Recap: The grant application process, a short story

I was recently invited to give a short presentation on my approach to grant writing; below is a short synopsis.

First things first, I am by no means a hugely successful grant writer; the bulk of the grants I’ve applied for have been peanuts compared to some of the biggies out there. But I have had a >90% success rate on my small grant applications – so something must be going right. I have two grants fuelling my work at the moment: my salary grant from the Office of China Postdoc Council and a project grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Both of these grants were written in English for a bilingual Chinese or English application system.

There are three things that I think are of upmost importance when writing grant applications as a solo PhD candidate or early postdoc: understanding what the agency wants; working effectively to that end; and following their instructions to the letter. But those things are all a bit wibbly wobbly when written like that, so let me explain what I mean.

1) Know what the agency wants… and frame your research questions to meet those wants

An important start point for any proposal is to know what kind of research the agency wants to support and to workshop your research topic or questions to meet that want. Find out what topics the agency thinks are important and find a way to frame your question to fit their desire. Be sure to answer the questions of ‘why’ they should care about your research and ‘what’ benefit they might gain later on.

2) Writing with a purpose… and working to an effective end

Something you see time and again with people writing their first thesis (or manuscript) is that they go out into the literature and read without purpose. They read and read and read and there’s always one more paper before they can really start writing. Once they finally start writing, they’ve spent an enormous amount of time reading things that weren’t relevant, forgotten most of what was read, and can’t find those little titbits that were truly useful. Sometimes, they’ve followed so many off shooting paths that it’s hard to remember what they were originally trying to research.

Don’t do this.

If you know exactly (or even generally) what the agency wants, and you know what your topic is, you have everything you need to get started on writing immediately. Look to the research when you have questions that need to be answered, or statements that need to be supported. Browse for inspiration occasionally, but keep your research relevant to what you need to do right now. Proposals (and manuscripts and theses) are never finished – you just decide to stop working on them at some point. Knowing what you need and working towards that goal lets you do this in the most efficient way possible.

3) Following instructions… or why so many applications are rejected without reading

Perhaps the absolute most important (and annoying) task of any application is ensuring you have followed all the instructions provided. Failing to follow instructions is a sure-fire way to get your application rejected without reading. I had a (at the time) hard lesson in the importance of knowing what the requirements were (and following them) during an undergraduate assignment where the lecturer had taken care to impress on us that they would be marking strictly to the rubric. I did the assignment to a (I thought) high standard, but skipped looking at or following the rubric. I did poorly on that assignment – not because the work was poor, but because I had not taken care to follow the instructions provided. All the time I spent on that assignment was wasted. I refused to let that happen again.

When it comes to grants, I was told by a grant seeker professional that something like 30% of grants are rejected for failing to follow instructions. And, having sat on a couple of grant selection committees over the past few years, I can believe it. So dot your i’s and cross your t’s and don’t let a missed question on the sign up form, or the wrong font, or an incorrect entry in your budget let you waste all that time.

Ok, so you’ve done all that and now you have a driest, most science-y application on earth that is somehow flatter than the paper it’s printed on. That’s no good at all. Now we add the colour, the passion, the poetry. Machines aren’t reading your application (yet), people are. Find ways to make your application stand out – beautiful images, interesting diagrams, passionate justifications of the work. Proposals are a place to really let your reader feel like your question is an important question, and that you are the best person/group to find the answers. Don’t over do it, of course, but inject a bit of humanity into the proposal before you submit. Be memorable.

And, ending on that little bit of pretty, I wish you luck in any applications you work on in the future.