Three Underappreciated Tips for Writing a Successful Academic Grant Proposal
Most academic grants are highly competitive. However, these three tips can help you stand apart from a field of similarly well-qualified applicants:
- Are you seeking an academic grant for preliminary research? Explicitly state that you will use the funding to obtain a larger grant elsewhere.
- Do you work at a teaching-centered college or university? Discuss how you’re training underserved or high-priority groups.
- Is your project particularly complex? Recruit collaborators, and illustrate how your group will work together for common goals.
- Preliminary research. The purpose of these academic grants is to help you obtain the preliminary results that are necessary for larger grants. This isn’t money to be used for a “fun side project,” or to provide supplemental funding for a currently funded project.
Preferably near the beginning and at the end of your academic grant proposal, explicitly state something along the following lines:
“We will use this funding to obtain preliminary data for an NIH R01 grant.”
This ensures that the funders are completely clear on your intentions. Nevertheless, be realistic; strive to obtain funding only on a level that’s appropriate for your research program.
- Teaching-centered institution. If you work at such an institution, funding agencies likely won’t believe that your research program has national or international stature. Usually, it’s a losing battle to imply otherwise.
I recommend that in addition to a good scientific proposal, you also emphasize that your research provides opportunities to nontraditional groups. This includes primary and secondary school teachers who want to modernize their curricula.
Ten or fifteen percent of the proposal length is not too much. Including only a few sentences will be interpreted as an insincere afterthought.
Possibilities for incorporating this into your grant proposal include:
- Explicitly specify each student’s contributions to your current work, to emphasize that they’re “real” contributors.
- Provide brief student biographies, including their goals and how your research will help them obtain their goals (“so they can get into medical school” may send your application straight into the trash).
- Emphasize any community engagement you conduct that ties into the proposal.
This also helps obtain funding for projects at research-centered universities; yet keep it brief (e.g., one or two paragraphs).
- Complex research. The more complex your project, the more likely that funders will be skeptical that you can achieve your goals without collaborators. Obtaining real collaborators requires substantial planning.
It’s easiest to have a true collaborative relationship with faculty at your own institution: ease of face-to-face communication and so on. Unfortunately, small institutions are less likely to have researchers whose interests closely align with your own, or contribute specialized unmet materials and needs.
Possibilities for initiating collaborations include:
- Contact, by email, researchers whose work interests you. Keep your email brief and to the point.
- Strike up a conversation with an interested scientist at a conference.
Regardless of your approach, emphasize to your potential colleagues how you can both benefit from the collaboration. Emphasize this shared benefit in your academic grant proposal as well.
A major reward for your efforts is that the ability to obtain funding for collaborative research will enhance your ability to obtain additional academic grants, and publish in well-regarded journals.
In summary, although academic grant proposals are highly competitive, there are clear ways to attract the interest of funding agencies. You can use any or all of the following techniques, depending on your situation:
- For preliminary research, emphasize that your goal is to obtain a larger grant.
- For teaching-centered institutions, highlight your community engagement and work with nontraditional students.
- For complex research, establish close outside collaborations to convince otherwise skeptical reviewers that your project will succeed.
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Keywords: academic grant, R01, R03, R21, NIH, NSF, DoD