#GradHacks: How to write your first research grant application

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#GradHacks: How to write your first research grant application


By Nour Al-muhtasib

Graduate school trains you to be a better scientist, and part of being a great scientist is the ability to write compelling research grants. There are different grants for various stages of your career, and many graduate students are intimidated when writing their first one.  To ensure a successful grant application there are many factors to consider. At first, this can be overwhelming, but this article will help guide you through the process. We will cover when to start, who to contact, and the writing process.

Where to start

To begin, you must find the grant which you want to apply for. Be careful to check the eligibility criteria. A couple of places to start looking are:

  •  United States
    • Go to grants.gov
    • Put in “predoctoral” into the search field
    • Download the application package for your opportunity number
  • United Kingdom
    • Check out jobs.ac.uk for a list of possible funding sources

The earlier you start, the better

Set yourself up with a reference manager once you get to graduate school. And start reading. Even if you don’t have a plan for a grant, read anything that you find interesting. Once you find the grant you are interested in, note your deadline! Some grants have hard deadlines, while others have rolling deadlines. Research your grant in detail before pursing it. If your university requires you to submit the grant to them first, they might also have additional deadlines. That being said, give yourself at least 2 months to research and write. You can write a grant in a shorter amount of time, but 2 months will give you time to edit and edit again.

Make sure to note who you need to contact

Often universities have their own internal staff that will submit the grant on your behalf. Be sure to reach out to them and give them enough time to help you out. They will also often have resources and can help you by providing templates and checklists.

Some grants require you to have letters of reference. Choose wisely and carefully. You want someone who will write you a strong letter. A polite way to go about it is to ask for “a strong letter of recommendation if you have time.” In addition to them giving you a good reference, you want to choose someone that can speak highly of you as a scientist and student. It is good to give your contacts at least one month’s notice and be sure to provide them with any relevant instructions for submitting your letter. Provide them with your resume, transcript, and a quick summary of your proposal.

Make a plan

Talk to your adviser and make a plan. Your adviser is a bank of knowledge. Utilise them!

Read the instructions. You want to make sure you follow any formatting rules and page limits. You also don’t want to miss any parts. Make a check list of all you need to write and all relevant page limits. Proposals often require you to write non-science portions. Some example of these include respective contributions, selection of sponsors, and responsible conduct of research.

Set deadlines for yourself and allow time for editing. Give yourself time to write several drafts of the grant. If you know that your mentor takes time to get back to you, keep that in mind. Ask people in and outside of your lab to read your grant. People within your lab can notice any scientific problems within it, and people outside your lab will be able to see if the grant makes sense to someone not specialised in your field. This will reflect the grant review committee composition. In addition, use any editing services available at your university. As you write, you will end up editing and re-writing a considerable proportion of your application. That is perfectly okay and part of the scientific process. As you write and plan you will see problems in the scientific method and will be able to fix it

Remember the purpose of the grant

Don’t forget the mission of the grant you are applying to. Keep your audience in mind and write it to them.  Training grants are looking for training potential (i.e. minimise time spent teaching). Talk to other students that have submitted grants and learn about the feedback they got. Ask to see if they are willing to share their grants. Remember to keep it confidential. This will help you get an idea of what grant committees are looking for. If the science writing gets overwhelming, take breaks to write any non-science portions. It’s important not to disregard these sections. Use them to sell yourself, institution, and mentors. Writing these sections will show you how awesome you are. It will also give you the opportunity to talk to your mentor about your future.

The writing process

Aim for great aims. Your aims page is the most important portion. It is the trailer for your grant and is what is going to capture the attention of your reader. Write it, edit it, change everything, write it again, and repeat the process again until you get something you love. If your proposal has multiple aims, do not make them dependent on each other. You want a strong proposal that you can do a portion of, even if part of it fails.

Avoid change. The word that is. It holds very little meaning. State exactly what you think will change. On that note, have a directional hypothesis. Meaning don’t say “If I don’t eat my appetite will change.” Say: “If I don’t eat, I will get hungry.”

Utilise information within your lab. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Your lab has a history of writing grants. Take advantage of that. This becomes especially important for the sections about facilities, animal housing and treatment, and methods. More importantly, you should care about these sections to be a successful scientist.

Be excited about what you are writing. If you aren’t excited, the readers won’t be either. Remember that whoever is reading your grant has only a few minutes to do so. You must be able to capture their attention in that time span.

Edit, edit, and edit again. Send the manuscript to as many people as possible to read and get feedback. Read it aloud to make ensure it makes sense.  

The end

You have reached the end! Submit your grant or have the designated internal people do so. Get confirmation of submission. Celebrate! Recognise that you have done something amazing and this is a major milestone in your career as a scientist. 

About the author

Nour is a PhD candidate in Pharmacology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Her work focuses on alterations in neuronal inhibition in the striatum of mice that overexpress MMP-1. Other topics she is passionate about include science education and communication, cats, and french fries. You can find her on twitter at @Nouronal

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