The key to a successful grant application is writing a persuasive proposal.
You must persuade the review panel at the funding body that you have planned your work carefully, that you are going to succeed, and that the findings will be useful.
So how do you persuade the panel? Here are my 4 top tips:
Tip #1. Understand who will be reviewing your application and their assessment criteria
It’s important that you find out about the specific review process for the scheme you are applying for and understand who will be reviewing your proposal, as early as possible in the writing process. Once you know who your audience is, you should then target that audience.
For example, roughly what range of expertise is likely to be represented by your review panel? Will the panel seek written comments from external reviewers who are specialised in your field to help them make a decision? Knowing your audience will help you establish which specialist terms and concepts need to be explained, and how much you need to guide your reader through the logical argument.
For some grant programs, particularly major ones, you can find out a lot about the panels by searching online. You might find interviews with panel members about what they do. Otherwise, ask someone at the funding body or your institute’s grant or program officer, or look for information on similar programs run by other funding bodies.
All panels will also have guidelines on how to assess grant proposals, and it’s crucial to find these if they’re available, and read them early on. This way, you can ensure that you meet these criteria.
Reviewers are busy people, and they will be keen to go through the pile of applications as quickly as possible. You must ensure that they can easily find the answers they are looking for, and in particular, that they can easily tell whether your proposal aligns with the objectives and principles of the scheme.
Writing a compelling Abstract or Summary, using a well-defined structure with headings to point reviewers in the right direction, and using key words from the scheme guidelines and the funding body mission will facilitate the reviewers’ job. Writing an enticing story using clear, accessible language will make reviewers’ job a little easier and more enjoyable, and they may be more inclined to write a favourable report.
Tip #2. Explain your research plan and why this research is important now
Make sure you explain any ideas that might be unfamiliar to at least some of the panel. You don’t need to give a detailed general introduction to the field, but it can help to provide a brief reminder of ideas that are fundamental to your work.
You’ll also need to explain why you’ve planned what you’ve planned. What gaps in the literature does it fill? How might it help us reach a realistic, and hopefully useful, goal for the field?
If possible, present a few realistic implications for your funder’s interests – perhaps they might benefit society, the economy or human health. In some fields, this can be tricky – particularly theoretical fields whose applications have yet to be determined – in which case the impacts you suggest might be more distant or more academic.
Tip #3. Explain the rationale behind your approach and methods
It’s essential to explain the motivation behind your overall approach, even if you think it’s obvious. For example, why did you decide to focus on copper catalysts, and not other types of catalyst? Justify your scope. What will your work add beyond what’s already available in the literature?
Similarly, you should ensure that you justify your choice of methods. Why are they the most appropriate to answer the scientific questions your proposal aims to address? It’s important to think about the questions that the review panel might have, and make sure that you include details that could have a large effect on the robustness of your conclusions. How many samples do you need for your analysis to be statistically sound and your conclusions robust? If you’re doing experimental work, will you randomize the samples or blind the analyses and, if so, how? The review panel needs to know – it could affect whether your study turns out to be reliable and reproducible.
And what if something goes wrong? This is particularly important in situations that involve uncontrollable factors, such as in clinical trials and field work. For example, you’re testing your solar array in a desert, so what will you do if there’s a sandstorm? There is no need to describe things that are never going to happen. This is all about showing the panel that you have a realistic, careful plan that accounts for a few of the most likely scenarios.
Tip #4. Show that your team has the necessary expertise to succeed
And finally, are you and your team up to the job? Can your team cover all of the relevant techniques and concepts in the work? In some grant formats, you’ll be prompted to explain this, for example in a personal statement. Even if you’re not, it’s important to include this information somewhere.
Avoid claims of superhuman powers, but also avoid underselling the relevance of your experience. If you’ve published relevant work, make sure you cite it within the text, emphasize that you did that work, and consider explaining any similarities and highlighting any techniques that you successfully applied in the previous study that you are also proposing to use here.
Peter Gorsuch is the Chief Editor for Scientific Editing at Nature Research Editing Service. The Scientific Editing service is provided by Nature Research and available to all researchers, regardless of where they publish. It offers Nature-standard editing for grant proposals , research papers, and reviews. To learn more about Scientific Editing, visit the visit the website.