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Strategies for Effective Grant Writing

2002 NABS Graduate Resources Committee Workshop

Part I.  Penelope Firth, Ph.D., American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Penny Firth is currently on a temporary appointment with AAAS. She has 10 years of experience as a Program Officer with the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Details of the submission process below apply specifically to NSF’s operations, but much of the advice applies to the grant application process in general, regardless of the agency to which you are submitting a proposal.


Suppose you have a terrific, original idea. It builds on your strong theoretical understanding of the area, takes advantage of your special expertise in [benthology?], and could have profound implications for our understanding of [aquatic ecosystems?]. All you need is resources. Specifically, a grant.  Common questions at this point include: What agency should I apply to? What program within the agency? How much should I request to do the work? What duration would be best? Should I team up with an experienced investigator?

These are all good questions, and conveniently for me, they all have exactly the same answer: “it depends.”

Take your fervent enthusiasm and do some homework. Write the keywords of the primary article you expect to get out of this research on the back of your hand. Then become very familiar with the web sites of key granting agencies and foundations. Most will have a mission, or at least a purpose, that will help you narrow the field. Within the agencies that you select, read about the specific grant programs or special grant competitions. Again, look for the purpose or objectives of the program, study the language carefully for clues as to whether your idea will be a perfect match or an awkward fit. On the NSF web site, you can do a search by program and get a listing of recent grants. Other good information about funded grants is there as well, including the name of the PI, the institution, the amount and duration, and the abstract.  To find out about upcoming competitions, sign up for NSF’s “Custom News Service” and you will receive emails that tell you when relevant competitions are coming up.

Once you have identified one or more programs that might appreciate your brilliance, I suggest you contact the Program Officer (PO). He or she is a very busy person (trust me!), so have your ducks in a row. Start by concisely describing your idea. If you can’t convey your idea in 5 minutes (better, 3), you might want to practice a bit. Try to avoid droning on and on about the deep background, the unparalleled opportunity, the groovy study site, the importance of the work to world peace, the genius of the PI, etc.  You can add all this later, after the PO has pushed the mute button and is answering emails. (kidding!) The PO may ask for more detail, or perhaps stop you and re-direct you to a more appropriate program. It is the job of the PO to help PIs get their proposals reviewed in the most appropriate venue.  Ask all of the programmatic questions you wish when you have a PO in communication, but save the administrivia questions for after you have read the relevant literature --- specifically the Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) in NSF’s case. POs will quote and/or interpret the GPG over the phone if necessary, but much prefer if the caller has read the relevant sections first.

The above discussion assumes that you have landed what some of you mentioned to me as a “real job.”  This could be a post-doc, or an assistant professorship, or even an instructorship. The key thing is that the institution you work for permits you to apply for a grant.  Second best would be serving as the brains behind the brawn of somebody who is eligible.  Graduate students are not eligible to serve as Principal Investigator (PI) on research grant proposals (except for Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant proposals, where they are customarily listed as co-PI). Nevertheless, whenever possible, you should assist in the grant writing process for the learning experience. Major professors who have integrity will acknowledge the origin of ideas, and reward hard work.


If you have selected NSF as the lucky recipient of your proposal, you really should spend some time reading through the NSF Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) before writing the proposal.  The GPG is available on the web: www.nsf.gov. It includes very important information on the sections of the proposal, the length, font, margins, use of graphics, and other things that you will absolutely need to get right.

In addition, the GPG explains by what criteria your proposal will be reviewed. These are quite important:

Criterion 1: What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?

How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.) To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative and original concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources?

Criterion 2: What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

All NSF proposals must be submitted electronically, using Fastlane. Instructions are on the NSF web site.

In addition to following the instructions carefully, you must also do an outstanding job of presenting your idea. The Project Description of an NSF proposal is 15-pages long. In that space, it is very important to begin with a discussion of the state of the science and how your work will advance it.  What are the big unanswered questions, and where does your proposed work fit in?  Spending too much space on methods, for example, leads to an unbalanced proposal that may not be competitive. As you are writing, remember that while some of the reviewers may be thrilled by the nuances of each jargon-filled phrase you issue, others will helplessly succumb to jargon-induced narcolepsy. The latter is not correlated with high scores.

Deadlines vs. target dates:  A deadlines is just what it sounds like – the last day that proposals will be accepted for a program.  A target date is the last date of receipt that guarantees that your proposal will be included in the current review cycle.  You may continue to apply after that date, but review of your proposal may be delayed by 6 months or more. Be sure you know whether you are dealing with a deadline or a target date.

You can suggest reviewers for your proposal in your Fastlane submission. I usually encourage PIs to do this. Although POs may or may not use your suggestions, (we try not to overload any one reviewer), we appreciate hearing your ideas on who could give a good, expert, objective review of your proposal. Note that anyone with whom you have a professional or personal conflict of interest should not be listed.  You may also include names of individuals that you prefer not review your proposal.


The review process takes about 6 months.  Some programs have a call-back date (when you can contact the PO to find out the fate of your proposal).  By the callback date we usually know which proposals will be definitely declined and several that will be definitely recommended for funding. (Note: We call you if we are recommending your proposal for funding). But if you have not heard from us, it is not necessarily curtains for your proposal. It sometimes takes a bit of time to resolve which of the top tier proposals we can provide funding for, how much funding, how the funding will be provided (lump, annual increment), and whether there are other programs willing to co-fund them with us.

NSF reviewers’ comments will be returned to you verbatim, and you will also receive the summary of the panel discussion of your proposal.  If you have questions about any of the review materials, call the PO. While we certainly hear our share of venting, we consider it more productive to discuss with you the substantive issues relating to the fate of your proposal.


If you are not successful in your first attempt, resubmit!  Contact the Program Officer for advice on how your proposal could be improved.  Often, shortcomings can be resolved and the proposal can become successful, as long as the research has not already been done or the idea is not compelling on its own.

If you have submitted several times and the proposal gets better and better but is still not making it to the top, maybe it is time to reevaluate the proposal (put it in a drawer for a year), the program (OK to change horses mid-stream), or the agency (push pins into the NSF Guide to Programs).  A thorny, but sometimes necessary, act may be to change collaborators.

Above all, keep your spirits up about your research. I’m pretty sure that just about everyone has high and low points in their grant writing career, even well-established senior scientists --- although they may be somewhat less inclined to admit when they’re in the weeds.

Part II.  Hiram Li, Oregon State University

Hiram is a Professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University.  During his tenure he has mentored a large number of graduate students and has had a successful track record of grantsmanship.

Keys to a Successful Grant Proposal

1.    Make your case fascinating and compelling from the beginning.

      A.    Choose a title that encapsulates the key issue that you will address.  It should be short, punchy and descriptive.

      B.    Come to the point quickly.  What is at stake?  Why is it important?  Why is this work innovative?

      C.    The first paragraph is the grabber.  Make it a good one.  Musicians call it the hook.

2.    You do not have to cite everything.  Cite the most important papers.  Where did the problem originate?  Where does it stand?  What must be done?  What is innovative about your approach or solution to this problem?

3.    Use a flow chart to show the logic of the array of hypotheses you will test.  Try to show from it that no matter where the science takes you, you have resolved the issue.

4.    Once this is set-up spend time on the design.  It doesn't have to be complicated.  Remember simplicity is elegance.

5.    Make sure you address ALL THE ISSUES in the Request for Proposals (RFP).  This is really important for management and regulatory agencies.

6.    If you have a multidisciplinary group, describe the talents of the "Dream Team".  This can be done subtly, in various ways (e.g., citation of important papers, a signature approach, etc.) or more overtly by acknowledging responsibilities for different parts of the design and approach. 
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