Write better grants: Three ways to give your research proposal an edge over the competition

Author: Cassi Wattenburger

If you’re a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher in the sciences, you almost certainly understand the difficult funding climate that scientists face. In fiscal year 2016, the average funding rate for National Science Foundation (NSF) grants was only 16% (Figure 1), and fellowship applications typically have a 15% success rate. On top of this, US government research budgets remain stagnant year after year. Whether in academia, government, or private research, securing funding is a perennial problem. But, what if I told you that you could greatly increase your personal chances of winning a grant? We took advice from successful grant-winner, Dan Buckley, a professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department at Cornell, whose funding rates range between 66% and 75%. So, what is his secret to success?

Dr. Dan Buckley. Photo Credit: Susi Varvayanis

“Aim to write a top 25% grant, then your chances of funding drastically increase.”

Due to the limited number of proposals that a granting organization can fund, only the very best grants will have any chance. If you write a grant within that third quartile of quality, you are effectively competing with a much smaller pool of fundable proposals and the odds are in your favor. On the flipside, any grants ranked below that top percentage drop precipitously in their chances. So, how do you consistently get your big ideas into that top 25% bracket? Easier said than written, right? Good research ideas can take you most of the way, but your writing can set you apart. Here are a few simple points Dr. Buckley described that many failed grants don’t get right.

1. Know your audience.

The problem with grants is that you have a lot to say with very few words. Knowing your audience (in this case, the reviewers) in terms of their depth of knowledge in your field and the terminology that they like/dislike, will go a long way towards helping you write an optimal grant proposal. Giving your reviewers too much information will annoy them but missing the important points will give them cause to doubt your proposal. Keywords can be deadly, too. Dr. Buckley described to us, with dismay, how a brilliant grant proposal he once reviewed involving microbial evolution tanked because the evolutionary biologists on the panel got caught up on the applicant’s use of the word “species”.

The best way to know your audience is to become part of it; ask to be part of a grant review panel sometime.

2. Write well!

Figure 1: NSF funding rate per year and field. Trendline depicts average yearly funding rate. CISE: Computer and Information Science and Engineering, EHR: Education and Human Resources, GEO: Geosciences, MPS: Mathematical and Physical Sciences, OPP: Office of Polar Programs, SBE: Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. Data source: https://catalog.data.gov/dataset/nsf-funding-rate-history. Graph Credit: Liz Mahood and Susi Varvayanis.

This boils down to brevity. Giving your reviewers the right information is the first step, reducing your word count is the next. Long sentences with many prepositions and confused subjects are difficult for readers to grasp. Poor writing makes the reviewer put in extra effort parsing the sentences that you should have already done. The harder your ideas are to understand, no matter how good those ideas are, the lower your chances of funding become. Writing well takes time and many drafts. Dr. Buckley recommends you spend at least one to two months on each grant application. He also stresses the importance of practicing and reflecting on your writing regularly, even when you aren’t applying for grants.

3. Good salesmanship.

“It’s like turning in your book report with an apple for the teacher.”
-Dan Buckley

Make your grant application look great. Use appropriate font sizes, bolding, italics, and white space so that your text is effortless to read. Use figures to express ideas whenever you can, and make them simple, attractive, and understood at a glance. When all else is equal and the funding tight, the exciting, easy read is probably going to be favored. Of course, the success you’re met with when applying these tips is predicated entirely on your idea being great in the first place. However, ignoring these points can kill even the best ideas in review. Knowing your audience, writing well, and good salesmanship can help your awesome ideas stand apart from the rest, and lead to a happy, prosperous scientific career, whether that be in academia, government, non-profit or beyond.

Additional resources:

If you’re interested in more specific details about how to organize and craft a grant, see the comprehensive advice available here. Cornell also offers resources for grad students and post-doctoral researchers writing grants, such as Writing Bootcamps and Grad Write Ins at the Big Red Barn on Fridays from 8-11 am. Check out your department’s internal grants and SPIN for funding opportunities.