How to Write a Successful Grant Proposal
Research budgets are getting tighter. Funding agencies are enforcing stricter guidelines and restrictions. All the while, few researchers receive formal training on how to write effective grant applications. Here we improve your career prospects as a researcher by writing better grant proposals.
Updated on May 26, 2022
Research budgets have become more stressed, while funding agencies enforce strict guidelines and restrictions. At the same time, few researchers receive formal training on how to write effective grant applications. Writing better grant proposals will hugely improve your career prospects as a researcher.
Grant writing is especially challenging if you're an early-career researcher and/or English isn't your first language. However, it's not rocket science (unless it's a grant for researching rocket science). You can get what you want if you know how to get it.
Here we outline the key components of a successful grant proposal to help you navigate the intricacies of the application process, including:
- Searching for and identifying grant opportunities
- Writing and reviewing a grant proposal
- What to do after you submit your proposal
What's a grant proposal and why do you need one?
A grant proposal or application is a document (or set of documents) addressed to an organization or funding agency to get funding for a research project.
Grant proposals differ widely across the scientific disciplines, but there are general tips that work universally.
A successful grant proposal can be a key to achieving your research goals by getting money. But writing a grant application also offers many indirect benefits, such as:
- If you're a researcher on a fixed-term contract, getting funding can extend your contract.
- You can use a successful grant proposal to take on a temporary position with another research group or institution.
- Receiving a research grant can mean that an expert review panel views your research ideas as better than others.
Conducting pre-proposal research
The efforts you put in before you send your proposal can improve your chances of acceptance a great deal. You'll hone in on what you really need and you'll see ways of successfully getting it. Think ahead and you'll benefit.
Competition for grants has never been tougher.
Look at the European Commission's Horizon 2020 program. Horizon is the EU's most extensive research and innovation program. Nearly 80 billion euros (~US$84 billion)in funding was set aside in 2014–2020.
A Nature article shows that EU Horizon 2020 reported a 14% success rate for its first 100 calls for proposals—submissions to some categories had lower success rates.
Don't play the short game, think longer-term
Considering those odds, it's critical to start the process early. Give yourself at least 4–6 months to put your proposal together.
To increase your chances of success, before you begin drafting your grant proposal, you need to develop a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and anchored within a Timeframe) plan for what you want to do and why you want to do it.
View samples of successful grant proposals
Look at what's worked (and what hasn't) and you'll save yourself time repeating other people's mistakes. Look for previous proposals you can get from your:
- University library
- Trusted peers
- Supervisor or mentor
- Past or prospective funding body
- Online sites and databases
For example, on Open Grants, you can read 250+ grant proposals, both successful and unsuccessful, for free.
Focus on samples of successful proposals in your discipline or applications that have obtained the grant you're applying for. But don't overlook the failures. Read them critically and think how you can do better.
Identifying a grant opportunity and pitching your proposal
Just like choosing the right school, scientific niche, and journal to publish your research, you're seeking the right grant for your future work.
Search grant databases
The easiest way to find grant opportunities is via a database. Although some require a subscription, they can do in seconds what could take days of Googling. This is also a much easier way to organize and keep track of grant opportunities.
Pivot, Scientifyresearch, and ResearchConnect are free, structured databases providing global funding information. They also guide you on how to navigate their interface and use filters (scientific field, submission deadline, allocated budget, etc.) to refine your results.
Evaluate requirements in the solicitation
Finding the right funding body takes more than researching available grants. It takes a critical eye.
If you're unclear about what they're looking for, then writing that grant application may not be worth your time. And knowing that will save you time.
Once you decide to apply for funding, read the grant guidelines carefully. Stick to the suggested structure (e.g., subheadings), format (e.g., font), and language (terminology used).
While reading the instructions, make a list of everything needed for submission, and who on your side will be responsible for gathering this information.
Understand the sponsor's scoring system
Find out how the grant will be evaluated. This will ensure your proposal is tailored to the assessment criteria. For example, the UK Research and Innovation scoring matrix is based on
- Scientific quality and impact
- Scientific leadership
- Justification of resources
- Other: ethical and governance issues
The deadline is also a critical factor, not just in terms of being on time. If it's in three weeks, it might not be worth your time trying to prepare a proposal. As noted above, it's more realistic to think in months rather than weeks. You'll save yourself wasted time, not to mention stress.
Identify the funder's mission
Granting agencies don't exist solely to give out money. Their priorities vary based on their foundations' missions. Research the organization to see if its mission statement closely aligns with your project and target your request to their mission.
Among others, the Economic and Social Research Council funding priorities now include understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals, groups, and institutions in society. So, a medical researcher studying the impact of COVID-19 on neonatal mortality is better off targeting a different funder.
For example, the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Research focuses on health and social care research.
Make friends with the program manager
Directly contact the granting source if you've read the grant instructions and you're still not sure if your project is eligible. Making a human connection is generally a good thing, unless they specifically indicate they don't want to be contacted. In this regard, it's quite like a job application and networking.
They'll have a dedicated grants officer (maybe called a program manager or director) helping applicants like you. Beyond clearing up what's eligible and what's not, developing a relationship with them can help build their confidence in you and your work.
Note that the role of the program manager varies greatly among granting agencies. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, encourages young researchers to contact program managers. It offers step-by-step instructions on whom you should contact and how.
In some smaller foundations, however, program officers are very busy and might discourage you from getting in touch. To figure this out, you need to research the sponsor's culture on a case-by-case basis.
Make friends with your research support office
Writing a grant proposal doesn't have to be a solo journey. Your institution will likely have a research support office/department (also called a sponsored research office).
These valuable folks can give administrative help with the grant submission process. They'll be able to help fill out relevant forms and double-check that the proposal meets the granting agency's guidelines.
Writing the main body of your grant proposal
All the agencies, people, and processes of grant writing are crucial. But the fundamental part of any grant application remains the written proposal itself.
To get your grant, you need to make a strong case for the importance of your research, particularly regarding community benefit and social impact.
Prove your research will solve real-world problems
Many researchers don't put much thought into the real-world relevance of their work. Yet, most funders want to finance proposals that promise to solve society's biggest challenges.
Before you draft your proposal, you need to consider how your research will confer value to society.
You want to be able to argue that it might save lives or money, improve people's well-being, or have another tangible impact.
Team up with project partners
Involving suitable research collaborators can also increase your chance of success.
If you're conducting cancer research, you could liaise with hospital clinicians or an association against a particular type of cancer. You could team up with a museum or heritage foundation if you're a history researcher. This will help translate your research into practice.
You don't have to go far to find collaborators. Start from your peers and direct contacts or links that your institution or research group might have.
Networking with fellow researchers or industry representatives in your field in conferences and seminars will also help you identify suitable grant collaborators. You can also look for them when you go through previously funded research projects.
Involve peers from relevant disciplines
Interdisciplinary research is seen as innovative because insights from each field contribute to the others. This extends the impact across different scientific specialties and across society.
For example, if you're a social psychologist studying drivers' perceptions of speeding risks. Involving researchers in transport studies, engineering, and related disciplines, not to mention community organizations and law enforcement, will make your proposal look more robust. And it'll actually be more robust.
Adopt research storytelling
Grant proposals can all start to sound the same for those who read and assess them. They're like job applications. As the applicant, you need to set yourself apart and inspire the reader.
You can do this by marketing yourself and your science in an engaging story. Spend less time formulating complex research questions and more time stressing how your research will benefit society. Providing an effective solution will give the reviewers positive emotions. It's like storytelling.
Getting some science communication training will help with this. Try using free science-storytelling tools, like Message Box. This easy-to-use solution lets you convey the information in your head about your work in ways that resonate with your audience. Start by reading real Message Boxes.
Set realistic research questions
A common mix-up among first-time applicants is that promising lots of work will make your proposal look better. It might be tempting to argue that you can solve these big, challenging problems in a single project. But, realistically, that's not often feasible.
For a 2–3-year project, have no more than four research questions. Even after you have proposed these, you'll have just enough space to provide a literature review, a research plan, and a list of expected impacts for each question.
Gather supplementary documents
The proposal itself is the core document, but it's the product of many supporting documents.
Describe the research environment
Other than your expertise, the funders will also want to confirm if you (or your research team) have the capacity to deliver the proposed project successfully.
Do you have access to the necessary facilities to complete the project? This might include access to a university library, to laboratory resources and equipment, or to your study population.
Your proposal needs to prove that you have everything required to start and complete the proposed research project successfully (within time and budget). You cannot be too thorough here.
Create biosketches for the research team
Most funding agencies and institutions ask for a biographical sketch (biosketch): a simplified version of the research team members' CVs. Biosketches stress team members' expertise and experience related to the research project.
Agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation both use standard biosketch formats that are regularly updated. They even provide tools to help you create your biosketch and format it according to NIH requirements.
We can't reprint them here, but you can view NIH sample biosketches here.
However, foundations and industry sponsors also set specific requirements for your CV/Biosketches. Follow these precisely.
Create a project timeline
Explain the timeframe for the research project in some detail. When will you begin and complete each step? Presenting a visual version of your timeline makes it easier to understand.
For complex multi-year research proposals, a timeline diagram can clarify the study's feasibility and planning (see below).
Here's a sample timeline to give you a general idea.
Gather supporting documentation
The supporting documents you'll need entirely depend on the sponsors' requirements. Most often, these include a cover letter, letters of support, and CVs.
Write the executive summary
The executive summary (abstract) outlines the most critical elements of your proposal in a condensed form. For longer proposals, you may be able to use a whole page. For others, you'll have to stick to just one paragraph. Either way, tell the reviewers:
- What's the goal of your project, the need you're addressing, and/or the real-world problem you're solving?
- What are your project's projected outcomes and broader impact, and how will you achieve them?
- How will you evaluate your project's success?
- Who are you, and why do you deserve this funding?
Let the mission and funding proprieties of the granting agency inform your abstract. Although the summary is the first part of your proposal, it's best to write it at the end. In the same way, it's best to write your manuscript abstract after writing your manuscript. That's the point where you have all your details, your entire story. Now you just have to write it out in a concise and accessible way.
Develop a grant budget
The funder will want to know precisely how you plan to spend their money. They want to ensure that your research project's cost-effective and that you've considered the actual costs of running your project.
In their calls for proposals, agencies provide information on the number of grants expected to be funded and the estimated size of each grant award. This information should inform the creation of your budget.
Meet with the grant office to talk through expenses
As mentioned, most institutions have grant administrators who can work with you to create the budgets and complete any budget forms required by the funder. If you're awarded the grant, they are most likely to manage these budgets.
In preparing a grant budget, there are three main considerations:
- Policies and requirements of the funding agency
- Policies of your institution
- Costs related to each project task
Knowing these rules before developing a grant application will save you time. The grant office can help you understand them, plus translate your project's goal and objectives into money.
Budgets are typically formatted in tables and figures. They contain three components:
- Direct costs
- Facilities and administrative costs
- Institutional commitments
The latter describes your institution's agreement to share the expenses of a research project with the funding body.
Each component is divided into separate categories.
For example, direct costs refer to expenses linked to the performance of specific activities and the resources needed to deliver the project. These often comprise:
- Personnel: research project team members' salaries
- External consultants: e.g., you might need an expert adviser to do a cost-benefit analysis for your project
- Equipment: furniture or laboratory equipment
- Travel expenses: transportation, accommodation, and/or daily subsistence costs
Create and justify a budget
On top of providing a line-by-line budget, you'll need to justify each expense. This involves a brief explanation for each line item in your budget. When writing this, follow the order in which budget items are presented.
In computing your budget, be as realistic as possible.
If your proposed budget is under the grant limit, think bigger. Think about how your research plans could be better, such as by choosing a bigger population sample or conducting more experiments.
If your estimated budget is over the available limit, you may be proposing too much. Think about removing a research question or staff involved.
The following is a sample 12-month research project budget (in which the university and sponsor share project expenses):
Budget Period: 10/15/2022 to 10/14/2023
Create a budget timeline
You've established your project's specific aims. Now it's time to create a timeline of key activities and specify when each activity will be completed. This is key to the construction of a sound budget.
Imagine you're proposing a two-year study. You plan to enroll 80 research participants over 12 months (around six people monthly). You'll interview each one for 1 hour in their home.
In year one, you'll need to budget for recruiting and interviewing study participants and traveling to their houses. In year two, though, the project won't involve such activities. Instead, the budget might reflect data entry, analyses, and report generation.
Get down to specifics. Explain yourself clearly. Show your plan.
Finalize, review, and polish your proposal
Think like the reviewer (just like you need to think like a journal editor when you submit a manuscript, or a job interviewer when you're trying to get hired).
Suppose you're tired and hungry. You've got multiple applications to read in a short period. How can you make it as easy as possible for the reviewers?
No matter how innovative your ideas are, sloppy or unfocused writing can hide them.
Use clear, concise, and accessible language. Flow clearly from one idea to the next. Use a “plain” word instead of a “smart-sounding” one.
Compare these pairs of sentences:
Bad: I propose dissecting the wartime mnemonic practices of externally displaced Afghan populations.
Better: I would like to see how Afghan refugees remember and talk about the war in their country.
Bad: I aim to explore the heterogeneity of forest ecosystems in spatial and temporal recovery following numerous turbulences.
Better: I hope to see what occurs when a forest grows back after being logged, burned, and cultivated.
Avoiding scientific jargon will help you tell your story from the heart, in words that many more people can understand. Take that type of thinking into your manuscript writing, and you'll increase your research impact.
Use reader-friendly formatting
Along with omitting jargon, formatting also increases readability.
White space, bold headings, standard fonts, and illustrations all make proposals easier to read. Widening margins and reducing the font size to 9-point (or less!) to squeeze in more text may add detail. But it also makes your document harder to read.
Organize ideas with numbered lists. Lists are easier to scan and encourage succinctness. Preface the lists with phrases like, “This project's three main goals are:” or “This work will involve four stages:”
Make sure your English is grammatically correct and readable
Spelling errors, bad grammar, unnatural word choice, exceeding the word limit... these issues can make the reader doubt how rigorous your research is. They might also wonder how careful you'll be with their money.
English errors can result from both a lack of English skills and from hurried writing.
Apart from the usual advice about getting a professional edit or proofread, and using a grammar tool, allow plenty of time. If you wait until the last day, week, or even month to prepare your grant, you're almost guaranteed to make language mistakes.
Even if you're a good writer, you'll probably miss a chance to write something more clearly, remove jargon and idioms, and have a consistent, professional tone.
Once your proposal's clearly written and you've edited it until it seems “perfect,” set it aside for a week. Yes, you're in a hurry, but you'll benefit from this break.
Then go back to it and edit/proofread/revise. Better yet, do it twice.
Get lots of feedback
Peer review is key to all research funding applications.
Even if you follow the advice outlined above, there might still be unclear bits of your proposal (at least to some). To strengthen your proposal, get other people to read it. Don't limit yourself to colleagues from your field. They'll probably be familiar with research jargon and methods.
- Former grant recipients
- The funding agency you're applying to
- Trusted peers in your field
They'll all help you learn more about what successful grant proposals look like in your career stage.
The more feedback you receive, and from a greater variety of people, the better. Arrange early on when and which person will look at your proposal and revise the proposal after each set of feedback.
Life after grant submission
There's no guarantee of funding, no matter how strong your application is. In fact, rejection is common because of the tough competition (see above).
Even renowned scientists aren't always successful.
The Nature article cited above notes that on the day molecular biologist Dr. Carol Greider was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, she learned her recently submitted grant proposal got the thumbs down. Wonder how that grant funder felt when they read the news the next day!
So, even if your proposal ends up not getting funded, the process of planning and writing is valuable, to say the least. Why? Because…
- You'll generate new ideas.
- You'll expand your horizons by talking to peers or involving project partners.
- You may even decide there's a better way to do your study or another research question that's important for you.
Grant writing can be frustrating and tiring, especially if you're an early-career researcher and not used to it.
Take your time to learn from past rejections and negative feedback. It will increase your chances of nailing your next grant proposal.
Need help with your grant proposal? We can create a concise and polished proposal according to the funder's requirements while communicating the impact of your proposed research project. Learn more about our grant services.
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