I take some comfort from the fact that I struggled with writing papers in grad school, but I now mostly enjoy paper writing once I’m actually sitting down to write them. I like posing a question and finding an (inevitably incomplete but sometimes intriguing) answer, and seeing the cool story that my data tell. I attribute this evolution to help from mentors and having put in the time and effort myself to gain the experience that makes the whole process more fun. But writing proposals for me is still agonizing, stressful, and slow. How do you write something compelling based not on data but on conjectures? It's a tricky business.
Of course, you need funding to carry out research, to ask and answer the questions you think are most interesting and important. So I'm working on gaining more experience in the hopes of improving my grantwriting skills (and, maybe someday, my enjoyment of the process). Here are some approaches, resources, and tips I've found helpful along the way.
Review others to learn a lot yourself
Most programs that give out funding need subject experts to review proposals. These include federal agencies like NSF, NASA, and EPA in the US, or national agencies like Formas and VR in Sweden, as well as coordinated programs like the European Commission's Horizon 2020 program. There are also many programs that need reviewers for graduate fellowships (like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which solicited reviewers in August 2014- keep an eye out for next year), or student sections of scientific societies (like the American Geophysical Union) who give out awards and fellowships.
I would suggest that aspiring grantwriting pros seek out opportunities for reviewing proposals, including:
- Make sure you've registered your interest with the relevant grants officers to serve as a reviewer for proposals in your field. You can sometimes do this electronically, for example, at this EU website for registering as an expert for service as a panel reviewer for Horizon 2020 and other actions.
- Tell your mentors that you're looking to serve on review panels, and ask for their suggestions for opportunities that would fit your expertise.
- You can always contact funding program officers directly (in person at conferences, or by phone or email) to ask how you can get involved as a reviewer.
- Look for opportunities to serve as a reviewer while still in graduate school- for example, in reviewing undergraduate research proposals or conference presentations at your local institution.
- You can of course also ask close mentors and colleagues to share successful grants with you- it's extremely helpful to have good models to help structure your thinking.
- For mentors - remember to suggest opportunities to review proposals for your students and early-career colleagues, and to share your successful grants and tips for writing them!
Tips from a Grantwriting Workshop
One especially helpful suggestion from Dan was to start research proposals with just four sentences, articulating the background, statement of need, purpose or objective, and impact for your project. Starting here can really help you keep your focus and see the integration between sections in a proposal.
I've found that it's also critical to develop figures right from the start, and to refine and integrate these with the text as you go along. (Sometimes it's easier to start with a mind map or simple box-and-arrow diagram than with text.)
Here's my interpretation of Dan's four core sentences, illustrated with examples from a successful proposal that was generously shared by my colleague Nick Magliocca at SESYNC. (See how helpful it is to have good models? Thanks, Nick!)
1. Background- why is this topic important, relevant, timely? What is the current state of the field?
Example: “In an increasingly teleconnected world, rural populations are undergoing rapid changes in both their livelihoods and land uses, with associated impacts on ecosystems, global biogeochemistry, and climate change.”
2. Statement of need- what critical question/aspect remains unknown? Linking to and narrowing down from the general background question above.
Example: “Thus, a challenge in land systems science is to explain these shifts [or land-livelihood sustainability transitions (LLSTs)] in terms of the actors and processes operating within coupled human-environment systems, and produce actionable insights that can help navigate sustainability transitions in these systems.”
3. Purpose/objective- what specifically do you want to do in this proposed work? Use active verbs (discover, explain, develop, synthesize, characterize).
Example: “This project will develop a geo-information and simulation architecture to support synthesis of local knowledge within a global context and advance scientific understanding of land-livelihood sustainability transitions (LLSTs) around the world.”
4. Impact- Why would achieving your stated purpose be important? What academic, theoretical, and practical use would it serve? How would the world be a better place if you achieved your stated research purpose beyond your wildest expectations? (Please don’t say, “This work would have important policy/theoretical implications”- rather, state exactly what those might be.)
Example: “This project could link across several SESYNC research themes, and produce collaborative activities such as the development of a synthesis project and/or workshop on integrating meta-analysis and modeling for cross-site comparison and synthesis.”
Bonus tip! Dan also recommended the book "Scientific Writing and Communication: Papers, Proposals, and Presentations," by Angelika Hoffman, as a practical, accessible, one-stop shop for grantwriting. Sounds like a good investment.
Teaching Research Design
The first is a "dream abstract" template, to be personalized with fill-in-the-blanks for a specific case. The idea is to imagine the whole research project from the start, to have a clear idea of what you're trying to do (it takes surprising focus to actually answer the research question you intended). I've run a workshop with master's students where students starting their theses first spent about 20 minutes working on their own draft individually (they had also been given the template ahead of time, but most wanted to change it after listening to the presentation I gave). Then they worked in groups of four, spending about 20 minutes each reading it aloud to the group and getting feedback from their fellow students (which was really perceptive). The students who attended the workshop said they found this process helpful to jump-start their thinking. It could be a good way to get over the horrible "blank screen, blank mind" stage of starting something new.
The second is a research design matrix, to go through the process of operationalizing research topics into specific variables. (Recommended reading here: Chapters 3 & 4 of The Craft of Research, by Booth et al.). You can find this matrix on Slide #50 of the talk I presented at the Thesis Toolbox workshop, illustrated with the example of a master's thesis by LUMES alum Kyle Clark, which we worked together to turn into a published paper.
Finally, the most extensive document is a Research Proposal Template that I made for the master's students that I supervise. This is intended to help them develop their own 8-10 page research plans over the fall, so they're ready to conduct their research in the spring semester. The proposal starts with the dream abstract and contains sections for research context, questions, design, ethics and philosophy, as well as communication and implications.
I hope these tips are helpful to ease some of the pain of writing proposals- I'd love to hear your tips for suggested approaches and resources!