Friday, November 02, 2012

Friendly advice for writing your first grant application, actually first edition

As a first year graduate student studying birds in a university natural history museum, I largely failed to learn how to make a decent specimen out of a dead bird. While there are many reasons for my failure, including a lack of aptitude and a lack of effort, at the time it felt impossible in part because the ornithology curator who was teaching a group of us how to do it was just too good at it. She would hold up the dead bird, make a tiny incision in its belly, and then her hands would spin around it and the entire carcass of the bird would be outside of its now inverted skin, which she would hold up to show us. Then she’d grab some bits of wood and cotton, and again her hands would whirl around the bird for a few seconds, after which the bird would be right-side out and restored to a life-like shape, its feathers unruffled, its head turned to the side just so and toes overlapping, as though it was patiently listening for something. I would try to repeat this process on my assigned dead bird, would screw it up somehow, and she would come over, sigh, take the bird for a few seconds and hand it back to me, several steps ahead from where I was. Then she would say, “See?”

I never did learn, or make it in ornithology. From this I learned that of the great challenges of good teaching is that you have to know the topic well, be interested in it and have a strong aptitude for it, but you also have to be able remember what it was like to not know it at all empathize with those with less inherent aptitude.

At the time, I was also learning to write grant applications. I wrote several that first year in grad school, none of which were funded. This was partly because the ideas behind the proposal weren’t well worked out, but partly because I didn’t really know what I was doing as a grant-writer. I have now written a lot of different grant applications, lets guess 40, almost every one to a different funding source. I don’t know that I can claim to know the topic well enough to teach it, or to have a particularly strong aptitude, but I can well remember what it feels like to not know where to begin, which is a very good place to start. So with that in mind, I’m going to offer some thoughts for those trying to write their first research grant applications. I’ve recently written what I learned about applying for grants from NIH and ERC. This is going to be a lot more basic.

First, consider this picture of the time my wife turned into a giant and flattened part of southern Denmark. Pretty cool, huh? Not even Photoshopped.

Okay, now down to business.

1. Don't panic. There is a good chance it seems to you at this point like you are somehow supposed to know how grant-writing is done, and that everyone around you magically knows how to do it, but there is a good chance that no one has ever provided you with any guidance on the subject. Or at least that is where I was at when I was in your shoes. Ask for help and advice frequently. Several times during the process, have people read what you are doing so they can point out your mistakes. There is a whole culture that you haven't been initiated to, and you need a guide. The basic formula for a grant application goes like this: there is a fundamentally important question that we don't know enough about. Here is what the question is and why it is so important. Here is the piece of that question I can address, how I would address it, why that is the right way to do it, why it is feasible and why it won't fail to answer the question. Here is why I am the right person to do it. I need these resources for this part of the plan, and can't do the work without them. Reiterate the importance of the question and your future results.

2. The place to start with a grant application is to have a question you need money to answer. While that may seem horrendously obvious, I have known a fair number of graduate students who were told to apply for a certain grant, or many grants, but didn’t have a clear conception of what they needed the money for. Either the question was ill-defined (as was mine that first year) or it wasn’t really clear what the money was needed for.

3. Writing grants is a pain in the ass, and there are very few academics who wouldn’t rather be spending their time on research. We do it because we need to. That said, writing grant applications is tremendously useful to your research planning, because it gives you a hard-deadline and strict format in which you have to clearly state your research plans in a succinct and clear way. My research plans have often improved dramatically through the process of writing them into an application. Some universities require graduate students to submit a detailed research proposal before starting work on their theses. This serves the same purpose.

4. The two most common types of funding you may be applying for are for research costs and for your own stipend or salary. Small grants available to students usually focus on research costs, fellowships usually fund only stipend or salary and related costs, although some do both or are for funding travel to conferences or other specific costs. Every granting agency has rules for what each grant can or can’t be used for, and so what you apply for depends on what you need to fund.

5. There are an effectively infinite number of organizations that at least occasionally give research grants, but the chance that any one of them is the one you need to apply for is almost infinitely small. This makes finding the grants you should be applying for very difficult. The way to go about this is to avoid doing what I did. I wasted a huge amount of time online looking at listing of things I could apply for, examining the websites of various foundations, etc. Instead, ask people at your university what other students have applied for successfully. Ask faculty, other students, and the administrative staff. Most every university has people whose job it is to shepherd grant applications.

6. Whenever possible, get a copy of someone's successful grant application. Get several if you can. The instructions for every grant are different, so it is best if the application you are reading is for the same grant you are applying for. That said, there is a certain grant-like style that you will find in most applications.

7. Know your audience. Most research grants are evaluated by a small group of very busy researchers who have to get through a big pile of applications and find just a few to fund. Find out as much as you can about who these people are, and design your grant to grab their interest, and tailor it to (or slightly below) their level of knowledge of your field.

8. You need to convince them that your ideas are compelling and sound, your goals achievable and the whole thing in line with the purpose for which the grant is given. You also need to convince them that you are the person to do it. Doing all of this is harder in less space than in more. When you only have a page or two, as is often the case with the grants available to students, you can't get bogged down in the details. Your writing needs to be crisp and to the point. I often write much more than I need and then edit it down repeatedly. No matter how much time you put into writing a section, if you find it isn't necessary, cut it.

9. Beware of giving too much methodological detail. The committee reviewing the grants generally won't care what concentration your solution will be at, where you will order the food pellets or what software package you will use to analyze your data. That said, if one of those details is key to understanding what you plan to do, of course you need to include it.

10. Try to write it long enough in advance that you can set it aside and come back to it a few days later, perhaps more than once. Once you've worked it over more than a few times, you need some time away from it before you can really see it again. Very good writers can produce very bad writing when they've lost their ability to take a step back and just read.

That's my ten cents (inflation). I'm sure there are things I've missed, but those are the main lessons that I can remember learning. Good luck. Now quit browsing the internet and get back to writing.

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