Grant Writing: 10 Tips from a Successful Researcher

Jan 24, 2014

By Ezra E.W. Cohen, MD, FRCPC, The University of Chicago

Writing a great grant is like writing an inspirational story—the characters must be interesting, the plot has to develop in a logical manner, and the ending should express hope and future potential. Here are 10 tips to help turn your great idea into a fundable grant application.

1. Start early
No matter how long the submission or how rigorous the funding agency, the greatest asset you have is time.You will need time to develop the aims with your mentorship team, choose the appropriate methodology, and for peers to review the grant prior to submission—plus, most institutions require one to two weeks to process grants internally for submission. For a career development grant, start at least six months in advance, preferably one year.

2. Find the right funding request and follow its rules
Your mentors can assist in finding appropriate funding mechanisms, and your institution likely has a catalog offunding sources. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) website is an invaluable resource to find federally funded grants and can be searched by grant type (K-series, R-series, etc.), keywords, issue date, and other criteria. Almost all grant applications will be in response to an agency request, which will outline the type of ideas that would be appropriate, requirements, and deadline. Read the request for application (RFA) carefully to decide whether it’s suitable. Some grants are very specific about what will be funded; if your concept does not fit these criteria, it is likely not worth the effort to apply. NIH K-series grants are specific for the type of research (clinical, laboratory, health services, prevention, etc.), while R-series parent grants do not specify research area.

After deciding which grant to apply for, talk to the scientific officer or grant administrator at the funding agency. These individuals can help you craft the grant for the best chance of being funded. They can advise on exactly what the agency is seeking and what has been funded in the past. They can often also refer you to valuable information about the RFA.

Unless the grant is a completely new offering, you will likely have an opportunity to read prior successful applications.There may be someone who would feel comfortable sharing his or her full grant with you. It is a good ideato read one or two recent successful applications to get a sense of the format used and what is expected.

3. Define your hypothesis (“That's my hypothesis and I'm sticking to it!”)
Good science starts with an hypothesis.This seems like a simple and obvious statement but, all too often, applications lose sight of the hypothesis being tested. When you get stuck, go back to the original hypothesis and focus on addressing the primary issue.

4. Start with specific aims
The specific aims page is a nearly universal requirement and is the most critical part of the grant. It helps focus your grant and provides a framework for you to start writing. It helps to orient reviewers to your grant by setting up the science, budget, and other components. It is the part of the grant that all panelists read. Most granting agencies have primary and secondary reviewers who will read your entire application and present their assessment to the review panel. Each member of the panel will enter a score. Most panelists, except for these reviewers, will not read your entire grant but will pay attention to the specific aims page.

5. Build a team, get feedback (and do not forget your statistician)
You are ultimately responsible for the content and execution of the grant, but gathering a team of advisors is an absolute necessity. The team should consist of your mentors, one or two researchers in the field independent of your work, and a biostatistician. Solicit them early for assistance—the sooner the better. They will help refine your ideas and hypothesis, finalize the specific aims, and select appropriate methods. Involve a statistician early in the process, even if you think the grant is straightforward from a statistical point of view. Almost all applications are now read by a statistical reviewer who will wonder how you selected your sample size and determined significance of results. Moreover, an application will appear more sophisticated if you demonstrate to reviewers that you have been thoughtful about the approach.

After composing your team, engage them often. They should review evolving versions of the specific aims and mature versions of the full grant. Remember that your team members have other responsibilities, so be fair with respect to what you ask them to read and the deadlines you set.

6. Write with purpose
Every sentence in a grant should serve a purpose. Reviewers are usually asked to read several grants each cycle, so succinct and concise language, an overriding hypothesis and objective, and a logical flow of ideas are critical. Review panels reward novelty, so you should be intimately familiar with the current literature on the subject before writing the grant, and be able to detail how your proposal is new. The methodology section should summarize what you plan to do without excessive detail: your reader only needs enough information to understand the experiments, not to repeat them. Figures should be simple, absolutely necessary, and easy to read.

Convince the reviewers that the problem you are addressing is imperative at this moment in time, and that you are the best person to solve it.

7. Be realistic, and provide contingency and future plans
Funding agencies reward projects that are feasible and achievable within the timeframe of the granting period. No grant is perfect and every investigator needs to make choices in the research plan, but it is to your advantage to demonstrate that you have thought about alternative approaches and potential pitfalls. An application should flow from one aim to the next with clear relationships, but be cautious not to have one aim completely dependent on the results of another: if the latter fails, so will the former. Discuss how the results of the research will be advanced beyond the funding period and what funding will mean to your progress. Some applications specifically ask for this, but include this even if you are not overtly asked to do so.

8. Pay attention to the mentor letter
Early-career grants are awarded as much for the science as for the mentors and resources available, a recognition of the critical role of mentorship for the early-stage scientist. The usual mechanism to demonstrate the relationship you have with your mentor and the support being provided is the mentor letter. The reality is that most mentors do not have the time to write a stunning letter. It behooves you to review mentor letters from other grants and define what constitutes an excellent letter for the specific RFA, read the mentor letter if allowable, and even help draft the letter for your grant.

9. Be aware of unspoken fine lines
There are two arts of grant writing that will never appear in an RFA:

  • There is a fine line between preliminary data provided and experiments proposed. Reviewers usually want to see enough preliminary data to demonstrate that the hypothesis has validity and the research is feasible. However, you obviously have to propose experiments that have not already been done. Navigating this line will be rewarded.
  • There is a fine line between focus and its enemy, mundaneness. The ideal grant generates excitement in readers combined with a sense of feasibility.


10. Perseverance pays off
Almost all awarded applications were preceded by failed attempts. Keep trying and you will succeed.

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