Four Keys to Securing Research Funds

A conversation with Columbia Nursing’s director of scholarship and research development

Kristine Kulage, MA, MPH, director of scholarship and research development at Columbia Nursing, says the keys to a successful research career are persistence, patience, curiosity, and vision. She should know: After more than 18 years helping others fund their work, she recently published an influential study of her own on autism, conducted while studying at Mailman School of Public Health.

Over the years, Kulage has gone above and beyond the call of duty; among her many activities, she leads writing workshops for faculty and postdocs, coordinates monthly seminars on research excellence, and co-edits the National Council of University Research Administrators Magazine. She was also recently honored with Columbia Nursing’s first annual Research Staff Excellence Award.

You created and direct a popular writing workshop at Columbia Nursing, in which faculty essentially “peer-review” each other’s manuscripts in preparation for submission to scholarly journals.  What are some practical tips to help researchers write better papers for publication?

In the introductory session to the writing workshop, I present members with key tips designed to make both their writing time more productive and their papers better written:

(1) Set aside non-negotiable writing time; (2) If you need to stop writing, stop at a point where you know what you are going to write next; (3) Always write for your reader; and (4) Show, don’t tell.

Of these, the most critical element would have to be writing for the reader.

Following these tips will ensure that your manuscript is targeted to the audience of the journal you plan to submit to, that your writing is clear and organized, and that you provide enough detail that a reader who may not be an expert on the topic can still understand and learn from the article.

Competition is especially strong for government funding to conduct research. How do you help writers bring their submissions up to a competitive level?

In the increasingly competitive landscape for ever-dwindling federal funding, it is important that every aspect of a grant application be as strong, accurate, and “clean” as possible, as well as appropriately targeted to the call for proposals and the funding institute’s priority interests.

To ensure the project’s significance, innovation, and scientific rigor, the Office of Scholarship and Research Development (OSR) coordinates initiatives such as Specific Objectives and Aims Review (SOAR) sessions and mock reviews during the developmental stages of the application. These provide opportunities for other faculty experts to provide unbiased comments and suggestions for improving the overall quality of the scientific methodology of grant applications. Often they target important changes in a proposal that may make the difference between an unscored and a highly scored application.

Columbia Nursing’s OSR and Grants Management Office also help behind the scenes to ensure accurate, complete, and consistently formatted grant applications. We feel that every aspect of the application is under scrutiny in the review process, and attention to detail in every element can elevate an application just enough above its competitors to obtain funding.

What are some of the personal and professional qualities you consider essential for a person to have a successful career in academic research?

Having worked closely with researchers at academic medical centers for more than 18 years, I would identify four essential qualities for a successful research career: persistence, patience, curiosity, and vision. Persistence is required as grant funding almost never comes on the first try; it’s incredibly competitive, and I’ve seen junior investigators submit a half-dozen major grant applications before they finally hit the bull’s eye and achieve their first externally funded grant.

Patience goes hand in hand with persistence—not only does it take patience to be persistent, but the process of writing, revising, and simply waiting for a grant to be reviewed takes a good deal of patience.

I would argue that the trait of curiosity is at the core of all true academic researchers. The best research projects almost always stem from great questions, which requires true curiosity. What can be done to improve the high infant-mortality rate in the U.S., one of the richest countries in the world?  Why are infection rates so high in the hospital, when this is the place designed specifically for people to get well? By nature, grants are built on aims and hypotheses, which are all about asking the right questions.

Finally, having vision—being able to see the possibilities of what could be—enables a researcher to develop grant proposals that are new, unique, and innovative, qualities that funders demand in academic research today.

In your opinion, what are the greatest misconceptions about nursing research?

First, that nursing research is somehow inferior to research conducted by other health professionals (e.g., physicians). Within nursing’s research niche, nurse researchers use their unique perspective on patient populations and challenges to design and conduct innovative research projects that, in my opinion, could not be accomplished as effectively by other health professionals. Nursing research moves the science forward in ways that could not be achieved otherwise, because of the important hands-on role that nurses play in patient care.

Another misconception would be that nursing research is not interdisciplinary in nature. In the past decade, working in the field of research administration in a school of nursing, I have seen the trend toward interdisciplinary research grow exponentially. Researchers regularly collaborate with faculty members in medicine, public health, dentistry, and psychiatry, and the list goes on.  In fact, I would argue that nursing research is less likely to be conducted in a silo because of the very nature of the nursing profession.

You have been working with researchers for more than 18 years in an administrative capacity. You also recently completed your MPH at Mailman School of Public Health and published influential research yourself.  How did you move from one role to the other? 

What has been great about my years working in a strictly research administration capacity with Columbia Nursing faculty is the sense of teamwork among nurse researchers, their students, and the school staff.

Being an essential and respected part of that team inspired me to want to play a more substantial role in the research. I saw the part-time MPH program in health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health as a critical step toward taking on a greater role in research.

Not only has my education in the program allowed me to more effectively understand and comment critically on the research proposals I see in my professional role, but an independent study I designed in the MPH program enabled me to collaborate with two nursing faculty members on a study examining changes in autism diagnosis rates, which was published last month.

Continually expanding my role at Columbia Nursing is rooted in a deep belief that research administrators should never feel limited by their professional titles. I have been fortunate to work at Columbia Nursing for more than 10 years. This environment has always afforded me opportunities for professional growth. I constantly refer to my own career trajectory to encourage other research administrators never to be bound by roles, titles, or labels.

This story originally appeared in the Columbia University School of Nursing E-Newsletter.

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