I have written or helped write a lot of grants (like >10) in the last two years of my academic career. I have also recently gone to NSF and reviewed proposals. And people keep asking me if I have any advice for them when they are writing grants. So I thought I would put together something that might be helpful. Some of this advice is just general writing advice, but I think it is especially important or relevant for grant writing.
[caveats: I am putting this list together from the perspective of someone (me) who is relatively new to grant writing and still very early in her career and who therefore is approaching this as a new form of writing. I mostly write grants to go to NSF in the area of STEM education research, so this advice is based on my experience with funding through that organization.]
Read the call/request for proposals very carefully
This may seem like an easy one, but it’s really important. The tone and details of the request/call for proposals can tell you a lot about not just what kinds of projects the program or agency is interested in, but also how you should frame your argument for funding your project. Also, sometimes there are very specific requirements, such as asking you to identity the type and/or size of the proposed project in the first sentence or the title. These types of seemingly minor mistakes sometimes make it difficult for reviewers to properly situate your proposal and can lead people to think you won’t be able to pay attention to details.
What’s the big idea?
This is perhaps the most important part of this process. What is the big idea you want to address? What is the big problem you are trying to solve (and how will you solve it)? Once you have figured this out, you need to create a story or an argument for (a) why this is a big idea/problem, (b) why this is the best way to solve/fix the problem, and (c) why you are the team to do it. These three points all need to be addressed early and often in the proposal. You need to convince the reviewers that this is important and innovative work that is achievable.
Talk to a program officer
Two important things to remember: (1) program officers (at least at NSF), as federal employees, are required by law to respond to your emails and phone calls, and (2) program officers want you to submit the best proposal you can because it’s better for everyone if they are funding innovative and successful projects. This means that you should not hesitate to contact them about your initial ideas to make sure that your proposal fits within the program boundaries. Program officers are usually good about giving you advice about which program would be a good fit for your project and whether or not it is missing important pieces. Of course, keep in mind that there are limits to the type and amount of guidance they can give you at the proposal stage.
With a little help from your friends
Having a third party read your proposal is essential as well, especially if the proposal is about a topic that you have been immersed in for a while. You have probably developed some shortcuts, slang, or ways of talking about this topic that are not immediately apparent to someone who hasn’t been inside your brain recently. A third party, even someone who is familiar with your work, can help bring an outside view or perspective (like someone who might be reviewing your proposal) that should clarify unclear concepts or phrases, help you structure your argument effectively, and ensure that you have properly explained what you’re planning on doing, how you will do it, and how your team is well-suited to perform the work.
Make it easy for your reviewers
Things that reviewers are looking for specifically: overall big idea, prior work/results related to this project, intellectual merit, broader impacts, prior NSF support (or the equivalent), team, and workplan. If you write your proposal in such a way that it is difficult for a typical reviewer to find any one of these pieces, it is not going to help your case. A good proposal is clear, as concise as possible, and complete. Note that the prior NSF support section should include not just that you were part of a funded project but also any major findings of that project. Additionally, there is a fun catch-22 with funding. In order to get funding, you (usually) need to have shown that you have already been successfully funded. This means that if you’re an early career researcher and applying for your first grants, it is extremely important to find more senior researchers to team up with who have a history with that funding agency. A well-known advisory board also helps in this regard.
All of the pieces
There are a LOT of documents and details to keep track of during the proposal writing process. It is extremely important that you stay organized throughout, otherwise the few days before the deadline are going to be hellish (I’m not kidding). Make sure you start the process soon enough to ask for appropriate letters of support from your advisory board and collaborators. Make sure that all of the details, language, and formatting match across the narrative, summary, references, budget, budget justification, letters, subaward information (if relevant), current & pending, biosketches, data management plan, and mentoring plan. Make sure you don’t forget any of those pieces. Make sure that you review the final pdf before it gets submitted – especially if you have a lot of figures or diagrams (sometimes certain programs don’t render these correctly when converting to pdf).
Sign up to review
A lot of young researchers seem unsure about this. But basically, if you have finished your Ph.D., you can review for NSF. They have some advice for how to do this buried on their website somewhere, but the easiest thing to do is to create a short version of your CV (about 2 pages) that highlights the kind of work that you do and your areas of expertise and send it to a program officer in a relevant area, letting him or her know that you are interested in volunteering to be on a review panel. If that specific program officer doesn’t need someone with your expertise for their panels, they usually pass along your information to their colleagues to see if someone else does. Being on a review panel was one of the most interesting and valuable experiences I have had in terms of learning how to write grant proposals and discuss research projects. You get to see things from the other side, learn about lots of cutting edge research and ideas, meet people in related fields, and most importantly, see what parts of the proposal are most important during those funding conversations.
In general, the world of academia and research includes a lot of rejection: rejected conference proposals, rejected journal articles, and unfunded research proposals. Research proposals are notoriously hard to get funded. The acceptance rates at NSF are in the single digits in some programs (overall, NSF’s acceptance rate is around 28%). All of this rejection requires a thick skin and an optimistic outlook. Whenever you get reviews back from a proposal, try to use the feedback constructively to either make improvements to your funded project or to write an even better proposal next time.