I find writing grant proposals to be one of the most challenging tasks in science. I might go so far as to say that it’s my least favorite part of my job (well, right up there with submitting travel receipts).
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
Perhaps the most helpful thing for me has been to start serving on proposal review committees. Much like becoming a reviewer for journal articles, it's so much easier to see shortcomings (and admire strengths) in other people's writing, and to start to develop from that my own understanding of what makes a proposal good. Reviewing proposals is a "service" task that's part of being a good academic community member, but I've personally benefitted a lot from it in learning about the grant review process and getting ideas for how to write better grants. Instead of agonizing over every word of your own proposal, it's extremely helpful to go through ten or 50 proposals at once and see what stands out for you in writing a clear, compelling proposal.
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:
Tips from a Grantwriting Workshop
I recently attended a proposal-writing workshop for early-career scientists at Lund University held by Dan Csontos, a former Nature editor who is now running his own scientific writing consulting business called Elevate Scientific. This was a really helpful overview of suggested structures and strategies for proposal writing. You can see the Storify compilation of all the tips that I Tweeted from the workshop here.
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
Another huge help in learning how to write proposals has been mentoring students and postdocs in their proposal writing. As any teacher knows, sometimes the greatest learning comes through teaching. Trying to explain how to structure a master's thesis proposal or a travel grant has really helped me articulate what works and what doesn't in explaining proposed research. It's also spurred me to come up with some resources for my students to try to help them structure their thoughts in writing research proposals. While these weren't designed to submit to funding agencies, I think having a clear research structure on paper (which clarifies the logic in your head as well) is still helpful in articulating the logic and making a compelling case for the research, and these could be used for grant proposals as well.
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!
What if the secret to writing successful research proposals were to go back to the basic lessons your fourth grade teacher taught you about writing? It can't possibly be that simple, can it?
I just had a lovely dinner with my smart & wise friend Harriet Bulkeley. One of many good pieces of advice she gave me (this one picked up by joining a conversation she overheard on a train!) is to think over the answer to four things before beginning a research proposal or project:
1. What do I want to do?
2. Who do I want to do it with?
3. Where do I want to do it?
4. Why do I want to do it?
I said this sounded like a great way to teach research design to students, but as we discussed more, I realized researchers at every level could probably benefit from this advice, myself included. She noted that many people can only answer one of these questions when they approach a university research office or a funding agency with a research idea. They might hope that the answers will get clarified in working through the project, but this is rarely the case. In projects that haven't clarified these key points at the outstart are likely to get bogged down in these issues through the course of research. A great reminder to think through the basics before committing your precious and limited time.