If you’re currently in science research then you’re well aware of the funding deficit, and it’s likely that at one point you or a fellow scientist friend has had research (or maybe even a job) on the line while eagerly awaiting a grant score. So, outside of completely reworking the academic system and increasing the number of funding resources, how can we increase our chances of receiving funding? One simple answer: by improving the quality of the grants we submit. As a graduate student I’ve witnessed, in my own applications and the application of others, what makes for an exceptional grant and what leaves reviewers more doubtful. From these observations, I’ve compiled some advice that I hope will aid you in your next grant writing experience.
First, are you eligible?
This may seem laughably straightforward, but always double check that you are eligible so that you don’t spend copious amounts of time on an application just to find out that you don’t qualify. For example, some grants and fellowships are only offered if you fall within a certain demographic, if you’re at a specific stage in your career, if you’re a citizen or permanent resident of the country… the list goes on.
Display what you know and what you plan to do in an accessible way.
Don’t assume that a reviewer will have a strong background in your field of research. For this reason, avoid using too much scientific jargon, especially that which could be considered obscure to anyone outside your field. You won’t often be told who your specific reviewers are, but in some cases you will be made aware of the general pool of reviewers and their expertise. Ensure that your background research is sound and take the time to think about your citations. What work has been most influential in the field? Is it the work of any of your potential reviewers? If so, be sure to cite it.
Propose the exciting yet possible.
You have a mind-blowing hypothesis and an incredible idea for a project, but there’s a problem: You haven’t done the work to market the idea as feasible, and that will be a massive red flag for reviewers. When you think about a project that interests you and would like to seek funding for, first look at the data you have to support it. If the data is there, then think about what you’ll need. What equipment will this project demand? Will you need letters of support from core facilities at your university? Will you need other scientists working with you or is this project fit for one person? Make all of these decisions before you start writing so that you aren’t running around last minute hoping to fill the gaps in your proposal.
How will your work move the field forward?
Why is what you’re proposing to do important? Creating a project surrounding cutting edge technology isn’t enough. Work to propose a project that reaches beyond your specific field. Ask yourself: How is my work important to the scientific community as a whole? Keep in mind that with the current funding situation there are increased opportunities to collaborate with scientists in other labs, which could allow you to expand the scope (and potentially the impact!) of your proposed project.
Formatting your citations until 4 a.m. the day your grant is due is far from ideal. Start writing and organizing grant materials like letters of support early enough that you allow yourself plenty of time to review the more minor, but still important, aspects of your application. Did you include too much jargon? Did you forget to define that acronym? Does your formatting adhere to the requirements where you’re submitting? From your rèsumè to your research statement, chances are there is a specific format. Submitting a grant not aligned with the requested format or littered with small errors could indicate to a reviewer that you aren’t serious.
Starting early also means having time to receive feedback. Feedback doesn’t (and often shouldn’t) just come from your PI. Do you have a friend in a laboratory that studies something outside of your field? Ask him or her to read it.
Not writing alone?
Whether you’re working on a grant with your PI or another member of your lab, define your roll before anything is written. What are your expectations and what are the expectations of others? I’ve found that starting the grant writing process with a very simple outline that everyone involved can reference is a great policy.
Find a way to work on the grant independently but share your additions and changes easily. I’ve found Google Docs incredibly useful, far more so than sending drafts back and forth over email or continuously uploading to updated versions to Dropbox. If possible, create a calendar that outlines when everyone plans to work on the grant. I’ve found that creating structure at the outset makes for a far more pleasant grant writing experience.
Best of luck!
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Samantha Jones grew up in the Boston area and attended Vassar College in New York for undergrad, where she studied biology and competed on the swim team. She is currently a fourth year Biomedical Sciences PhD student at UC San Diego studying the role of RNA in neural development and working toward a future in science writing. Check out her website for an up-to-date look at what she’s working on, or her Twitter page for all things science.