The New NIH Biosketch & Their Do's and Don'ts: Part 1

Jan 29 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

First off, I dislike the apostrophe in the middle of the do's. It is inconsistent. It should be "Dos" and "Don'ts" or "Do's" and "Don't's", the latter of which looks delightfully absurd. Anyway... moving on to issues of substance.

This is from CSR's Peer Review Notes (the apostrophe in CSR's is indicating possessive, as it is their Peer Review Notes).

As they say, with a link to the announcement:

Since last May, applicants are required to use a new biosketch format, where they are asked to highlight their scientific contributions instead of simply listing their publications. The goal is to better focus reviews on the magnitude and significance of an applicant’s research accomplishments.


They've got advice for reviewers and for applicants. The advice is useful, even if they get the apostrophes screwed up. To start, I think keeping in mind this piece of advice to reviewers is important:

You may factor an uninformative biosketch into your scoring if it hinders your ability to assess the investigator.

You don't want this happening to you. So, let's go through their list of advices for aplicants.

Read the instructions and use the new biosketch format.

Okay, Muffins, as my blogmom would say, this one is easy. Duh. Read the Darwin blessed instructions. Follow them. Do not piss of the reviewers before they even get to the science. Next:

Be objective -- Don’t oversell or undersell yourself.

There are obvious reasons for this: being caught, if not out & out lying, even stretching the truth, will reduce the trust of the reviewer and increase their skepticism in everything you say, including the science. That said, there is a more subtle, two-fold problem with this advice. On one hand, one must fight that imposter syndrome that makes you self-denigrate anything and everything you've touched in your life. Remember, you are that good. On the other, we all have a tendency to see some of the things we've done as more important than perhaps they are. Or we are unsure of how much credit we can take for what our students, postdocs, techs have brought to the table. This is not easy. In general, if it came out of your lab, you can claim it on the biosketch. Best advice: get someone you trust, who thinks well of you, to look it over and comment. That's what mentors are for. But also keep in mind the next piece of advice:

Make sure your claims are backed up by your publications.

If you want to say you can do something, it's best said by citing the publication where you did. If you are young, and starting out, applying for a NRSA or other early mechanism, citing abstracts is OK. Indicate if the abstract is peer reviewed, or published. Web of Science and Google Scholar list published abstracts. From their instructions for trainees (links here for predocs and postdocs):

While all applicants may describe up to five contributions, graduate students and postdoctorates are encouraged to consider highlighting two or three they consider most significant. These may include research papers, abstracts, book chapters, reviews, as well as non-publication research products, such as materials, methods, models, or protocols [my highlight].

For grownups they do let you include "non-published" items:

For each of these contributions, reference up to four peer-reviewed publications or other non-publication research products (can include audio or video products; patents; data and research materials; databases; educational aids or curricula; instruments or equipment; models; protocols; and software or netware) that are relevant to the described contribution.

But I would be very careful to make sure that non-published is balanced with published.

In general, one of the things reviewers consider, if not explicitly, is "can this person do this project?". The biosketch is your chance to demonstrate that.

OK... part 2 on Monday. I need to go wrestle some data into the ground.

5 responses so far

  • Newbie PI says:

    My experience on study section is that nobody reads the 5 contributions to science beyond a cursory skim of the headings and the listed publications. On the other hand, everyone goes to Pubmed to see how productive you've been recently, so there's no way around that. The problem is that there's always the off chance that you'll get a diehard reviewer who reads everything you write, so we're all stuck wasting time on the 5 contributions section.

    • potnia theron says:

      Probably something of a waste, but if you don't do a good job, it could come back & bite you. Thus, do to the minimum necessary, but don't sweat it.

  • sopscientist says:

    I agree with Newbie PI. I am a seasoned NIH reviewer my experience is that the contributions verbiage is not helpful. I ignore it, so does everyone else on the panel. The publications list is essential, so make sure the full publications link works in the uploaded version when you submit

  • ecologist says:

    I'm curious about what NIH's thinking is on this. Do they actually plan to believe what someone says about their own contributions to science? It's interesting to me that at the same time NIH did this, NSF moved in exactly the opposite direction. The NSF biosketch now must include, in a specified order, your degrees, your professional appointments, 5 "products" relevant to the proposal and up to 5 additional "products" that might not be relevant. Then a description of up to 5 "synergistic activities". And that is all. Including anything else will get your proposal returned without review. They do not permit listing of awards, editorial positions, society offices, or areas of qualification, let alone highlighting your scientific contributions.

  • […] so part 2 is a little later than I would have hoped (here is part 1). But, shall we plow on? Yes, we shall. The rest of their advice from this […]

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