Make Grant Writing Great Again

I am making this information its own page on Bloggerhead, so it is easy to find. However, I thought the information may be helpful to some people on the email subscription list, so I wanted to send it out as a blog as well. If you are not in graduate school or do not conduct research of any kind, you will probably want to stop reading now. It is quite a long post. I am going to create a few post/pages about scientific communication and what I learned in graduate school about crafting successful scientific posters, oral presentations, and grant proposals. This first post is on writing grant proposals.

I have been fortunate enough to have had a successful grant writing history as a M.S. student. Since I began graduate school, I have applied for 14 travel/research grants or awards and received funding for 13 of them, totaling just over $25,000. Not too shabby considering that I study the bizarre facial hairs of seals! haha. Some of my fellow graduate students had mentioned previously that I should write down my tips to putting together compelling grants, so here it is! Although I have never had the opportunity to poll my funders as to why they picked my proposal, I listed 12 pointers that I keep in mind while preparing a grant proposal. Hopefully, it is helpful and gives you a starting point. I think the first two tips are the most important.

  1. Remember Your Audience
  • Write formally. The researchers reviewing your proposal are not your friends. They are the important people standing between you and your much needed funding. Address them with respect and do not use informal language in your proposal (AKA what I do in all my blog posts). This rule also applies to the “level of science” you are writing in. If you are applying for a grant with a general Marine Biology focus, you may need to elaborate quite a bit within your proposal to “set the stage” for the reader. If I was sending in a grant proposal to an organization that specializes on seal whiskers, I would likely be able to skip a good bit of background and use more complicated terminology that is specific to my field without worrying about losing the reader.
  1. Pay Attention to Detail
  • Yes, you should have a big picture idea behind your research, but do not forget about the details. Although I do not have any data to back this on, I think lots of proposal reviewers use the proposal to judge a person’s character, reliability, and responsibility. If you do not bother to proofread your paper, why should that reviewer trust you with money? If you do not take your proposal seriously, why should they? If the grant asks for a timeline or a breakdown of expenses, be as specific as possible to show you put extra effort into your proposal (e.g. for travel expenses: give mileage, possible gas prices, per diem, likely housing expenses [make an effort to find cheaper accommodations])
  1. Select Appropriate Grants
  • This one is kind of obvious, but make sure you are applying for grants that actually fit your research. If you take a stab in the dark, do not be surprised if they chose to fund proposals that better fit their criteria. When I was reviewing grant proposals as the VP for my university’s graduate association, we had people apply for strictly research funds on travel grants and vice versa. Needless to say, there was a unanimous decision by the grant committee members not to fund these proposals because they did not follow the guidelines of the grant.
  1. Start Early
  • Begin working on your proposal early. Usually, grants are announced well ahead of time. I realize that working a 70hr week in graduate school does not often leave you “ahead of the game” but make an effort. My advisor always wanted to review my grants before I submitted them. Keep this in mind. This also goes for any collaborators you may have on your proposal. Your advisors/collaborators are usually just as busy as you, and they do not tend to respond well if you put them on a deadline. Sometimes they made need a week or more to get to your proposal.
  1. Ask Other People for Their Proposals
  • I found this idea extremely helpful. Whenever I applied for my larger grants, I asked around the office to see if anyone else had applied for the grant previously. I thought it was always helpful to see how someone else organized their proposal (good or bad). This is especially helpful if the grant guidelines are not particularly detailed (e.g. pictures?, line spacing?, references included in the total page count?).
  1. Write Clearly
  • This tip is also rather obvious but important nonetheless. It is important to write concisely because the grant reviewers have A LOT of proposals to read. Try to make it as painless as possible for them. If the grant guidelines refer to specific items that they want you to include, make sure you include them (obviously) but also make it blatantly clear you are doing so. You do not want the readers wading through your entire proposal to find what they are looking for.
  • For example: If the grant guidelines call for you to address how your research impacts undergraduates in Texas, state it clearly: “My research will benefit Texas undergraduates by exposing them to histological staining techniques, which may inspire them to conduct their own research experiments at Texas A&M.” Although this is not particularly interesting writing (or a particularly compelling reason), it is clear and better than vague comments such as, “My research will allow other students working in the laboratory to be exposed to histological staining techniques, which may encourage them to conduct their own research experiments.” This statement did not specifically mention undergraduates or how your research would benefit Texas/schools in Texas, but it said basically the same thing as the first. The second statement leaves the reader to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions, or they may think you missed addressing their specific criteria in general, which is also not good news for your grant prospects.
  1. Make Your Proposal Feasible
  • If the grant you are applying for has a timeframe that needs to be followed, such as one year, do not write a PhD dissertation proposal. Most grants of this type offer extensions. However, if you write in your initial proposal that you will be able to produce the research/publication you claim is feasible in one year, the funding committee may get frustrated at your lack of progress and not give you an extension. Also remember that the reviewers are not stupid, they should have a general awareness of what your type of research entails and what is feasible. If you overshoot, they may pass you over for a more reasonable research proposal that they know will get published sooner (and that they will get credit for).
  1. Have Someone Else Read It
  • I am a huge fan of this idea. No matter how many times I read something, I always feel like I miss something. If your first grant proposal draft does not read like The Grapes of Wrath, do not be discouraged. Most people struggle with writing and proper grammar. Besides reading for grammar, I like to have non-researchers read my proposals. I find this step especially important when applying for more general grants. The review committee will likely have no experience in your research topic, and things that appear obvious to you will not appear so clear to your reviewers.
  1. List Other Funding Sources
  • Usually, it is stated in the grant guidelines to include other funding you are applying for. I do not know exactly where I come down on this topic, but I typically include this information regardless if the grant guidelines specifically ask for it. Sometimes I think it is bad to include other sources because it makes you seem like you will not need as much funding from the other funding association. However, it also looks good to show that you are actively seeking other opportunities and are committed to finding funding for your project.
  1. Get It in on Time
  • Again, an obvious tip. Lots of larger associations that offer grants have online submissions that close at a certain time, thereby forcing you to stick to the deadline. However, for some grants, you need to only submit via email. In this case, make sure you know what time zone your proposal is going to. If you live in Texas, but the reviewers are in DC, make sure you submit by the proper time in DC. As a grant proposal reviewer for the graduate students at my university, we did have students not submit their proposals on time. This goes back to the idea that if you do not care about your proposal, why should I?
  1. Keep Track of Your Funds
  • If you succeed in getting funded, YAY YOU! Go celebrate and then remember that you need to finish the other half of the agreement you made with your funders. Make sure you keep track of your spending. Multiple grant foundations will require that you send them a follow-up detailing what you spent the money on, how much you have left, what presentation or publications resulted from their funds, etc.
  1. Do Not Get Discouraged
  • Easier said than done I’m afraid. Grant writing can be stressful because you spend a large portion of time working on something that could leave you with $0.00 and a lot of wasted time. However, it can also be incredibly rewarding when you get funded and realize that there are other researchers that believe in you and your research project. I think travel grants are especially important to apply for. I have had some fantastic experiences because of travel grants. Experiences I could not have afforded any other way. There were several grants that I applied for as “long shots,” including the one that got me to Germany, but I ended up getting funded! Now I live in Germany and do whisker research on live seals! So, I leave you with my final bit of advice: You never know what the grant committee’s deciding factor will be, so why not go for it?



Training session with Luca at the Marine Science Center, Rostock



One response to “Make Grant Writing Great Again

  1. Pingback: Crowdfunding for Cetaceans | bloggerheadseaturtle·

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