Early-Career Psychology

In 2009 and 2010, the National Institutes of Health saw a large influx of money due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided NIH with $10.4 billion for new research. Most of the legislation’s funds have been distributed, but some opportunities still remain for 2010, says Kevin Quinn, PhD, chief of the behavioral science and integrative neuroscience research branch at the National Institute of Mental Health. But even without the additional ARRA funds, NIH has the resources to fund your vital research and improve the overall public good.

With competition for grants fierce, here’s how to increase your chances:

Give your research a practical spin. NIH is especially interested in “translational” research — studies that have the potential to bridge the science-practice divide.

“Many institutes at NIH want to see research with real-world applications,” says Howard Kurtzman, PhD, who served as a NIMH program director before coming to APA in 2007 as the deputy executive director for the Science Directorate.

Pat Corrigan, PsyD, knows firsthand the power of translational research. As a rehabilitation psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Corrigan has received $15.8 million in funding from NIH, the U.S. Department of Education, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs for his studies on mental health stigma in the workplace. He was able to translate his lab findings on stigma by working with 900 employers in Hong Kong, Beijing and Chicago. “Psychologists who want grants should make partnerships with all sorts of stakeholder groups such as consumers, consumer advocates and policy-makers,” says Corrigan.

Harvard University clinical science psychology professor Matthew Nock, PhD, is also well-funded for his research on a real-world problem. Nock has examined self-harming behaviors, such as suicide and self-injury, and identified new approaches to assessment and treatment. Over the past 10 years, his research team has received $10 million in funding from NIMH, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and others. “There’s no big secret to getting grants,” says Nock. “It’s just a matter of asking important questions and developing a well-thought-out project design and presentation.”

Learn the system. Psychologists qualify for many types of NIH grants. Find out what they are and how they work at Grant Application Basics.

“You need to spend 99 percent of your effort doing really good science,” says Quinn. “But if you don’t spend that 1 percent understanding how the system works, you’re going to hurt yourself in the long run.”

Four of the most popular NIH grants are:

  • R01s, which offer up to $500,000 a year for up to five years (additional funds are available with permission). Researchers applying for R01 grants should have pilot data and a research program that addresses the most pressing problems related to chronic disease and public health. R01 grants also fund basic research programs, says Quinn. Just remember that scientists should clearly show how their research informs translational approaches or directly applies to a real-world problem, says Quinn.

  • R03s, which offer $50,000 per year for two years for new research programs. Pilot data are not required.

  • R21s, which provide $275,000 over two years for researchers with new or unique research programs. R21s aim to promote innovative research; no pilot data are required.

  • R15s, which provide up to $300,000 over three years for researchers at academic institutions that have historically received little NIH support.

Be persistent. Although they have been successful overall, Nock and Corrigan have been rejected plenty of times. Corrigan estimates that three of every four grant applications he submits are rejected.

“I shake it off, heed their comments and decide where to go from there,” says Corrigan. To reduce your rejections, Corrigan recommends finding a mentor with experience in grant funding, someone who can help you write compelling applications that clearly present your science and its practical implications.

Also, find out what NIH is looking for by talking with an NIH program officer, says Kurtzman. He or she can point out the grants or institutes that best fit your research interests. NIH program officers are surprisingly easy to find: Just visit the grant contact page at or check individual institute Web pages.

Even with a supportive mentor, a program officer connection and really good science, young researchers will be rejected, so it’s important to stay persistent, experts say. “I use rejections as motivation to make the corrections, improve the grant and better articulate the project while making improvements in the study’s overall design,” Nock says.

Recognize the positives. For even experienced scientists, finding funding is stressful and difficult. However, the bright side is that increasingly fierce competition may make you design even stronger studies and become a better scientist.

“The people who continue to receive grants and publish important work throughout their careers are those who keep learning new concepts and skills from a variety of fields and incorporate them into their research programs,” Kurtzman says.

Other funding sources

Although the National Institutes of Health remains the largest funder of psychological research, don’t forget to check out other funders. “Funding for psychological scientists can be found in surprising places, from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency,” says APA’s Howard Kurtzman, PhD.

Here are some places for psychologists to look for sources of grants:

  • Federal funding opportunities can be searched at grants.gov.

  • APA’s Science Directorate provides a monthly e-newsletter with all the newest grant opportunities across many organizations and institutes, including NIH and the National Science Foundation. Visit Psychological Science Agenda.

  • Numerous APA grants and awards are listed at Research Funding.

  • The American Psychological Foundation offers more than $500,000 in grants and scholarships for this year. For more funding information, visit American Psychological Foundation.