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Grants are a transaction between the grantor and the grantee, with a third set of folks involved: Peer reviewers. These independent experts form panels that give proposals thumbs up or down. For new investigators, reviewers adjust their expectations of proposals and credentials, says Schaffer.

To succeed in the grant world, it's important to understand grantmakers' priorities. Breckler notes that the NIH, a sponsor of much basic, exploratory research in the past, has come under increasing pressure to find cures for specific diseases. "Especially NIMH [the National Institute of Mental Health] gives much more attention to practical interventions," he says. Students should bear this in mind as they develop their interests, perhaps rounding out theoretical research with potential applications. (For more on that funding trend see "Transitioning to 'translational' times.")

Lately, federal funding agencies also are encouraging interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary collaboration. "That's good news for junior psychologists," says APA's Breckler. "You can start by going in on a bigger project with experienced grantwriters and work your way up."