When applying for funding, researchers typically focus on emphasizing the feasibility, novelty, and significant implications of their work. However, contrary to expectation, research (whether published, planned, or preliminary) is not the sole consideration in grant proposal writing. If three factors beyond the research itself are neglected, a proposal based on new and exciting ideas may not be funded. In this article, we outline tips for strengthening your grant application by considering your audience, consulting with your peers, and endorsing yourself. Although we focus on grant proposals, particularly in the sciences, many of these tips may apply to fellowship applications and dissertation prospectuses.
Your audience is a panel of referees who will assess your proposal on the funding agency's behalf. These reviewers are often not experts in your specific field, so you should explicitly define all technical terms, clearly explain your methods, and provide thorough background for your research question. However, these reviewers are still intelligent researchers, so avoid oversimplification while maintaining clarity. Readability, in terms of both formatting (such as legible font style and size) and writing (such as avoiding jargon), increases the professionalism of your proposal and its likelihood of being seriously considered by referees.
As reviewers handle substantial quantities of proposals, assume that they are selective readers who are keen to rapidly reduce the pile of applications. Thus, you should carefully craft the abstract (and summary, if applicable), which may be the first, main, and/or only section that reviewers read, serving as a rapid gauge of the entire proposal. Additionally, proofread thoroughly and adhere to the mission and guidelines of the funding agency, as a related error or omission could justify the rejection of your submission by a harried referee. To ensure that every requirement is addressed, consider maintaining a list of to-do items that you check off as you write. You can learn about specific guidelines by reviewing the funding organization's website, contacting the organization's officers, and communicating with your institutional grant office. Additional ways to tailor your grant proposal to an individual funding agency are to integrate keywords from its mission and instructions (such as “broader impact”) as you write and to familiarize yourself with the agency's preferences. For example, the NSF is known to favor basic science over applied science, whereas the NIH welcomes both types of research.
Finally, think of reviewers not only as non-expert and selective readers but also as rushed and/or forgetful due to their high-volume workload. Reiterating your main points and aims, bolding or underlining your hypothesis, and focusing on the most meaningful and relevant experiments will help your reader to quickly understand the value of your proposed work.
Your peers are a precious source of information and input. You should request feedback from colleagues early and frequently, even if you have only written a summary. Senior researchers who have successfully applied for the same funding can evaluate whether the content, organization, and style of your proposal are appropriate. Speak with your institutional grant office or refer to funding agencies' databases, such as NIH RePORTER, to identify past grant recipients at your institution. Moreover, researchers in fields other than your own can provide a non-specialist perspective on the clarity of your proposal, further preparing your work for formal review.
A major goal in grant proposal writing is to demonstrate that you are well prepared to achieve your specific aims. Therefore, beyond outlining your research, you should highlight your ability as an independent researcher, such as by including references to your past publications, by mentioning your unique technical competence in a specific method, by describing alternative approaches that convey your ability to handle obstacles and unexpected outcomes, and even by using powerful verbs. New investigators can also detail their start-up funding and differentiate their research focus from that of their post-doctoral advisor to demonstrate capability as an independent researcher.
An additional, compelling indicator of your skill is well-designed aims, which reflect your knowledge of the research topic as well as your familiarity with the research process, including its volatility. Thus, your aims should be directly relevant to your hypothesis; feasible; and independent, meaning that if one is not successful, the others can still be pursued. A high-reward yet high-risk aim, if included, should be preceded by more clearly achievable aims.
We hope that today's editing tip has illuminated important considerations in grant proposal writing. If you have any questions, please email us at [email protected]. Best of luck with your proposal writing!