Tips for writing grant proposals

Hi fellow academics of all stages! Today I come to talk to you about a topic that is so troublesome for all of us: grant proposal writing! When we are kids, we imagine science as this perfect environment in the lab to find out the next big thing. However, to be able to do this, you need money. How do you get money? Well, you need to apply for grants and all sorts of bureaucracies that come with it, which limits a bit the time devoted to science itself. And we all know the frustration of writing a proposal for funding of any sorts, devoting so much time and research to it, only to have it denied. Yes, it’s a competitive world, folks. We could all use some tips to help us, no?

Earlier this month I attented a free workshop at Instituto Superior Técnico, Lisbon (my alma mater for the record) hosted by Anthony Haynes, the founding director of Frontinus. Frontinus is a company that offers services to help researchers present their work more effectively and clearly. It was early on a Saturday morning and I was wondering if it would only be useful for more advanced stage researchers who have groups to manage but it turns out it was very clear and useful for every researcher. In this post I will summarize the most important topics I retained (under my interpretation and views, of course) so that you can also apply them to your writing.

You have to sell your research. It’s unavoidable

Not every “sales” operation means for money! You need to sell in the sense that you have to work hard to make your research attractive to who may fund it. Good steps for doing this is trying to explain your research in one sentence only and very straight to the point, and also explaining in this sentence two main things to your audience: why do we need it and how we can benefit from it. Keep in mind as well that not all benefits are economical, the intellectual benefits of the work are also very valuable.

Slow down!

When we see a grant proposal, at least I speak about me when I saw PhD proposals or even applying to jobs outside academia, we go straght ahead to see how we can fit this proposal and after then write to try to convince the provider to give us the grant. The organized proposed that we need to slow down our pace and move away from our research in the beginning of the process, because some steps before writing are the way to go in a more directioned way.

Research the grant sponsor website and its language

We were told that it’s a good idea to look into the website to check the mission and vision of the funding source. Even looking at public outreach tools, such as videos, that they might have, is a good idea to know the language and causes they care about. This is good to help to adapt the language of the proposal to a more or less formal setting given the one used in these outreach material. Quote the documents whenever applicable.

Discuss the proposal with a non-specialist

When reviewing proposals, the members of the commitee are often not as specialized in your topic of research as you. In order to make sure the message you want to convey comes across clearly, speak with someone that is not familiar with the topic. As someone once said to me, “pitch your thesis to your mom and dad!”. It was good advice indeed and I try to apply it to everything I present.

Get a checklist to aid you in the process

Doing this will make sure you will not forget to mention important points in anything you write. Some important things to always mention are the novelty of research, the relationship to the current context of the proposal, and also if the research is currently relevant. Read what you wrote again and check how these tick the boxes or not.

Make yourself a storyteller

This part for me was really novel and this is something I want to improve. There are some resources in the Frontinus website to help with this too, but think of yourself as a book writer and how you will entice the audience and answer their questions. All that you write should come as a solution to any proposed problem and make your writing experience memorable. Maybe reading more novels will help me be more captivating with my research!

Be your own peer reviewer

You know that thing that other scientists do to your papers and sometimes hurts? And that you also have to do to other’s works? Yeah you know, peer review. I wrote a bit about my experience with less positive peer reviews before. It is great however to do that to your own work. Step away from what you wrote for a bit and imagine yourself in the role of someone else. Even dress different clothes, go to a different work place, do what it takes to get your mind into a less grant proposal infused state! Point out the great qualities and points for improvement in some criteria like an academic journal in your area has and this might help identifying flaws in your writing process.

These were the main points I took from this excellent workshop. I want to thank Anthony Haynes from Frontinus and Gabinete de Apoio ao Tutorado of Instituto Superior Técnico for organizing the workshop. For more informations and resources, refer to the Frontinus website and also to previous articles I wrote on the subject.

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What are your favorite tips for writing grant proposals of any level? Have you had success with your applications? Best of luck! Let me know in the comment section



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