“Grants look good on resumes.”  “Grants show that you can successfully bring money into your institution.”  “Grants are necessary for tenure.”  All things that you will hear as a graduate student while maneuvering the path to becoming a professional in your field.  And you know what?  Those are some daunting things to be hearing.  So daunting in fact, that there is a certain stigma about grant writing, leading many to believe that there is some secret equation, or magic skill involved in successfully writing for and receiving a grant.
The truth is, as graduate students, grants shouldn’t carry the same gravitas as they do for faculty or other established professionals.  Grants should be used as a learning opportunity first, and a means to propel ourselves in the job market second.  Don’t concern yourselves with how a grant will make you marketable or will enhance your resume…at least not just yet.  As a fist time grant-writer, these should be last on your mind.  Instead, focus on the things that will make you a better professional in your field, not just a better grant-writer.  You may be wondering who am I to be giving out advice.  Well, I just recently turned in a third revision of a grant proposal for a major granting institution, and have picked up a few things along the way.  Therefore I am a new hand at this grant-writing business, and yet have seen my fair share of comments and have maneuvered the system enough to be able to hit you with some knowledge.

Of course, the first and most important thing to learn and take away from the grant writing experience is how to write.  And I know that the eyebrows are raising right now as you read this…”Write? I already know how to do that!”  Well, for me, grant writing falls into the technical category for writing, with academic being the other category.  Theses, dissertations, publications all fall under the later, while grants and reports fall under the former.  Many graduate students are very good at the academic side, but just haven’t had enough experience in the technical side of writing.  Some key components to the technical side of grant writing are as follows:

1.)  Don’t write anymore than you have to, get to the point quickly, and be up front about your goals, hypotheses, and expectations.  I can tell you from experience, that as much as we would like to think that the reviewers pore over our sentences that we painstakingly constructed, they do not.  They, for lack of a better phrase, selectively read (cough, cough, skim, cough) the proposals.  Now, joking aside, this isn’t true across the board, and I have gotten some reviews back that literally have dissected my proposal.  This made it clear that some reviewers do read very carefully, but you have to write to the lowest common denominator.  Make it clear cut and easy to read.  Why say it in ten words when you can say it in five.  Plus, this will help in the overall length restriction that you will be held to.  One of the hardest things to do is to take a dissertation proposal, for instance, and literally cut it in half for a grant proposal.  Brevity goes a long way in grant writing.

2.) And therein lies the difficulty…being brief and concise with the proposal, but also expressing everything that you need to and making it flow.  The flow of a paper, an important concept, is something I cannot tell you how to do.  Instead have your advisor/committee/mentor show you how.  Having a great team of academics or professionals on your side is key.  For my own grant, I had my chair, who is closest to the project, as my primary editor and advisor on the proposal.  I also had two other committee members read and edit it; one who was my stat specialist, the other a “big picture” editor.  And finally, I had another professor, someone who isn’t on my committee but still a supervisor and mentor, look at it.  Her input was vital, because she had served on several review boards for grants as well as journals and understood what the reviewers were looking for.  She also had the least knowledge about my research, and was a great “outside” editor.  This is crucial, because you get so invested and immersed in your proposal, as will your chair/advisor, that you need someone with fresh eyes to look at it.

3.) Okay, my final advice is for your mental and emotional well-being.  For me, the grant-writing process has been a great experience, but it has had its ups and downs.  The following things are issues that I had while writing and submitting, both good and bad, and the mechanisms that I created for dealing with them.

  • Do not take the reviews personally.  If your experience was like mine, you will have reviewers be too harsh and pick apart things that are unnecessary given the circumstances of the proposal, or be too soft and not provide worthwhile feedback.  They may miss the mark totally, and obviously didn’t read your proposal. There may be three wonderful reviews, and one bad one may sink the whole proposal.  You cannot take it personally.
  • There may be ulterior motives, politics, or personal reasons why reviewers do what they do.  At the end of the day, just take the advice they give and make your proposal better.  Let your advisor handle the messy stuff.  Realize there is a big difference between being strategic, and being political.  Be strategic in your writing and how you propose your research.  Be strategic about recommended reviewers, or even who not to be a reviewer.  Be aware of the politics, but do not get involved.  As a graduate student and “young” professional, no good can come of this.
  • And finally, have confidence in your abilities as a writer and researcher.  Like submitting to journals, it is a big step going from having just your committee or professors reading your work to having it dispersed and read by major professionals in your field and area.  Do not be intimidated by this.  Also, once into the grant process, don’t be discouraged by reviews (as mentioned before) or by the sometimes complicated submission process.  Take the challenge as a learning experience, remain confident no matter what the outcome, and be persistent and determined.
[Image by Flickr user Douglas Witt and used under Creative Commons]

3 Responses to The Joy of Grant Writing

  1. John Izzo says:

    As an experienced grant writer and manager (about 20 years experience) some of the most interesting jobs I have held are because of this skill. Think of grant writing as any other professional endeavor- it takes patience and persistence. Too many people are too easily intimidated by the thought of grants

  2. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    As a grant specialist for 13 years, I can agree with John’s comment on this one. Grants can be very intimidating, but it is a skill just like any other skill and it can be learned. One particular point for new grant writers (and experienced ones!) is to pay close attention to what the grant sponsor requests, including details such as margins and fonts. Some sponsors are more particular than others, but paying attention to guidelines makes sure that your grant will at least make it to the review process. Do not let yourself get knocked out of the running just because you used the wrong font or the wrong margins!

    Concise writing is a must, both for the sake of clearly communicating your idea to reviewers and because you typically have a limited number of pages to “pitch” your idea.

    Finally, I have to agree with the author that writing grants is a learning experience. Treat it like one and try not to take it personally. Some reviewer comments will be very helpful for polishing your work. Some reviewers are less helpful, or even downright critical. Recognize, as Chris noted, that reviewers bring their own ideas and bias to the table.

    Also, if your grant is not funded, it does NOT necessarily mean it was no good. It may simply mean that the sponsor got more good grants than they could fund. They have to choose how to use their limited resources.

    Finally, remember that you learn to write grants by practicing. We aren’t born knowing how to write them. Be gentle with yourself.

    Best of luck with your grants!

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