example. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names.

Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit.

Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!


The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).

Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn't talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.

Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don't worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in.

So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and, if you can remember under the stress, indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or even that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI's grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!

After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say "I don't really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career".

Or you may want to troll 'em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, how to land one of those schweet DP5 early independence awards, etc.

Remember, the goal is not merely information transfer. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are "one of their investigators". Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I've been described as such by POs at a time when I didn't even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended "their" society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award...well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants.

In closing, this may sound pretty crass when written out. Really, it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice. Believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I've seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.

17 responses so far

  • iGrrrl says:

    Nice summary, DM. People hear advice to "schmooze" and then try to do just that, like a bad sales rep. The thing you don't directly say that underlies all your advice is to keep the interactions focused on things of interest to both researcher and PO: good research (and funding). Maybe you two hit it off and start talking about your cats, but don't push it or try to be best pals. Getting to this point--with the PO "knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science"--is easier when you don't act like a political animal more than a scientist.

  • I schmoozed with some NIH PO's at my society meeting and they were nothing but helpful and encouraging. As much as it seems like they don't, they do like to interact with scientists, even scumbag grad students like myself.

  • drugmonkey says:

    That's 'cause you name dropped PhysioProf though, right?

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Most importantly if they are supporting you say something like " I really need to that the XXX program for supporting my research. The science and the training are great. Insert lines about how science/health care are benefitting"

    Yeah, it's ass licking and everyone knows it, but if you don't lay it on TOO thick the POs will appreciate your realization that it is real $$.

  • igrrrl says:

    Hey, genomicrepairman, remember that all the POs are scientists first, feds second. They like to interact with their own kind!

  • CPP? If I drop that name, the PI's legs begin to tremble and they mess their huggies for not standing up for his 42nd R01. But when I say DrugMonkey, they get this sort of blissful look on their faces. So I dropped your name instead.

  • NeuroNoob says:

    Naive question, as a first year postdoc (with a bullocks track record, thanks Adviser from Hell!) is it worth my time to spend some time with these folks, or should I wait a few more years when I'm closer to looking for faculty positions.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is worth it now, yes!

  • DJMH says:

    Yes, Neuronoob, because now is a great time to ask about when you should consider putting in for a postdoc NRSA (now? later?) and what institute to send it to, etc....that is meat and potatoes for the POs.

  • drugmonkey says:

    A bollocks track record also urges some proactive compensation on your part. All fine to lament shitty mentors but it is YOUR career....

  • NeuroNoob says:

    drug monkey, absolutely! Shitty as the adviser was, it did teach me that nobody does you any favors. Though I will say that, I picked my new lab in large part based on new PI discussing "compensation" strategies during our first informal interview.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Indeed. A good mentor helps you to identify your best steps to move forward. Even (especially?) if that involves digging out from under a pile or climbing out o a hole. Glad you found a better lab.

  • alethea says:

    This is why the internet is such a great source of mentoring - even grumpy Uncle Drugmonkey has wisdom for the plebs! As a lowly 4th year grad student, it would never have crossed my mind. And even if it had, I'd be think, "Nah, I'll wait til I'm more senior." And now I'm all like, "Hey, maybe I should talk to my F31 program officer in person, not just on the phone." And I even looked up other related study sections.

  • drugmonkey says:

    P.S. I always forget to add this...if you have an active NIH grant and you are presenting data generated with support from that your presentation details to your Program Officer!

  • NeuroNoob says:

    Yeah, I say one of these years, all us plebs buy our druggy uncle monkey a dozen pints at sfn.

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