Grant Writing 101

Grant writing may be an expected or an optional part of your training and professionalization. Regardless of its importance in your discipline, securing outside funding can enable you not only to finish your dissertation, but also to contribute to the state of art in your field. It gives you the opportunity to develop in your dissertation proposal clarity, a sense of purpose, clear steps for implementation and data analysis, and a strong sense of broader outcomes. Moreover, establishing yourself as a contributor to your field gives you the self-esteem, confidence, and motivation you need to see your dissertation through to completion. Below, we list some of the important things to consider in the process of preparing, writing, and revising your grant applications.

Get Prepared: It’s important to define your project before you get started. What is your project? Who is its audience? What agencies would be open to funding your research?

  • Be clear about the purpose, scope, and project goals, and specify who will benefit from the research and the expected project outcomes.
  • Specify the project outcomes in measurable terms whenever possible.
  • Solicit feedback from colleagues and mentors about your research while it is still in the conceptual stages.
  • Present adequate preliminary data to support your case.
  • Develop a feasible timeline with draft application deadlines.
  • Ask colleagues, or the Office of Sponsored Research, for copies of successfully completed grant applications.
  • Make sure that your institution will allow you enough time to accomplish the research, if funded.
  • See what other projects in your field are being funded, and consider turning competitors into collaborators to improve the strength of your proposal.
  • Determine the expertise needed for your research study team (whether it’s particular individuals, collaborating organizations, resources, etc.).

Identify the Right Funding Sources: Find suitable funding agencies for your research, and review the grant application instructions for important information on the application process and guidance on preparing specific sections of the application.

  • Look for a match between the purpose and goals of your project and the funder’s priorities.
  • Think of the funder as a resource, and identify a program officer who will address your questions.
  • Make direct contact with funders to ask if they would consider supporting a project like yours; this eliminates unnecessary work later on, and can help you glean important tips on tailoring your application to the agency’s preferences.
  • Some funders offer technical assistance on preparing applications, others do not. Ask if they will review proposal drafts.
  • Ask the funding agency about the minimum and maximum amounts of funding available, and find out the average monetary size of awards.
  • Find out whether the funder has other grant sources for which your project is eligible.

Writing your proposal: The procedures for writing grant applications vary widely. Make sure you follow each agency’s specific guidelines. Adapt these common elements to each funder’s specifications: an introduction where you state the topic, the problem your research seeks to answer, and your hypothesis; a background section where you review prior relevant academic literature on your topic or research problem; a methodology section, where you lay out the steps you will take to gather data that answer your research question; a researcher bio, in which you describe your qualifications to undertake the proposed research; a budget to justify the funding being sought; and a statement of the broader impacts your research will have within your discipline, or for the public at large.

  • In the introduction, use your very first sentence to “hook” the reader. This can be done by framing an unexpected paradox or unresolved question that seems to invite further inquiry, and also by presenting your research as timely or original.
  • Generate a hypothesis to your research question, and convey it clearly and succinctly so the reader doesn’t feel confused about your question and your proposed answer.
  • Highlight the relevance of your topic for the state of the art in your field, or to broader social issues and challenges—show that you’re “filling in the missing piece” that will answer a pressing problem.
  • Demonstrate and affirm that your research is doable, and that it can be completed within the time-frame and funding allotment that the agency proposes. To this end, use language that is realistic and empirically precise (for example, Whom will you interview? What do you want to get out of your interviews? How do you know they will talk to you? How many interviews must you do?). At the same time, demonstrate flexibility (What will you do if your research doesn’t go according to plan?)
  • In your background section, it’s important to establish the context for your study. Do so by pointing out debates and disjunctures that present the pressing opportunity of your study. Show how your research engages with broad themes and topics.
  • In your biographical section, provide reviewers with evidence that you have the appropriate experience and training for the size and scope of the project.
  • Letters of reference and institutional commitment may be important, and mention as well any prior studies you’ve done, start-up funds, support for a technician, or other resources that show the commitment and backing of your institution to the reviewers.
  • Demonstrate that your budget is realistic by specifying costs for each line of entry. Make sure the budget detail and justification match the agency’s requirements.

Write in a way that is straightforward, accessible to non-specialists, and jargon-free. To that end, make sure you carefully justify concepts and typologies, and use them consistently throughout your application. This is one of the most challenging aspects of grant-writing: you should show your knowledge, expertise, and passion without being pedantic, dismissive, or inaccessible to a reader who may not be an expert in your field.

Bear in mind that additional elements may be required for your application. These may include appendix materials, bibliographies or works cited, consortium or contractual arrangements, letters of confirmation from consultants, facilities access or demonstration of other resources, forms certifying protection of human subjects from research risks, a plan for sharing or disseminating your research, or a leadership plan if your project requires multiple coordinated investigators.

Finally, allow sufficient time to put the completed application aside and then edit it from a fresh perspective. Try proofreading the application by reading it aloud. Recruit a colleague or mentor (if possible, both inside and outside of your academic discipline) to revise and give suggestions about your draft. It pays to have a zero-tolerance approach to typographical errors, misspellings, grammatical mistakes, and sloppy formatting. Good luck!

– Anders Wallace