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.

Research to Regulation: the Career Journey of Alumna Rajni Singh

By Janani Hariharan

Do you care about animal safety and well-being in research and veterinary medicine settings?  Did you know that you, a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher, could choose among various career paths focused on animal safety?  These kinds of careers are just some of those that fall under the broad term “regulatory affairs.”

As part of the BEST program’s efforts to help PhDs and postdocs become more aware of our future career possibilities, Dr. Rajni Singh, Consumer Safety Officer at the FDA and a Cornell alumna, walked us through her path.  She was invited to Cornell by Jin Liang, postdoc at the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology and BEST Advisory Board member. A group of BESTies, old and new, met with her on campus and heard her emphasize the importance of her PhD research, an excellent postdoctoral fellowship, and great mentorship in her current workplace.

While at Cornell, Rajni’s research involved pharmacology and neurotoxicology, making it necessary to work with lab animals. This laid the foundation for her strong technical know-how about current government regulations regarding animals used in experiments, and their effective practice in the laboratory setting. Being a regulatory affairs officer was not always her goal though – as an undergrad, she wanted to become a professor.

Dr. Ranji Singh at Cornell. Photo credit: Susi Varvayanis

However, during her time as a PhD student and a postdoc at NIH, she realized how stressful benchwork could be, and how rare faculty positions are. She talked about the importance of access to career development resources as a graduate student and postdoctoral trainee, and believes that NIH’s research and career resources were a huge aid in identifying her ideal career. Additionally, her experience with the Center for Teaching Innovation at Cornell aided in developing public speaking skills which are extremely useful in her current job, and indeed, in many other jobs.

Although she was making progress at her postdoctoral stint at the NIH, she decided to take a risk and apply for an ORISE fellowship. This was a risky decision because it meant a switch from a successful academic career to a non-traditional one, but Rajni’s motivation behind this decision was to experience a new career track, and her new supervisor was ready to support and promote her growth as a mentee. This decision proved to be a good one as it became a stepping stone to her current position. The ORISE fellowship created an opportunity for a short-term regulatory affairs stint at the FDA, which eventually led to the title of Consumer Safety Officer that Rajni holds today.

One of the major advantages of a government career off the bench is the work-life balance, as there are no experimental timepoints and team members recognize that people have lives outside of work. This could be especially useful for people who enjoy a regular routine and steadiness of pace. On the negative side, the FDA (indeed, government) employees are prohibited from investing in companies regulated by the FDA, which could be a setback for some people. There might not be as much room for advancement to senior positions, which also impacts the payscale, and the pace of work tends to be slower than that seen in industry.

Rajni’s story generated a lot of interest and curiosity about the career track itself, as well as her journey and decision-making process. In response to questions from graduate students interested in regulatory affairs, she said that it is not necessary to have previous experience in regulatory affairs, since a lot of teams are strengthened by individuals from interdisciplinary backgrounds. Additionally, the FDA (like other regulatory bodies) provides mandatory training to employees which includes information on the U.S. legal code, legal writing, and research ethics training.

So, what does a regulatory affairs officer do on a daily basis? Rajni stresses that this career is an ideal fit for someone who is detail-oriented and likes to be meticulous and thorough in their work, as opposed to people who might be big-picture thinkers. She is currently located in the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) at the FDA, along with 500 other employees. Her responsibilities involve working with drug sponsors to regulate the sale of animal drugs after they have received FDA approval (otherwise called surveillance). This involves collecting data about drug trials and promotional materials from sponsors (drug manufacturers), reviewing them for potential problems, working with the sponsors, and writing reports. As part of a larger team, she conducts literature reviews and data analyses, compiles information for supervisors and policy officials or even members of Congress, liaises with lawyers and veterinarians, and deals with emerging themes in the animal health industry such as antimicrobial resistance. Additionally, she is sometimes asked to be a part of working committees that amend existing guidelines and gather input from stakeholders. In rare cases, non-compliance with FDA regulations may result in drugs being pulled from the market, and a regulatory affairs professional has to make those decisions and contact the drug manufacturers. Naturally, this involves dealing with confidential data and meetings. Ideal qualities for this career track include: attention to detail, being a team player, and the ability to communicate science to multiple audiences (scientists, regulatory professionals, policy makers, and the general public).

For students and postdocs interested in a career in Regulatory Affairs, the BEST program provides ample resources.


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!”

It’s About More than Research: Job-Landing Advice from a BEST Alumna

By Jody Enck, BEST Communication Specialist

You never know when you’ll find a key that will unlock an unexpected future.  BEST alumna, Dr. Daniela Bocioaga recently told us about finding such a key while attending a BEST event at Cornell.

Daniela attended several BEST-sponsored events while pursuing her PhD at Cornell in Microbiology under the tutelage of Dr. Anthony Hay.  One event was a panel discussion by several Cornell microbiology alums working in a variety of occupations.  One of those alums was Dr. Gregory Galvin, President and CEO of Rheonix, Inc. His presentation piqued Daniela’s interest to learn more about what Rheonix does, but Dr. Galvin had to leave right after his presentation.

Dr. Daniela Bocioaga, center. Photo: Susi Varvayanis

Daniela recognized a good opportunity when she saw one.  So, she made an appointment at Rheonix to conduct an informational interview.  She had learned about informational interviews through her experiences in the BEST program, and here was a chance for her to put her skills into practice.  She met with Dr. Galvin and learned much about what Rheonix does and how someone with a PhD in microbiology could fit into their workforce.  When she conducted the interview, she did not ask about possible employment.  “I wasn’t trying to get a job at that time.  I didn’t even bring a CV with me,” she said.  “I really just genuinely wanted to find out more about the company.”

Her genuine interest, microbiology skills, and willingness to step out of her comfort zone in terms of setting up the informational interview paid off.  A few months after her visit, she got a call from Rheonix asking her to come in to interview for a job opening.

What did Daniela learn from this experience?  “First,” she said, “know your personal goals in terms of a future career, but also be flexible and keep an open mind about what the possibilities are.  These might sound like contradictory things, but they really go hand-in-hand.  If you just have an open mind without having a goal, you can flounder.”

Her second piece of advice is, “you need to get out there, and that’s hard.  It’s really hard if you are a bit uncomfortable reaching out to people you don’t know.  You have to overcome whatever personal barriers you have about asking questions.  Remember, you have nothing to lose from talking to people.”  She says the key is to follow your interests and to talk with people about those interests.  “If you have a genuine interest, it will come through in your conversation.  People will remember that.”

Daniela overcame her own trepidation.  She put her interviewing skills to good use.  Her genuine interest in learning more about the company shined through. None of those “soft skills” relate directly to her PhD research, but they all were key in helping her land a job in which she gets to apply her PhD research skills every day.

Finding that spark that helps you fall in love with a career path

By Jody Enck, PhD.  Cornell BEST program communication specialist

Reconsidering career paths is more common than one might imagine.  In some ways, it’s like falling in and out of love.  We meet lots of interesting people, but sparks fly only when we meet someone special.  We put all our energies into figuring out if that really is the ONE.  What happens if the “forever after” you planned changes?  The story I share below is not mine.  It emerged from an interview I conducted with PhD student, Sabrina Solouki, as I tried to learn more about what Cornell’s BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) program means to its participants.

Sabrina Solouki, PhD student in the field of immunology and infectious disease. Photo provided by Sabrina Solouki.

As a young adult, Sabrina knew she wanted to help people, and she contemplated a career as a medical doctor.  She particularly enjoyed biology classes as an undergrad pursuing the pre-med program.  When she took what she describes “an amazing immunology course,” sparks flew!  Her pursuit of a future in medicine led her to do an internship with a group of volunteers working in Nicaragua.  There, she found really spartan conditions.  Clinics lacked basic equipment and supplies necessary to address people’s medical needs.  A big eye-opener for Sabrina was the fact that the medical plight of the residents was largely on account of the existing socio-political environment.  She began to question her decision of pursuing a career in medicine.

Sabrina working as a medical volunteer in Nicaragua where she had an epiphany that she could help a far greater number of people through a career in immunology rather than a doctor helping one patient at a time. Photo provided by Sabrina Solouki.

When she came back from Nicaragua, Sabrina had an epiphany.  She could better advocate for patients if she applied her skills to affecting broader health policy than if she pursued a career as a medical doctor.  Rather than prescribing medications on a patient-by-patient basis, she could try to influence the health of vast numbers of patients by focusing on health policy issues.

Science policy had become Sabrina’s new passion.  On returning to UCLA, Sabrina refocused her studies from applied medicine to more basic medical research so she could develop the depth of knowledge research skills she would need to be a credible policy professional.  She supplemented this with a minor in political science to bring a career in health policy into sharper focus.

She came to Cornell as a PhD student with an aim of pursuing science policy.  One of the things that attracted Sabrina to Cornell was the BEST program, which would afford her a glimpse of what a career in science policy looked like. In addition to providing information about relevant courses on campus, the science policy track of the program facilitates networking with professionals working in science policy, and sponsored trips to Washington D.C. to engage elected officials and their staff on issues such as funding for scientific research.

The Mission of Cornell’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program is to give PhD students and postdocs the chance to test-drive specific aspects of various careers through flexible, experiential, engaging opportunities.

A highlight of the BEST program for Sabrina is its adaptability.  The program helped Sabrina realize her dream of being an advocate for as many people as possible by integrating cutting-edge science into health policy. “Program staff do a great job of helping BESTies [as program participants are called] connect with resources they otherwise might not even know about, and thereby provide a unique educational experience” she says.

Pursuing her passion has been the cornerstone of Sabrina’s journey so far. The sparks that fanned her initial interest in immunology drove her to pursue a PhD in Immunology and Infectious Disease at Cornell.  Juggling her Ph.D. research while also serving as president of a graduate student group called Advancing Science Policy Group (ASAP) that emerged in part through the auspices of the BEST program has helped deepen her understanding of the interplay of biological processes and socio-political environments affecting public health.

Sabrina Solouki, third from left, and other Cornelians meeting in Albany, NY with James Tierney (center in white shirt), Assistant Commissioner of Water Resources for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Commissioner Tierney spoke with the group about the role of scientists in the policy arena. Photo by Susi Varvayanis.

Over the last few years, Sabrina has made multiple trips to Albany, NY and Washington D.C. to engage in policy activities co-sponsored by BEST and ASAP.  She participated in a 4-day workshop called Catalyzing Advocacy through Science and Engineering (CASE) through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to help her understand appropriations and the budget process in Congress.  For all these opportunities to feed her passion in science policy, she says she has she has the BEST program to thank.  “Up until fall 2017, the BEST program reinforced my interest in science policy and gave me tools I otherwise never would have had.  It set me up to have a really great career in science policy.”

A chance encounter with a visiting attorney specializing in intellectual property rights and patent law further defined Sabrina’s journey. She suddenly realized a whole other avenue that meshed her interest in advocacy and science. To explore this further, she worked with Susi Varvayanis, executive director of BEST at Cornell, and other BESTies Jin Liang, postdoc in the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, and Madhur Srivastava, PhD student in Biomedical Engineering, to host a Patent Law Review Panel at Cornell.  Co-hosted by ASAP, GPSPAFC, and the BEST program, the panel consisted of four STEM scientists that shared their experience about transitioning into patent law. The panel discussion was followed by a networking luncheon during which students could interact with the panelists.  Sabrina considers the support she received from BEST to be invaluable. “I felt like the BEST staff helped to create an experience just for me.”

Sabrina, left, moderating a panel discussion about intellectual property rights and patent law at Cornell University. Photo by Susi Varvayanis.

By interacting with people that walk the walk in intellectual property and patent law, Sabrina has found lasting love. She now knows that a career advocating for new technologies and discoveries “makes me feel like I can make the kind of difference I’ve always wanted to make.  It combines the best of both worlds – advocacy through the integration of immunology and science policy.  It’s great to feel those sparks exploding.”

During her time at Cornell Sabrina has taken complete advantage of the BEST program. The program has served as a catalyst for a career spark and empowered and encouraged her to immerse herself in the pursuit of that career.

While experiencing sparks may well signify the beginning of a career, it is far from the end. Passionately pursuing a career choice requires dedication and drive. The BEST program can provide access to a variety of opportunities to fan those initial sparks and help craft a set of experiences through which they can explode into an enduring career that you love.

Translating research into public policy

By Elizabeth Mahood, PhD student in Plant Biology

Many of us want our research to have relevance to the world in which we live.  One way to be relevant is to have your findings incorporated into public policy.  That does not happen by accident.  It takes focused work.  The BEST program provides several opportunities each year to learn how to accomplish this.  Here are some pointers gleaned from one of those opportunities.

The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology has been delivering a workshop called “Engaging with Policymakers” for about a decade, and for a good reason.  As said on AAAS’ website: “nearly every major issue facing society has science at its core”, and yet, a deep knowledge gap exists between the public and researchers—including graduate students and postdocs.

AAAS communication associate, Gemima Philippe, presented a workshop at Cornell University in June 2018 about translating research into public policy

How can we effectively breach this gap?  How can researchers communicate our knowledge so that the public, and policymakers, can make more informed steps toward resolving these issues?  “Engaging with Policymakers”, delivered at Cornell on June 5th, 2018 addressed these questions. The workshop leader was Gemima Phillippe, a Communication Associate with AAAS who had broad experience in communicating issues in occupational health to policymakers.

This workshop made me think about an imperative part of being a scientist—how best to view and present our findings as understandable, important information with the power to shape the community at large. Those of us participating in the workshop were from such varied fields as information science, chemical engineering, and human development.  This diversity highlighted for us the need for strong communication skills across all scientific disciplines.

Phillippe guided us through this process with information about policy making and science communication.  Best communication practices were relayed throughout the workshop.  These included: making sure to facilitate “multi-directional” conversation rather than “lecturing,” highlighting the pros and cons of your research, and contextualizing your results so that they address a specific problem facing your target audience.

We also were given valuable insight into the world of policy.  For example, we learned about the substructures that make up certain governmental agencies, and how best to find and communicate with the policymaker that is most likely to be receptive to your information.  Workshop attendees also gained valuable experience communicating their research in a succinct, coherent way to their peers, and determining how to turn their findings into policy changes.  This workshop is very helpful for anyone who wishes to learn more about science-based policy in general, or who needs practice shaping their research into a meaningful and understandable message.

Welcome to the “BEST” program blog at Cornell

The cover of the 2018 BEST annual report shows workshop participants working in small groups at a BEST event.
Our 2018 BEST annual report documents our accomplishments for this year and provides a retrospective overview of the first five years of the program.

by Jody W. Enck, BEST Communication Specialist

Welcome to the “BEST” blog!  We are excited to go live with our stories about the program and its impacts.  Read on for a little more information about us.

“Broadening Experiences in Scholarly Training,” or BEST, is aimed at helping PhD students and postdoctoral scholars make the most informed decisions possible about their career paths after Cornell.  For some, this means being even more confident that a career in academia is for them.  Others will decide to use their expertise in careers outside of academic research settings.  All PhD students and postdocs can benefit from becoming BESTies, as program trainees are called.

Why does BEST do this?  Many PhD students and postdocs will have fulfilling careers outside of academia.  Even those who pursue academic careers will need to develop skills beyond the technical or research skills they are developing in their current programs.

What does BEST do for PhDs and postdocs? BEST provides opportunities for increasing awareness of the broad range of careers that exist, and helps BESTies take careers for a test-drive.  Some example careers to explore include: (1) Policy, (2) Governance, Risk, and Compliance, (3) Industry, Entrepreneurship, and Management, and (4) Communication.

How does BEST do this?  The BEST program is facilitative in nature rather than being prescriptive about what participants must do to complete it.  To help PhD students and postdocs fall in love with their future careers we empower them through individualized service to sculpt their future.  Successful participation results in BESTies who are more confident about and better prepared to pursue a career path of their choice.

Start your exploration today by visiting the BEST program at Cornell.