7.3- Grants II
And for example, to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology. So hopefully, you understand that just like a machine or these gears, if one of the answers to these questions isn't perfectly aligned, then you won't be able to have a really compelling specific aims page. Compelling projects and proposals often tackle particular gaps in the knowledge base or need that when addressed significantly advance the field.
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So hi, my name is Crystal Botham and I’m the director of the Grant Writing Academy at Stanford. I’m going to discuss tips and strategies for writing your specific aims. So why is your specific aims document so important? Well, it’s perfect for eliciting feedback because it’s the executive summary of your entire proposal. As you’re developing your proposal, your colleagues and mentors will be happy to provide feedback on your specific aims document because it’s not a big time investment like reading the entire proposal. So, the specific aims document is critical to developing a first class proposal because it’s perfect for eliciting feedback. And you want a lot of feedback, so you can ensure the conceptual framework of your proposal is good. As I mention, the specific aim should provide that conceptual framework of your proposal, so it’s a perfect roadmap as you write the rest of your proposal. Equally important, your specific aims document must empower the reviewers with all the necessary information to fund your project after reading only the specific aims document. So for these reasons and many more, the specific aims document is one of the most important documents of your proposal. So what exactly are the instructions for the specific aims document? Let’s use NIH, the National Institute of Health instructions as an example. Their specific aims document is one page and here are the specific directions. State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize expected outcomes, including the impact the results of the proposed research will exert on the research fields involved. List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed. And for example, to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology. Think for a minute, what are the key words and phrases? Yes. So goals, expected outcomes, impact, specific objectives. So there are really some key questions and ideas that should be conveyed on the specific aims document. I’ve come up with four key questions that you need to answer in writing a compelling specific aims page. So the first key question is, is the research question important? This is really getting at the idea that there may be a particular gap in the knowledge base or a need that’s holding your field back. So if you were able to fill in that gap or address the need, then you can move your field significantly forward and more than just incremental steps. What is the overall goal? This must fill in the gap or need delineated by addressing the first question. What specifically will be done? What are your specific research questions or aims? What is your hypothesis? What are the expected outcomes and impact? What is the return on investment of funding this research? How would this proposed research address the gap or need delineated by answering the first question? So hopefully, you understand that just like a machine or these gears, if one of the answers to these questions isn’t perfectly aligned, then you won’t be able to have a really compelling specific aims page. So when answering these questions, you really need to take a big picture look to make sure each of your answers to these questions are perfectly aligned with the other answers. And your responses to these four questions could become four really important parts to your specific aims page and could be used to organize your specific aims document. And we’ll go into more detail in the next couple of slides about how you can use these four questions to organize your specific aims page into four sections or paragraphs. So first, the introductory section of your specific aims should answer, is the research question important? So the first sentence of course, needs to grab the attention of your reviewers. You want to hook them immediately and highlight that your proposal will support the mission of the funding agency. Then after you have the attention of your reviewers, bring them all up to speed by summarizing the relevant current knowledge. This is important because your reviewers may not be familiar with all the complexities of your specific field. So you need to provide enough background to enable your reviewers to understand the knowledge gap in your field or the need that your proposal will address. This statement is really important and will drive your proposal. The knowledge gap or needs statement should identify this critical bottleneck that slowing or stopping progress in your field. So at the conclusion of this first section or paragraph, you should have the attention of your reviewers. They should understand the proposed research area as relevant and the knowledge gap or unmet need as important. The second paragraph needs to connect to that first section which answers a really big question, is the research important? And funnel down to the specifics that are proposed. So it’s going from this idea of this big knowledge gap to the actually the specifics that you’re proposing. So one approach to do this in this section, is to start still pretty big with your big picture goal. This could be a long term goal for your research program, or a goal that relates directly to the funding agencies mission. Next, narrow the focus and describe the objective of the proposed research. Remember that your objective must directly address the knowledge gap or the needs statement described in the first section. Also, your objective must be obtainable regardless of how the hypotheses tests. Most funding agencies fund hypothesis driven research, so it’s best to explicitly state your hypothesis. Overall, our central hypothesis must be objectively testable and should be your prediction or best bet. It’s nice to bold or italicize your hypothesis because it’s the climax of this section. Lastly, describe your preliminary data or other data that helped you formulate your hypothesis. Now, what specifically will be done? It’s nice to have broad aims that are achievable regardless of how your hypotheses tests. Then, briefly describe the methods that you’ll use to test your hypotheses. What is the expected payoff? This is really getting at the return of investment of funding your project. This needs to relate to the goals of the funding agencies mission. That’s really important. So for example, if you’re applying to a fellowship or career development award and the goal of the funding agency is to advance your career towards independent scientists, then that may be appropriate to include that information in the expected payoff on your specific aims page. So here, you can see how these four questions can be formulated into four key sections or paragraphs of your specific aims page. So let’s look at an example. Here’s an example from a faculty member at Stanford. And notice that the specific aims is divided into several different sections. This faculty member is answering, is the question important? In this first paragraph. You can see she’s ending that first paragraph with a clear statement of the knowledge gap. “Thus, there is a critical need to standardize how donor hearts are evaluated and accepted for transplantation.” Is a clear statement of the knowledge gap or need that is going to drive this proposal. Next, she’s funneling down by stating her long term goal, stating her central hypothesis which she’s italicized and underlined, and then adds additional information. So she has this funnel down effect to get to the specifics of her proposal. She’s using a broad aim and then several working hypotheses to describe the different approaches that she will take. And then, she’s concluding the specific aims page with a short discussion of what is the expected payoff? It’s actually really nice to end the specific aims section with this statement because it leaves the positive impact as the reviewer is ending the specific aims page. So you can see how she’s answered these four questions in a very logical approach and provided a nice organization structure to her specific aims page. Now, answering the questions in this specific order, isn’t the only approach to writing effective specific aims page. So let’s look at another example. Here’s an example that’s available from the NIH website. It’s for a graduate fellowship in F31. And you can see the structure of the specific aims page is quite different. Here, they’re using the first part of this first paragraph to answer the question, is the question important? They have the knowledge gap statement in the middle of that section. Then, they have the overall goal delineated in the second part of that first paragraph. And they have the hypothesis broken out a little bit. It’s nice to have the hypothesis clearly identified which provides that focus for your proposal. And then, the specifics are here. They’re using nice broad bolded aims. They have the specific approaches that they’ll be taking as well highlighted. And then, the expected payoff is here. So here is another example of a funded application that is answering these four critical questions, but it is taking a different approach in the order. So in summary, the specific aims document must concisely answer the following questions. So is the research question important? Compelling projects and proposals often tackle particular gaps in the knowledge base or need that when addressed significantly advance the field. What is the overall goal? So the overall goal defines the purpose of the proposal and must be obtainable regardless of how the hypothesis tests. What specifically will be done? Attract the reviewers interest using attention getting headlines, describe your working hypothesis and your approach to objectively test the hypothesis. Then, what are the expected outcomes and impact? Describe what the reviewers can expect after the proposal is completed in terms of advancement to the field. So to write effective specific aims, feedback is critical. You need a wide audience providing feedback too, because your reviewers are likely to come from a wide background as well. So get feedback throughout the process, in the beginning, in the middle, in the end. Really, writing your specific aim should be an iterative process. Here’s a couple of outstanding resources to learn more about how to write effective specific aims.
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