Thursday, August 8, 2019

On grant proposal writing

The year 2018 was very successful for me in terms of grants: My success rate skyrocketed from close to 0% to 100%. It’s a never-ending story, though, so now I’m finding myself writing even more grant proposals, which led me to procrastinate and write a blog post about grant proposal writing. Given my recent successes, I could frame this blog post as a set of advices for other aspiring grant writers. However, frankly, I have no idea why my success rate changed so abruptly. Also, I don’t really want to sound like this guy. 

Nevertheless, I got a lot of advice from different people about grant writing over the years. Maybe it can be useful to other people. It will also allow me to organise my own thoughts about what I should consider while writing my proposals. So, here goes:

Advice # 1: Be lucky. Even if your proposal is amazing, the success rates tend to be low, and many factors aside from the grant quality will affect whether it is successful or not. You may want to repress this thought while writing the proposal. Otherwise the motivation to invest weeks and months into planning and getting excited about a project will plummet. However, as soon as I submit the proposal, I will try to assume an unsuccessful outcome. First, it will motivate me to think about back-up plans, and second, it will weaken the bitterness of the disappointment if the funding is not granted.

One aspect where luck plays a large role is that a lot depends on the reviewers. In most schemes that I have applied for, the reviewer may be the biggest expert in the field, but they may also be a researcher on a completely different topic in a vaguely related area. So a good grant proposal needs to be specific, to convince the biggest expert that you have excellent knowledge of the literature, that you have not missed any issues that could compromise the quality of your project, and that every single detail of your project is well-thought-through. At the same time, the proposal needs to be general, so a non-expert reviewer will be able to understand what exactly you are trying to do, and the importance of the project to your topic. Oh, and, on top of that, the proposal has to stay in the page limit.

Throughout the last years, I have received a lot of very useful advice about grant writing, and now that I’m trying to summarise it all, I realise how conflicting the advice sometimes is. I have asked many different people for advice, but most of them are regularly involved in evaluating grant proposals. This is one demonstration of how important luck is: Maybe you will get a grant reviewer who expects a short and sexy introduction which explains how your project will contribute to the bigger picture of some important, global social problem (e.g., cancer, global warming). Maybe you will get a reviewer who will get extremely annoyed at an introduction which overblows the significance of the project.

Advice #2: Think about your audience. When I search for possible reasons for my abrupt change in success rate, this is a possible candidate. The advice to think about one’s audience applies to everything, and it is widely known. However, for a beginning grant writer it is sometimes difficult to visualise the grant reviewer. Also, as I noted above, a reviewer may be the biggest expert in the field, or it could be someone who doesn’t know very much about it. Thus, in terms of the amount of detailed explanations that you put into the proposal, it is important to find the right balance: not to bore the reviewer with details, but provide enough details to be convincing. The prior probability of the reviewer being the biggest expert is rather low, if we consider that non-experts are much more common than people who have very specialised knowledge about your specific topic. Thus, when in doubt, try to explain things, and avoid acronyms, even if you think that it’s assumed knowledge for people in the field.

Reviewers are, in most cases, academics. This means that they are likely to be busy: make the proposal as easy-to-read as possible. Put in lots of colourful pictures: explaining as many things as possible in figures can also help to cut the word count.

This also means that they are likely to be elderly men. This realisation has brought up a very vivid image in my mind: if the proposal is ‘good’, the reviewer is should come home to his wife, and, while she passes him his daily glass of evening brandy, he will tell her (read this in a posh British accent, or translate in your head to untainted Hochdeutsch): “My dear, I learned the most interesting thing about dyslexia today…!”

Advice #3: Get as much feedback as possible. Feedback is always good: I try to incorporate everything anyone tells me, even if in some cases I don’t agree with it. Thoughts such as “Clearly, the person giving the feedback didn’t read the proposal thoroughly enough, otherwise they wouldn’t be confused about X!” are not very helpful: if someone giving you feedback stumbles over something, chances are that the reviewer will, too. Sometimes, the advice you get from two different people will conflict with each other. If at all possible, try to find a way to incorporate both points of view. Otherwise, use your best judgement.

Most universities have an office which helps with proposal writing: they are very helpful in giving advice from an administrative perspective. Different funding agencies have different requirements about the structure and the like (which is also why I’m trying to keep the advice I summarise here as general as possible). Grant offices are likely to give you good advice about the specific scheme you are applying for. They may also allow you to read through previous successful applications: this can be helpful in getting a better idea about how to structure the proposal, how to lay-out the administrative section, and some other issues that maybe you missed.  

Colleagues can give feedback about the content: they will point out if something is more controversial than you thought, if there are problems with some approaches than you have not thought about, and provide any important references that you may have missed. Ask colleagues with different backgrounds and theoretical ‘convictions’. Friends and relatives can help to make sure that the proposal is readable to a non-expert reviewer, and that the story, as a whole, makes sense.

In some ways, submitting a grant proposal is a lot like buying a lottery ticket that costs a lot of time and your career probably depends on it. However, it is also the daily bread of someone striving for an academic career, so it is important to try to make the best of it. In an attempt to end this on a positive note (so I feel motivated to get back to my proposal): Applying for ‘your own’ project may give you the flexibility to work on something that you really care about. It takes a lot of time, but this time is also spent on thinking through a project, which will make its execution run more smoothly afterwards.

The advice above is not comprehensive, and from my own biased view. I would be very happy to read any corrections or any other advice from the readers in the comments section.

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