You can’t do your academic work without tools – whatever they may be. If you’re a geologist, you may need a rock hammer and a laser-ablation spectrometer; if you’re a fish systematist, nets and traps and time on a micro-CT scanner; if you’re a historian, books and airline tickets to visit archives. But there’s one tool every academic needs, and that’s research funding. Every academic needs to write grant proposals – and, of course, they ought to be successful ones.
Writing proposals is a craft, and because it’s a different craft from other kinds of writing, grant writing can seem like a daunting challenge. Fortunately, there are three key questions you can ask yourself that will position any application to succeed. They sound awfully simple, but you’d be surprised how many proposals get submitted by people who haven’t asked them.
Here they are:
- First, what’s a grant proposal for?
- Second, what does the granting organization want to see in your proposal?
- And third, who will read and judge it?
These questions reflect, by the way, a more general principle: good writing is about the reader. Good writers ask, before writing anything, who their readers are and what they need to tell them. It’s true for academic papers, it’s true for recipe blogs, it’s true for Regency romances – and it’s absolutely true for grant proposals. I expand on this at length in my book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – the second edition is newly available from the Princeton University Press.
What’s a grant proposal for?
What’s a grant proposal for? Obviously, it’s to convince the granting organisation to fund you – but we can do a bit better than that.
Every proposal needs to convince its readers of three things:
- that the work you’re proposing is worth doing;
- that the work you’re proposing can be done;
- and that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.
- significance, feasibility, and qualifications.
Start with significance:
Why should the granting organisation care about the work you propose? Will it answer an important open question of basic science – and is the granting organisation interested in doing that? Or will it make an advance in applied sociology, like designing better rehabilitation programs for criminal offenders – and is the granting organisation interested in doing that? Explain the importance of your work to your discipline, to society, and to the granting organisation.
Can the work you propose be done? This is the heart of the proposal, where you outline the theory behind your work, the observations you’ll make or the experiments you’ll conduct, and the way you’ll analyse the data that result. You need to explain how you’ll be sure you’ll actually get the data, and how the data will answer your research question. Are you using standard techniques in your field? If you’re using novel techniques, can you show – perhaps with a bit of pilot data – that they work? Will the budget you’re asking for stretch to cover enough data collection to get your answer? A proposal to measure metabolic rates of a hundred captive blue whales, with an apparatus nobody has yet built, will fall on very sceptical ears!
Qualifications are important, too:
It’s one thing to demonstrate that some work can be done; it’s another to demonstrate that you can do it. Here, you need to demonstrate to your proposal’s readers that you have the skills and tools you need to do the work you’ve proposed. Do you have access to necessary equipment, documents, or people? Do you have the permits legally required for the work, or at least, do you know which permits are needed and how to acquire them? Are you experienced with the techniques you’ll use? Your proposal might describe exciting work that everyone wants done; but unless the granting organisation is convinced that you can do it, they’ll probably fund somebody else.
What does the funding organisation want in your proposal?
It’s also important to think about what, specifically, the granting organisation wants to see in the proposals it receives. Sometimes, grant writing can seem like pole-vaulting in a darkened gymnasium; but it needn’t. There are usually explicit criteria that will be applied to adjudicate proposals – and these are very often public. Read the description of the granting program carefully, looking for program goals you can make sure your proposal addresses and keywords you can use to make this obvious. Do the same for the organisation’s mission statement. Look (or ask) for a manual for proposal reviewers, and read it carefully. Just as one example: proposals for Discovery Grants to Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council are evaluated against a set of “merit indicators”. Here’s one of them: “Challenges related to equity, diversity and inclusion [with respect to trainees] specific to the institution and field of research are described”. There’s where the bar is (at least, in one dimension); so include text that shows how you’ll do exactly what’s wanted. Other grants will have other criteria. Write to those criteria, borrowing their terminology so that reviewers can’t miss your approach to clearing the bar.
Who will read and judge your proposal?
Finally, think about your readers as people, not just as representatives of the granting organisation. Who will they be? Sometimes, your proposal will be read by academics in your own field (other hard-rock geologists; other criminologists); other times, by a panel drawn from many fields or disciplines; and other times still, by businesspeople or civil servants. Find out (ask the granting organisation if it isn’t obvious) and consider this as you decide what context your proposal should give and what language you should use.
This isn’t the end of the proposal-writing craft, of course – there are entire books on the topic! But, if you’ve asked yourself those three key questions, and your proposal reflects your answers, you’ll be entering the fray in a strong position. Granting organisations want to give away their money; with a little thought, you can make it more likely they’ll want to give it to you.
For more grant and funding tips see:
- Writing Successful Grant Proposals
- PhD Funding – A Checklist of Possible Sources
- Research in Academic Careers
- Balancing Academic Research and Teaching