This article is the third in our Ten Steps to a Winning R01 Application series, which we are updating.
After you have decided the area of research to pursue, you are ready to start designing a high-impact project for an application that you can complete within the four to five years of an R01 grant.
Your project should tackle important research within your niche: it must be able to move your field forward. Beware of concepts that can’t be strongly supported with your own preliminary data or published data from other laboratories.
At the Drawing Board
You'll start to hone your ideas by drafting objectives, known in NIH lingo as Specific Aims.
Thinking high level, ask yourself what objectives you could reasonably achieve within the timeframe of a grant. Start broadly with an emphasis on significance, and then focus on generating experiments with clear endpoints reviewers can readily assess.
While you could design a project around two to four Specific Aims, many people create three.
Limiting your application to a few Specific Aims keeps you clear of the very common mistake of being overly ambitious. It's much better to think small and propose less than to do the opposite.
There Are Good Aims and There Are Poor Aims
A common type of Specific Aim would ask a question like “Does A cause B?” However, your project may come to an end if A doesn’t turn out to cause B.
It’s better to design an aim where the result doesn’t depend on only one outcome, but where one or more different outcomes would also be of interest. Then the question becomes “Does A cause B or non-B,” so make sure the “non-B” outcomes make sense based on both your central hypothesis and preliminary data.
Another common type of Specific Aim is descriptive. For example, “We will measure levels of X in 1,000 samples of Y to characterize the pattern of expression of X."
Though this may be very doable, it is rarely a highly significant finding in itself and often should be avoided unless you have no other choice. Such descriptive findings should usually be part of your preliminary data, not part of your proposal.
Like your topic, your Specific Aims should build on your previous experience.