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Application Advice From a Reviewer: Show You’re a Future Leader

By: Emily Ortman, PhRMA Foundation Head of Communications April 15, 2024

A longtime PhRMA Foundation review committee member shares his insights on applying for grants and fellowships.

When reviewing grant and fellowship applications for the PhRMA Foundation, David Aldous, DPhil, looks for a consistent theme: innovative science being conducted by future leaders.

He wants the PhRMA Foundation (PhF) to support proposals that fulfill two aims: “It’ll open up something that we think is novel on the science front, and it will lead to the development of a future leader who has a passion, whether it’s in academia or industry, for the science,” Aldous said.

David Aldous, DPhil

As a longtime member of the Foundation’s Drug Discovery Scientific Advisory Committee and Head of Global R&D Processes and Operations at Sanofi, Aldous shared his insights on applying for PhF awards during a recent webinar.

The PhRMA Foundation is currently accepting letters of intent for predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships and faculty starter grants in its Drug Discovery, Drug Delivery and Translational Medicine programs. The deadline is May 1, 2024, at 12:00 p.m. (noon) ET.

The Personal Statement

All the pieces of an application package should tie nicely together to tell a story about the applicant and their research, Aldous explained. The first thing that he reads when reviewing applications is the candidate’s personal letter. Why? To get a sense of their voice.

“Then I look at the rest of the documentation to see if that voice continues to resonate with me throughout the rest of the documents,” Aldous said. It’s important that application materials are written by the applicant and in their voice, not pulled from a PI’s grants or publications.

He encouraged applicants to take advantage of the personal statement to capture the reviewers’ attention. “Be yourself. Tell your story. Be strong in areas of your achievement, but be humble on the extent of the impact,” he said. “It’s that subtle brag.”

Aldous said he likes passionate candidates who also exhibit resiliency. “Science can be cruel in that you can do everything right and still miss out and you can do things wrong and suddenly stumble across something,” he said.

Researchers must be able to handle the potential for failure in science, which they can also demonstrate through their research plan.

The Research Plan

When evaluating research plans, Aldous said committee members are looking for novel ideas. “Is this an approach I’ve never thought about? If this works, could it really open up into a fruitful area that would be beneficial to the awardee but also to other scientists?” he said.

Reviewers often discuss whether the proposed research is realistic and achievable within the award’s timeframe. If the project involves dependent aims, Aldous said, candidates should ensure they describe what alternative paths they would pursue if one of their aims fails.

Providing preliminary data is critical to help demonstrate the project’s feasibility. How much preliminary data do you need?

“It’s that goldilocks approach that you’ve got to have just enough. Not too little, not too much,” Aldous said. “If you have too much data, then why do you need the grant? Is this project already finished?”

For the faculty starter grants, applicants should be creating a body of evidence that lays the groundwork for an independent academic career and establishes them as subject-matter experts in their area.

The Research Impact Questions

The PhRMA Foundation requires applicants to answer several questions via a provided template about how the research:

  • Fits the PhRMA Foundation’s program goals
  • Is innovative
  • Solves a challenge or gap in the field
  • Advances the field

This is the space for applicants to emphasize the value and impact of their project and its benefits for society, Aldous said.

The Reference Letters and Training Plans

It’s critical that letters of support are tailored to the applicant and that they confirm that the ideas and written proposal belong to the applicant. “A generic letter doesn’t do you any good,” Aldous said. “It’s not going to resonate.”

The same goes for the training plans that mentors submit on behalf of predoc and postdoc applicants from their labs. Institution officials and mentors need to dedicate time to ensure both their letters of support and training plans contain details specific to that student and their leadership potential.

“What we want to see is that there is a consideration of the student as an individual,” he added. “I want to know that, at the end of the day, the scientists, the future leaders, are being trained in a way to help them advance to become the people who are shaping the future of this environment.”

The Bottom Line

“Ultimately, we want to be moving forward the body of knowledge in terms of therapeutics and health, but also the people who are going to be here in 10-15 years really shaping this ecosystem with their contributions to the science,” Aldous said.

The PhRMA Foundation is currently accepting letters of intent for predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships and faculty starter grants in its Drug Discovery, Drug Delivery and Translational Medicine programs. The deadline is May 1, 2024, at 12:00 p.m. (noon) ET.

More Application Resources

Check out these PhRMA Foundation videos and blogs with advice on writing a strong application.