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Tips for Success

The path to successful sponsored research has been crossed by a multitude of people proposing a multitude of projects.  We can learn from their experiences and increase the likelihood of receiving support, managing it, and receiving future support.  The tips listed here are a summary of presentations, experiences and readings from a variety of sources. We hope you find this helpful and that we are soon assisting you in submitting and managing successful proposals!

12 Steps to Writing Successful Grant Proposals

Robert Porter, PhD

GrantWinners Seminars

Grant writing is different from academic writing in that it focuses on project, activities and outcomes – it is a world of action as opposed to academic writing which tends toward the world of ideas.  

Submitting proposals for external funding can be considered a ‘low probability game’ because most funders only award 20 – 30% of all submitted proposals. Paying attention to details and resubmitting (national rates show that about only 11% of first submissions are awarded while nearly 34% of re-submissions are awarded) are a big part of being successful at obtaining funding for your projects.  More than 60% of proposals are rejected at the first reading because the proposal didn’t match the program or the applicant didn’t follow the directions.

When considering writing a proposal, begin with the problem because that is what makes your proposal. A problem is defined as:

  • An important need or issue that should be addressed,
  • A gap between where we are now and where we could be, or
  • A limitation of current knowledge or way of doing things. 

A problem is also an opportunity:

  • A fresh idea that can advance our understanding or address a societal need
  • A refinement that improves efficiency or lowers the cost of good and/or services
  • A new paradigm that reshapes our thinking or way of doing things

Reviewers are looking for:

  • Significance
  • Creativity (uniqueness)
  • Clearly delineated project
  • Research plan (methodology)
  • Outcomes (evaluation)
  • Clear, concise writing that is
    • Easy to read
    • Adheres to or exceeds font and margin requirements
  • Provides a clear reason to fund the project without reasons to decline funding

What is the formula for success?  Success = Good Ideas – Pitfalls!

There is plenty of evidence to show that good ideas are often undermined by missteps in proposal preparation (which usually occur when submitting at the very last minute).  The following are some common proposal pitfalls and strategies to avoid them.

  1. Verify the match
    1. Develop your funding search skills
    2. Study program goals and eligibility
    3. Make contact with program officers before starting your proposal
      1. Read the program announcement carefully, note any questions you may have
      2. Research previous awards
      3. Send brief, (2 – 3 paragraphs) overview of your proposal
      4. Inquire about alternative funding sources
  2. Structure the proposal
    1. Always follow the format provided by the sponsor!  Where not is provided, build your case in distinct sections.
    2. Problem Statement; or Significance of the Research
    3. Project Purpose (Overall goal + Specific objectives)
    4. Research Design; or Work Plan (Activities + Timelines)
    5. Applicant qualifications and capabilities (Biosketches, Facilities descriptions)
    6. Evaluation plan or Expected outcomes
    7. Budget (Summary + Justifications)
  3. Prove the importance of the project
    1. State your purpose and case for need up front; build a compelling argument
    2. Think “Op Ed”; not academic journal
    3. Cite authoritative source(s)
  4. Assume an uninformed but intelligent reader
    1. Use clear, accessible language
    2. Stick with direct statements and active voice
    3. Avoid insider jargon and acronyms
  5. Formulate specific, measurable objectives
    1. A goal is a general statement of the project’s overall purpose(s) – where you are going
    2. An objective is a specific measurable outcome or milepost – how you know you arrived
  6. Illustrate: project concept and the work plan
    1. Visualize the overall project with a drawing
    2. Specify major tasks and timelines; use Gantt charts, calendars or flow charts
  7. Follow application instructions EXACTLY!
    1. Common sins:
      1. Late submission
      2. Narrative too long
      3. Fonts, margins, spacing too small
      4. Signatures, certifications missing
      5. Budget narrative missing
      6. Insufficient number of copies (if you have to submit hard copies)
      7. Inappropriate binding (if you submit hard copies)
  8. Pay attention to all review criteria!
    1. Read evaluation standards carefully; then reference them in the project narrative
    2. Touch all the bases – not just the ones you’re comfortable with
  9. Polish the abstract
    1. Written last, but read first by reviewers
    2. Must be an intriguing ‘first advertisement’
    3. Should reflect entire scope of project
    4. Summarized project purpose and methods
    5. Must convey:
      1. What researcher intends to do
      2. Why it’s important
      3. Expected outcome(s)
      4. How work will be accomplished
  10. Presubmission review
    1. Ask seasoned colleagues for comments and suggestions
    2. Should be qualified to critique proposal content
    3. Check your ego at the door
    4. Allow time for rewrites
  11. Use proofreaders
    1. Find an eagle eyed perfectionist and someone who has a fresh set of eyes
    2. Proofreaders read for form not content
    3. Must be someone who has no stake in the project
    4. Learn to love what s/he will do for you
    5. Zero tolerance – no error is too small to correct
    6. Root out inconsistencies in format, as well as typos, misspellings, grammar, etc.
  12. Write, rewrite and rewrite
    1. Most winning proposals have been polished repeatedly
    2. Let it rest in between; sleep on every rewrite
    3. Fight the evil Pride of Authorship