Advice for writing your first grant propsal

Today I am re-blogging a guest post I did for SoapboxScience (a community  guest blog from nature.com).  It appeared today as part of their Beginnings series.  Hope you find it useful!  Check out the nature.com blogs for terrific info.

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Many thanks to Nature for inviting me to write a guest post for the “Beginnings” series.  I’ve been asked to offer advice to young academics who are facing the daunting task of writing their first grant proposal.  This is a broad topic and, to a great extent, the specific approach is highly dependent upon the agency you’re targeting with your application.  In that context, it’s critical to read the instructions they provide.  Apparently, ~80% of people don’t do that. Amazing! However, beyond that, there are some general tips that apply universally and that’s what I’ll be focusing on today.

Preparation of a successful grant proposal generally requires the ability to communicate effectively with two entirely different audiences.  You want to come across as knowledgeable to the reviewers who are experts in your area, but you also need to be understandable to those members of the review committee who may have little or no related expertise.  Most people make the mistake of catering only to the former, when it is the latter group that typically carries the weight in the decision, simply because there are many more of them.

Fortunately, it is actually pretty easy to satisfy the experts in your area.  You do this by:

  • choosing a project to investigate that is truly relevant in the context of the present state of knowledge;
  • displaying your knowledge of the current literature related to the subject area you have chosen to focus upon (i.e. last 2 to 5 years in particular); and
  • providing a description of your proposed research plan that is sufficiently detailed for them to adequately assess its validity and its likelihood of success.

Communicating effectively with the non -expert in your field is the real challenge.  Your proposal to study fish reproduction in winter might be reviewed by a botanist, or even by a physicist, and it’s a good bet that they find their specialty riveting and the prospect of reading about yours – well, let’s be honest – excruciatingly boring.  The second thing to keep in mind is that the reviewers are each going to be reading dozens, if not hundreds, of applications during the adjudication process.  Given these two facts, it can be a real challenge to get them excited about your proposal. Fortunately, there are a few tricks for making it more interesting – some even involve borrowing techniques from creative writing, in terms of the tone and style.  This is very different from what we’re used to doing when writing a technical report or article, so here are some specific tips.

  • Write in the first person – you want the reviewers to see you as a human being, an individual – someone who is going to be impacted by getting (or not getting) this grant.  Also – it’s just more interesting to read things written in the first person – especially after seeing 99 other grant proposals written in the ‘third person impersonal’.  If you can let a bit of your personality and enthusiasm shine through, all the better!
  • Use dialog instead of narration when introducing your topic.  In creative writing it’s always much more interesting to learn about something through a conversation between characters, rather than merely through a narrative description.  You can employ the same tactic here with just a slight variation – the dialog is going to be between you and the reviewers.  You typically do this by starting with a question.  For example, you might say something like…

Did you know that ice jams can threaten lives, with water levels rising nearly 1 m per minute?  With bus sized ice floes pushing downstream at speeds of 5 m/s or more, people can become stranded without warning and buildings can easily be pushed off of their foundations.

You’ll have to admit, that was much more interesting to read than:

This research project focuses on ice jam flood forecasting.

  • Don’t use jargon.  You may have one or two technical terms (usually the name(s) of the thing(s) you are studying) that you absolutely have teach us to explain your research and that’s okay.  However, if you go beyond that – especially if you get carried away using jargon in describing your methodology – you will lose the readers and (possibly) with them, the grant.
  • Don’t include any equations or molecule diagrams – they mean absolutely nothing to the rest of us and just waste valuable space.
  • Don’t use acronyms.  Let me repeat that one – DO NOT USE ACRONYMS.  No, it’s not okay to use them even if you define them.  With dozens, maybe hundreds of proposals to read – your reviewers have neither the time nor the mental energy to learn a bouquet of acronyms just so you can squeeze an extra fifty words into the proposal.  It will be tune out time – they will be reading – but they won’t be registering.  They’ll probably resent you for it, as well – which is never a good thing.

I’ve had many people debate these last three with me – it can be particularly difficult to part engineers from their partial differential equations and chemists from their cryptic little molecule diagrams.  And it seems that everyone loves their acronyms and expects me to love them, too.  However, until you’ve had to read a few hundred applications like this – you really can’t begin to imagine the mind-numbing tedium of it.  Make your proposal interesting and painless for the reviewers to read and you will definitely stand out from the crowd.

A few final thoughts…  Start early; give yourself at least a few months to write and revise. Ask a few colleagues to read your grant and provide feedback, including a senior colleague who has served on a grant selection committee.  Also, get a friend or family member, who is not a scientist or engineer, to read your grant.  If they find it engaging and exciting, chances are the review committee will, too!

Good luck – let me know if you get the grant!

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