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.

Networking at Joint Pathways to Success and BEST Symposium

By Luisa Torres, PhD

Professional development is an important part of student life.  In the tough job market for people with PhDs, there is a need for aspiring professionals to market themselves well to beat the competition.  The Pathways to Success (P2S) and 5th annual BEST symposium, that took place on June 6th, 2018 on Cornell’s main campus, was aimed at helping with this effort.  Attendees learned about careers in government and industry, identifying transferrable skills, using social media, conducting informational interviews, and building professional networks to learn about different career paths.  “Our hope was to engage grad students and postdocs from all fields to help them realize their skills are needed in a broad variety of careers, whether in government or non-governmental organizations, in consulting or industry, whether they are internationals or want to become academics,” says the Executive Director of the BEST program, Susi Varvayanis.

This was the first time the BEST Program’s annual symposium was fully integrated with the graduate school pathways to success framework. “Pathways to Success is the Graduate School’s comprehensive professional development platform,” explains Sara Xayarath Hernandez, Associate Dean for Inclusion and Student Engagement. It includes four focus areas: Navigate Academia, Build Your Skills, Create Your Plan, and Prepare for Your Career. “Many of these programs also support the development of one or more of the transferable skills that are part of the Pathways to Success framework, such as developing an entrepreneurial mindset, and skills in leadership, resilience, communications, and more,” Associate Dean Hernandez says.

Associate Dean Hernandez explaining the P2S framework. Photo: Susi Varvayanis

The symposium featured a variety of speakers, many of which were Cornell graduates interested in giving back to the Cornell community.  The organization of the event was a collaborative effort between the sponsors, which included regular meetings to decide on the structure, format and content. The organizers considered participant feedback from previous symposiums and requests from graduate students and postdocs to decide what topics to cover during the event and which speakers to invite.

I witnessed many positive interactions between the attendees and the speakers, and several of the invited panelists asked for an additional information session for recruiting PhDs to their company. I saw many of them having conversations with students and postdocs both after the lunch hour and the networking session. Sabrina Solouki, 4th year graduate student in the department of Immunology and Infectious disease interested in patent law, met Dr. Elysa Goldberg, a patent attorney at Regeneron and one of the symposium panelists. “We talked for about an hour after lunch. She put me in contact with another girl who is partner at a patent firm. I like the fact that I got to meet people that were willing to help me. I’m going to make it my goal to take advantage of the fact that most people want to help when they can,” says Sabrina.

Dr. Ana Maria Porras, a postdoctoral researcher from the department of Biomedical Engineering, says that “the symposium gave me the skills and information I needed to expand my current efforts as a postdoctoral researcher beyond the laboratory into outreach settings both through social media and in person.”  She had the opportunity to connect with Gemima Philippe, communications associate at AAAS and one of the speakers, with whom she still interacts on social media.

Although the symposium included networking time with the speakers, “there have been several requests to increase the opportunity for discussion with them, and to have a networking lunch without a talk, “says Susi. “We ended up having so many fabulous speakers that we might have shortchanged the interactive component, even though we factored in 15 minutes after each session and three half-hour networking breaks. It was a packed day!”

Is the BEST program for aspiring academics?

by Jody W. Enck, BEST Communications Specialist

Many more people graduate with PhD’s in the U.S. every year than there are open faculty positions in academia.  By default, many of those graduates will apply their expertise to careers in communication, policy, government, industry, entrepreneurship, consulting or other fields outside of academic settings.  In addition, quite a few people in PhD graduate programs never intend to pursue a career as a faculty member from the start.  These students can benefit from exposure to the diversity of careers that are available for PhDs outside of academia.

Most PhD graduates will work in nonacademic careers.

Cornell University hosts a program called “Broadening Experiences in Scholarly Training” (BEST) which provides this exposure.  Cornell BEST helps PhD students and postdoctoral scholars make the most informed decisions possible about their career paths.  The program is facilitative in nature rather than being prescriptive about what participants must do to complete it.  Our vision is to help PhD students and postdocs fall in love with their future careers.  It achieves this vision through flexibility, empowerment, and individualized service.  Successful participation results in BESTies who are more confident about, and better prepared to pursue, a career path of their choice.

Some people have wondered whether PhD students who are sure they want to seek a career as a professor should take the time to participate in BEST activities.  Others have asked legitimately whether BEST activities are a good use of time for postdocs and graduate students who already are very busy learning and developing specific skills which can really only emerge only from their engagement in academic research.

The short answer is that BEST is for all PhD students and postdocs regardless of whether they intend to pursue a career as a faculty member.  In addition to knowing how to conduct novel research, being a faculty member entails developing and demonstrating a host of other, complementary skills.  BEST provides opportunities for folks to engage in a suite of activities to help develop these complementary skills.

Even aspiring academics have much to gain by participating in the BEST Program at Cornell.

When current Cornell University President, Martha Pollack, was Provost at the University of Michigan, she issued a set of questions to the faculty there that led to the publication of a document called “Being a Faculty Member in the 21st Century.”  That document highlighted several of the non-research complementary skills that new faculty are expected to have, but for which they typically receive little or no training:

  • Experience or expertise in compliance, risk-monitoring and reporting.
  • Understanding how to establish collaborations or partnerships
  • Formal and informal mentoring
  • Service-oriented skills, such as participating in professional societies, conducting grant reviews, organizing committees and meetings, and participating in advisory roles.

Where does a PhD student or postdoc turn to develop these skills?  The BEST program can provide the answers.  Check us out at www.best.cornell.edu.