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Nih Biosketch Personal Statement Instructions

Got your new mandatory NIH biosketch all done?

I didn’t think so.

Want some help? Read on.

NIH has done research and come up with a new biosketch for all of us to use with our proposals. It’s not optional.

Originally it was going to be required for January 2015 proposals, but now it must be used by May or later. Since I am submitted a grant last month for the February 5 deadline I made a new biosketch draft before they pushed the required date back. I guess I’ll be one of the guinea pigs.

In the process of writing up my new NIH biosketch, I learned some important things and got feedback from colleagues, program officers (PO), and others.

Here are my top tips and observations. Perhaps they might be helpful.

I still do not know how this grant has fared in study section of course and what reviewers might have thought of my new biosketch so that’s an important disclaimer here.

  • Start now on the new biosketch. You don’t have to finish it right away given the May start point for mandatory use, but the process of making your own new biosketch will take time. To do it right will take you some hours of work. Here’s the NIH instructions and an example of a new biosketch.
  • Update your My Bibliography page. NIH, which has always in the past prohibited any web links in our proposals, now requires one in your new biosketch in the form of your link to your My Bibliography page on NCBI. This means that you need to update your My Bibliography to reflect all your pubs. Don’t know what the heck a My Bibliography page is? Then you’re in a bit of a hole, but don’t give up. You can dig your way out. Start by setting up a My NCBI account.
  • Where exactly to find your My Bibliography link? See screen shot from my My NCBI page. You can cut and paste it into your biosketch.
  • Check that your My Bibliography link actually works. As an example, here’s my My Bibliography page, which I also had to make public to get the link. Here’s what my link itself actually looks like: Someone told me that at one point their link didn’t work. That could annoy reviewers, huh?
  • Use that new 5-page limit wisely. The new format allows for 5 pages instead of 4 pages. As always you do not have to fill all the allowed pages, but given the new format it might be wise to make use of some of the extra space. Again this will take time and thought.
  • What are your top 24 pubs? In the new sketch you can in theory list up to 24 publications instead of just 15. These 24 pubs include 4 in section A (Personal statement) that most directly relate to the proposal plus up to 4 each in up to 5 areas of contributions to science.
  • Wanna list the same pub(s) in both Sections A and C? While there is to my knowledge no official policy on re-listing the same pubs twice in the new biosketch, that may be the best solution to turn to if you ran into the issue like I did of finding that some of the same pubs fit nicely both into Section A and into part of Section C. This was the suggested solution given by a PO.
  • What are your top few specific contributions to science? The biosketch gives you an entire section, Section C, to describe up to 5 of your hopefully transformative contributions to science. A PO stressed how important they thought this was going to be and how there may be crosstalk between these new sections and parts of the actual proposal itself. The tricky part, of course, is to find the right balance between tooting your own horn appropriately and seeming like a show off. Since this is a new biosketch format, it remains to be seen how study sections will react to this new Section C that in an unprecedented way invites researchers to talk about themselves and their science in more depth.
  • Give each of your top contributions to science and their respective subsections a title. The NIH doesn’t mention this nor does the example they give do this, but I recommend giving each of your subsections in Part C its own title. 1. Cured Cancer. 2. Developed safe and effective Ebola Vaccine. 3. Won Nobel Prize. You get the idea from these silly examples.
  • Get feedback. This new format is going to throw many people including reviewers for a loop and it’s hard to judge what is “right” and “wrong” on this. What this means is that getting feedback from colleagues and mentors is more important than ever. Aim for balance.


On a recent webinar about State of Grants in 2012, I mentioned that the personal statement part of the NIH biosketch is a great opportunity to additionally “market” your project. In my experience, most people waste this opportunity by listing a very bland and generic statement.

The most common (ineffective) approach I’ve seen seems to be to just recapitulate the publications and achievements in a narrative format. But that’s not adding any new information, it’s just repeating what’s already in the biosketch.

Instead, you want to tell a story of how your own background intersects with the project at hand. Your narrative should cover key points such as:

– What is the big problem you’re trying to solve (long-term) and why? An example might be that you are interested in developing new diagnostics for cancer because someone you know was affected by it.

– How does your training put you into a great position to do the research at hand, specifically?

– What other strengths do you bring to the project that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent from your lists of positions and qualifications?

As with all good stories, it should begin with the “villain” (problem) that got you into this research, the central challenge of the research, how you came to be in a position to do the research, and the hoped-for outcome.

Some people have asked whether they should list reasons for extended absences or productivity lapses (e.g. maternity leave) or other challenges they’ve faced.

I generally suggest “no” on that. Regardless of whether the reason for the absence is legitimate (I DO think we should be understanding of those who want to raise a family), when it comes to competing for scarce resources, I believe some reviewers will see this as a “weakness” and almost none will see it as a strength. So, on balance the effect is neutral at best, and negative at worst.

The one exception is when the absence or lapse contributes in a clearly positive way to your present ability to do the research being proposed. For example, let’s say you did a sabbatical where you learned a whole new skill set that is relevant to the proposal at hand, but during that time you didn’t get any publications (because you were learning or experiments didn’t work out). I’d still recommend mentioning the absence, but only from the perspective of the strengths that it helps you bring to the table.

While the personal statement may not make a huge difference in your grant’s fundability, it could make the some difference if you’re close to the funding line and need just that extra bit to push you over into the black (that means funded) range.

If you write NIH grants, check out some of my other blog posts on the Significance section, the Short Format, and Giving a Good Talk.