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It's never too soon for students to learn how grants work, especially those from the largest source of research funds — the federal government. Strong grant-writing skills can make you more competitive when seeking a job in academe, says Wally Schaffer, PhD, the senior scientific advisor for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "That's because many of departments operate primarily on soft [grants and donations] money."

Steven Breckler, PhD, APA's executive director for science, agrees: "Previously, high-quality publication counted for tenure. Now, universities — especially top research schools — want faculty paying their way."

Gaining early exposure to grant-writing is also important because competition is increasingly keen. The average success rate of proposals put before NIMH in 2006 was just under 20 percent. This percentage has shrunk, says Schaffer, due to three years of a flat NIH budget and ever-mounting applications. The sobering fact that, as Breckler says, "Even in the best times, the odds are against you," lends urgency to the quest for grant-writing know-how.

Students generally do not apply directly for federal grants (though there are some exceptions). Rather, selected or supervised by the Principal Investigators (PIs) who "own" grants, students are often supported by traineeships and assigned to grant-funded studies. During the years of indirect exposure, it's important to "apprentice." For example, Schaffer advises students to try to gain experience by volunteering to help an advisor draft a proposal or by attending a grant-writing workshop. To help you get started, here's a primer on the "who, how, where and when" of federal grants.