Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Writing good grants

So I just spent the last week polishing off two proposals, which led me to think about a few things. When your proposal is reviewed you really want the reviewers to concentrate on the idea being proposed, not the writing, or the skill (or lack thereof) of the investigators, or the methods (although these are important it should be evident that you know what you are doing and how to proceed). Many of these problems can be addressed by learning good proposal writing. I have talked about this before, but thought I might revisit this topic.

One trick I have learned to conserve space is that for both NIH and NSF grants you get a project summary (or summary of aims). Use this as an intro to your grant and cut the intro section altogether (i.e., start with background and significance). Usually the material in the first paragraph of the project summary and the intro are pretty much the same anyway and this gives you an extra page.

When writing the background try to cite everyone that is relevant to the field, remembering that they could be a reviewer, and be polite. Don't say your technology is better than someone else's unless you are pretty sure that almost any independent reviewer would agree with you. Instead it could be an alternative or complementary technology. Also, many reviewers are not in your field so include enough background that any scientist in your -ology could understand what is proposed.

In the preliminary data section include a paragraph that reads... Dr. X has X years of experience with X including X publications in journals like really important journal and even more important journal. Then show the data that is most relevant to your project.

Finally, in the aims section, remember that your grant has an X year duration and whatever you propose should be likely to be completed in that time frame by the number of individuals that you propose to fund. So saying that you are going to invent a spaceship, travel to the moon, collect moon rocks, and analyze them with one student in 3 years is pretty unlikely. This is the major factor that separates more experienced grant writers from novices. (and students from PIs....see candidacy exam as evidence). Also, be very clear in your methodologies, cite as many papers as you can....we are going to do X following the method of Smith et al. This shows that you are familiar with the field and reduces the risk of experimental failure. i.e., I am following established methods.

Well....that's all for now. I am busy pushing out papers and getting my tenure package ready. I am going up early so wish me luck.


At 2:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with many of your points:
1. Some reviewers at NSF, like myself, do NOT read the summary page. I go directly to the project narrative, and if you are going assume I have read the summary by the time I am reading the narrative, you are wrong! That could cost you that proposal!
2. Also, reviewers are all very different. Some like the fact that the method section is detailed. Some like the fact that the idea is absolutely risky and not just a mundane systematic study. There is NO one right way to write a proposal, because the reviewers' opinions of what is important is very different, at least at NSF.
3. "Don't say your technology is better than someone else's unless you are pretty sure that almost any independent reviewer would agree with you. Instead it could be an alternative or complementary technology." Well you better convince your reviewer that they should fund this alternative method because it can do something that other methods cannot. How do you plan to do that without critiquing the other methods in the area?

At 10:43 PM , Blogger Karina said...

Thanks for sharing your insights, Dr. Mom. I'm trying to get past my intimidation to put together a new proposal myself so I'll think about these suggestions.

At 12:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am a doctorate student and I have been following your blog for a while. Thanks for the general overview.

I especially liked the idea of stressing on the realistic case rather than painting a grandiose picture.


At 12:59 PM , Anonymous Grant P. Writer said...

I agree with a lot of your suggestions, but I wanted to follow up on your advice to cite "everyone in the field". I am not sure why, but for some reason many new applicants seem to believe they must use full citations within the Research Strategy text. Using Endnote or a similar program to create a publications list that allows only superscipt or subscript numbers after references to publications saves quite a bit of space. Just wanted to toss this out there since some newer applicants read this blog.

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