Working the NIH (part umpteen) – Serving on a Study Section

There are no two or three ways about it. Do it. Period. No matter what the cost, the benefit is nearly beyond measure. This post is prompted by Sara Hart:

Sara A. Hart@saraannhart 6 Dec @pottytheron I would think a smaller grant assignment load would be easy-ish solution.


  Sara A. Hart@saraannhart 6 Dec  @pottytheron what are your thoughts about the work load while on TT?

In general, there is resistance to putting TT folks on study section. Remember the twitter exchange where someone said “but they would score harder”? That reluctance can be countered by more senior people actively advocating for it. Do you know someone who is (despite the general sentiment on the net) a good guy-Boomer? Get them to say something to the SRO about adding junior people. It’s the SRO in general who can move this forward at NIH and get you appointed (although it was clear to me that they don’t have the final say).

How to get on a study section? Your name needs to come to the attention of the SRO. One obvious way to do this is to find someone already on an SS (preferably not from your institution) and get them to mention you. A second, and slightly more tricky/dangerous way is to contact the SRO yourself and ask. Remember, never cold call NIH people. Send an email asking to talk to them. This sounds hard and risky. What if you irritate the SRO? The key, of course, is to do it respectfully, and as a request, with some justification. It does sound hard to do.But its part of what NIH recommends for senior people to do to get on a study section. The justification for membership? You want to learn how to do this. You think its an important part of grantsmanship. Honesty works here.

How to find the right study section – it almost doesn’t matter, because what you are learning is a process. If you know someone, it will the SRO that they know. If not, go back to finding the appropriate study section. When you look at study sections, make sure you look at the rosters of who is on them (there is a link when you look at the name of the section). See names you recognize? That’s a Good Thing. If you’ve submitted a proposal, what study section did it go to?: Ask your senior colleagues for advice. Ask anyone who has sat on a study section.

Now on to Sara’s question. Don’t worry about the work load. If you are appointed – it is a junior member. They will not give you a full workload. You will likely get to be “last reviewer” on the proposal (reviewers are given an order of significance based on how close their expertise is to the topic of the proposal).  Maybe one or two. My sense is the people at NIH are smart enough not to burden you. They know how hard the reviewer’s job is. What I heard from the SRO of the section I just worked with is that a junior person would only be on one round, one review session. It wouldn’t be a long term 3 year appointment.

Reviewing grants is work. Its harder in some ways than reviewing papers (which is also a good thing to do at this point in your career).  For me, now, reviewing proposals is not a big burden for me. I know how to do it, where to look for information I need, and what is expected. That’s because I’ve spent years on study sections, and written way too many (usually unfunded) proposals. But that’s why YOU, oh beloved TT reader, want to be on the study section. So you can learn what I learned by sitting on the section. Yes it will be work. But you learn by doing.

If you get lucky and score such an assignment: first, take it. Again, what you get out of it is invaluable grantsmanship. I can sit here, on this blog, and tell you over and over what is important in writing a proposal, but watching and listening to 20-ish people in your discipline discuss what is good and what could be better while you look at the proposal cannot be matched by reading any post. Yes, it will be work. But it in terms of cost/benefit it is likely to be the most valuable grantsmanship experience you will ever have.


7 thoughts on “Working the NIH (part umpteen) – Serving on a Study Section

  1. Pingback: Random Thoughts of the Impact of the Shutdown on Reviewing | Mistress of the Animals

  2. Pingback: More common critiques of NIH proposals – theoretical underpinnings | Mistress of the Animals

  3. Pingback: How to get on study section | Mistress of the Animals

  4. Pingback: Being on Study Section as a Junior Faculty Peep | Mistress of the Animals

  5. Pingback: The New NIH Biosketch & Their Do’s and Don’ts: Part 2 | Mistress of the Animals

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