Early grant writing tips

Grant writing. Before graduate school, you never think about this. At least I didn’t. Thankfully, I had an advisor that taught me how to secure my own funding. Even more beneficial, he taught a class that introduced graduate students to the basics of academia: grant writing, presentation skills, and C.V. construction.

Learning how to write a grant was slow going because I’ve always been an artistic story-telling type of writer. I still do when I can write freely, but not for grants. As a fresh M.S. student, he communicated upcoming grant deadlines to my lab mate and I. We wrote up what we thought was a near masterpiece (because you certainly don’t want to hand your advisor slop) and he would return it with an unbelievable amount of comments and highlights through the track changes feature. Before electronic document editing, I don’t even want to think about the turnaround time on a grant proposal.

The hardest part of securing funding for a new research excursion is the blank page. Many papers need to be read and synthesized to really get a handle on the material so you can write about it eloquently, but succinctly. I’ve been in my Ph.D. program for 6 months and because I switched gears from reptile physiology to amphibian disease I had the blank page. I thought I would give a couple pointers that have made my grant writing experience so much more successful and “enjoyable”, for lack of a better word.

  1. Use a filing system for your literature that works for you. In my M.S. program I didn’t do this and I ended up having to reread many papers. Now, I use an excel spreadsheet where I keep the authors, title, date, keywords (relevant to my questions), and a one line summary of important points. I also summarize each article on a piece of a paper and on a notecard, but that may be overkill. Excel is my best friend.
  2. Start with an outline. This may be obvious for most but the first time I went in ‘guns-a-blazin’ and just wrote everything I knew with the outline in my head. It doesn’t help with point #3.
  3. Hourglass. The grant should have a clear hourglass trend where the reviewer can be taken from the big picture problem to the minute details of your specific question/hypotheses. You should then relate your question to the big picture again and the broader impacts it will have on science.
  4. Hypotheses. Too many studies do not get funded because the hypotheses are not completely obvious to the reader. I bold mine.
  5. Broader Impacts. This is a big one. Even if the directions don’t imply that they want this, it shows them that you’re thinking on a big picture scale. A brief sentence or two on this is icing on the cake.
  6. Don’t get attached to your sentences. Eventually, you’ll write a grant of every length. Multi-page proposals, 1 to 2 pagers, and a 500-word maximum. After all of the reading, thinking, and development of your idea into a beautiful 2-page proposal it is really difficult to hack out sentences that you authored and consider important. A nice stout or IPA helps me get through this painful process.
  7. Formatting is key. If the instructions indicate “reasonable margins” you may be able to play around with giving yourself some more space. Also, utilize the line spacing-formatting feature. Making the space between paragraphs 0.5 gives you a few extra sentences.

There are, of course, plenty of tips and tricks every academic learns along the way, mostly by trial and error (aka rejection), but these are some of the biggies. The other members on this blog may have other tips to contribute that they find important? If any newish graduate students read this, I hope they find it helpful. I know I found myself googling suggestions and examples in the beginning.


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