Give me the Specifics…. on the Specific Aims

When people want to know more than generalities, they say “Give me the specifics”, in other words: “Give me the precise details so that I can get a better idea of what’s going on here – don’t waffle!” A tragic mistake young PIs make is to leave the specifics for the inside of the grant and keep the the abstract and the one page specific aims at a high level. So the question is: how encompassing should  my aims be: the larger the aim, the less aims I need, right? The number of specific aims is limited to one or two for small grants, or maybe three or four for larger grants – but they can include sub-aims.  another question is “how specific should I be in my specific aims?”

Good question! To answer it you could look at the specific aims section of  a senior PI’s funded grants and learn by example. But learning by example is just like being thrown in at the deep end of a pool and asked to learn how to swim by watching others slice the water effortlessly in the pool. Chances are you will swallow a gulp or two, or maybe even drown before you can figure it out. Such technique is more likely to succeed if you have a minimum of grant knowledge, for example by reading our book (free serving unabashed plug), or if a mentor is holding the long bar in the water a few feet in front of you. Otherwise, you could look for discussions or podcasts on the topic. One such podcast I discovered came as a result of taking a number of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on Data Science organized by John Hopkins. In the effort report podcast, Roger Peng, prof in Biostatistics, my MOOC instructor and podcaster, with Elisabeth Matsui, Prof in Pediatrics, (both senior PIs at Johns Hopkins University) talk about specific aims . Skip the first 6 minutes to get to the topic. They discuss the one page specific aims commonly used for NIH grants.

They say that the specific aims page is a capsule (think concise one page) that is read by all review panel members – hence it’s importance (most time in a review panel, the full grant will only be read by two or three main reviewers). Roger and Elizabeth both concur with Professor Leo Chalupa, who extensively wrote on grants that half the time spent on writing the grant is spent on writing the specific aims page. So, besides its wide readership, why is that page so important?  It is the page that will “win over” the reviewer. It acts as a sort of ratchet. You do not move to the next cog unless you pass this one.

 The aims are the tasks, not the research questions answered, nor the hypotheses. The aims are related to the main objective, but they could be independent. Elizabeth uses the effective metaphor of “triangulation” where three different experiments (approaches) are tried to answer the same research question. These three tasks are specific aims. Most times, however, they are somewhat interdependent, and always logically connected.  How they all fit and all serve the main objective is clear. Logically connected does not mean deeply serially dependent, however. If aim 2 depends on the full accomplishment of aim 1 (think of a domino effect – the first one must fall before the next one can), your grant application may be rejected – unless of course, aim 1 is risk free, more like a project igniter. Just make sure the wick is not wet!


“scrolls” by psyberartist  CC BY 2.0

The podcast helps disambiguate three common adjectives: detailed and explicit and narrow. Narrow often bores and fails to raise sufficient interest. Explicit conveys idea that the aim is unfolded, unrolled, like a scroll. Unfortunately, the podcast only indirectly mentions what is on the scroll, so I will add to the dialogue. The task (aim) description is accompanied by one or several of the following: the purpose for the task, how it will be accomplished (approach or methodology), and, unless implicit, how the task relates to the clearly defined objective or the other aims. Being specific by stating What, what for, Why, and How shows the reviewer you “know what you are doing”, and you gave much thinking to what you will do. Nothing is superficial or lacks direction like a vaguely defined fishing expedition. “Laser sharp” focus will ensure your grant will be productive.

Elizabeth then presents her “secret aims-page weapon“: a crisp conceptual roadmap drawn in diagram form that shows the logical and relationship links (with directional arrows) between the objective, the aims and the various elements under each aim. It saves much reviewer time and acts as a booster to understand and value the grant.

Jargon is specific, and a method may be very specific to a problem. But this type of specification creates problems for the reviewers who are not totally domain experts. As Roger Peng correctly points out: some grants have multiple audiences which partially overlap in knowledge: biostatisticians, health epidemiologists, environmental exposure experts,… So he writes the aims for multiple audiences and justifies the importance of the choice made in each aims (methods, significance). Writing for multiple audiences and assuming a lower level of background knowledge makes it easier to “circulate” your specific aims page to people from different fields for feedback before submission.


Grant Risk and Tennis in Gdansk

Every PI has that question in mind as they write their proposal: How much risk should I take in my grant? Too much, I will be rejected, and too little, I’ll be rejected also.

A few years back Dr Rafal Zielinski from MD Anderson (Texas University) and I were invited by the Polish Foundation for Science to give a seminar on Grants in the beautiful city of Gdansk. Gdansk University Dean of Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology, a uniquely gifted, both bold and bald professor, Dr Igor Konieczny, also gave a talk “Grant Writing in Poland, Perspective and Advice”. During the Q&A came the question of how the grant review panel regards risk. In his answer, Dr Konieczny used a very apt metaphor worth sharing: that of serving in tennis.

“The ideal situation is not to propose plans that are too risky. In tennis, with your first serve, you would target the corner of the court, but if you fail, with your second serve, you are simply going to pass the ball over the net. Design the grant application so that one thing is safe to achieve.”


Flickr: Carine06  – Roger Federer CC-BY SA 2.0

Young investigators often consider older PIs with envy, and also cynicism. They think that, by the time the PI submits a proposal, the preliminary work is so extensive and has removed so much risk and given the PI so much experience in the domain that feasibility is guaranteed; The ball will pass over the net. Naturally, much of that preliminary work was paid for by an earlier grant – which strengthens feasibility. Young investigators feel that their first serve should impress, send the ball in the corner of the court. Indeed, some of their later serves could, but the first serve should not. Simply hitting the grantor-sent ball (i.e serving their needs) and avoiding sending the ball into the reviewer’s net would already be a great achievement. The reviewer’s net catches the ball when the grant idea lacks strength: low significance or overused approach unlikely do deliver interesting results. Start there. Never mind the jump smash a la Roger Federer, the attacking volley a la Martina Navratilova. The donor referee will not be impressed if the ball hits the net.

Focus on getting the ball over the net first. This means your first specific aim should contain little risk, yet be seen as valuable on its own. 


The First Lab Hires



You, the PI, have been granted your wish. Your proposal has been accepted and funding of a new lab is on the way. You are now extending your feelers to find the appropriate people to staff your lab. Time passes, you are interviewing, but only what you consider average scientific talent turns up for the interview. Of course, you can’t wait, AND you want the best. But why would the best take a chance on you, the young and barely known PI? You have a notoriety problem. Since the grant clock is ticking, and you can’t afford to waste time two two now consider possibilities: Do it all yourself at an great cost to you and your family, or  take a chance on untested staff and hire away – you have the money.

The situation is not hypothetical. As I sat in one of the Starbucks hangouts in Singapore, I witnessed the conversation between two PIs, a young one and a veteran. I had arranged the meeting between them. Here is in point form the wisdom that was shared during the meeting by the veteran PI, Dr Judy Sng, senior lecturer at the department of Pharmacology of the NUS School of Medicine:

  • Do not hire without first assessing the skills and attitude. These cannot be assessed during an interview. “I usually do a written test assessment, for example a simple molar calculation, PCR reactions,… I also invite the potential new hire to meet other people in the lab first and get the feedback from them after the candidate leaves. During the visit, I invite the potential candidate for a meal with the rest of the lab. That’s where you can see how candidates behave and interact with fellow members. You can tell if they speak condescendingly to their peers during a simple meal.”
  • Technicians first, Postdoc later, and Students last. “Yes, if you hire technicians to start your lab, the scientific development is slower than if you start hiring postdocs. But not all postdocs like setting up a new lab. Time is precious to them. They join the lab later, perhaps 1-2 years after lab setup. The consequence of starting with technicians is that you have to train the technicians while doing workbench yourself. Older technicians tend to stay with you longer than young ones. Their stability brings much relief when you start up a lab.”
  • Students are both an asset and a liability“They may be the very ones who will join your lab in the future. Bringing them in give you a chance to evaluate them, and see if they will stay for the long haul. On the other hand, students will drain you, your resources, and your staff, particularly those who have thesis to write and need data. Those who just intern do not need to have data. Training any student will cost you, so choose only interns with a potential to become staff.”


Dr Sng also shared other points not directly related to new hires, but they reflect her experience and are certainly worth sharing in this blog. They are about other PIs, family, and teaching duties.

  • Once a PI with a lab, everyone other PI wants you as a collaborator in their grant. Be selfish and work on your project first. You have to be VERY selective and learn to say ‘No, thank you’. But it is an excellent way to build relationships with your peers.”
  • Keep sane, value your family. “You have a child, I have mine too. Papers and grants matter, but kids are growing up fast. Although the days with little children seem never to end, the years actually fly by. It is important to balance your time well and spend time with family.”
  • Teaching takes more time off your already crammed schedule. Envisage teaching at a much later stage, not right away when you create your lab. I only felt comfortable to start technology transfer through teaching in the fifth year of my career. Creating lecture material is hard and takes time.”



Welcome to your Grant book companion

This is the post excerpt.


This blog is a companion to the book, a living book of sorts. The world of grants and crowdfunding never sits still. As we continue to explore and learn, we will share our discoveries in new blog entries that, one day, will augment the next edition of the book. So bookmark this site 

Keep your book URLs updated and don’t be afraid to write the updated ones in the book itself. We have asked our publisher, World Scientific – the publisher for Nobel literature –  to leave ample margins for you to write in. Whenever any URL given in the book changes or disappears, we will inform you and provide a new address as soon as we locate their new location. Alternatively, if the page is still available in the INTERNET ARCHIVES, we will point to it there. Writing in a book is not only making it yours, it also makes it more memorable and actionable. If you are still in doubt, read the paper “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking”.

If you landed on this page and do not have the book – here is what it contains:


  • Grant Ecosystem:
  • Grant Parts:
    • Title — The Eye Catcher
    • Grant Abstract — The Marketing Pitch
    • Grant Specific Aims — The Work Plan
    • Grant Budget — The Movie Scenario Approach
    • Grant Significance — Unearthing the Value
  • Grant Evaluation:
    • Novelty and Innovation — The Perception of Newness
    • Behind the Scenes — The Reviewing Process
    • Risk Management — The Reality Check
    • Not Granted — How to Deal with Rejection
  • Funding Through Social Media:
    • Crowdfunding Science