Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers
Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers

Want to Write a Successful Grant? Nail This Part First. [Guest Post]

Want to Write a Successful Grant? Nail This Part First. [Guest Post]

Learn how to save time when writing grants by getting feedback on your research idea early. Guest author and health grant specialist Sarah Dobson kicks off a mini-series on grant writing.

I recently spent some time chatting with a few early career researchers who’d submitted at least one major application to a funding agency. I wanted to know about what they found challenging about writing a major grant application.

In my work as a grant consultant I tend to see the same issues over and over again, so I have my own opinions about what PIs struggle with. But I wanted to hear directly from them: what do they see as their biggest challenge? 

I’m glad I asked. Because the answers I got from these folks helped me to clarify one of the most important pieces of grant writing advice I offer my clients and students.   

Here’s what these early career researchers said about what they find most challenging when it comes to grant writing:

“I required too much time to get the grant into a shape where it could be reasonably criticized by others.”

“If you do it the way I do it now, you’re getting so married to your idea because you spend so much time on it. But you probably won’t see fundamental issues anymore or opportunities to spin things in a different way.”

Graphic promoting a free scientific writing class for researchers

In other words: they get so immersed in their own writing that they don’t leave enough time for a good critique from colleagues, and they don’t create enough distance that they can identify flaws in their proposal. And even if they did get good, timely feedback they’re already so invested in their idea that they’re reluctant to change it.

Sound familiar?

At first, I thought this was a planning issue. But when I asked the PIs what they thought would solve the problem, I got this instead:

“Putting out a kind of architecture that can be changed, instead of a final building.”

That insight got all my strategic gears turning. When you’re just starting to get your ideas down on paper, you need to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. You want to avoid spending so much time on your proposal that you end up married to a bad idea. 

But how?

To use the construction analogy, what would it mean as a grant writer to create a blueprint instead of starting to build right away?

The answer is:

Focus on your Specific Aims page first, before you write your full application.

Your research blueprint—written on a single page—is way easier to adapt than a full draft of your research plan.

Using your Specific Aims page as the framework for your full proposal will save you from getting too attached to a poorly or incompletely conceived idea. Once you’ve nailed your aims page, you know that you’re headed in the right direction with your full grant proposal. Spending the time to get your aims page right is one of the smartest and most efficient ways to write your application.

Here’s the process I recommend:

1. Write a one-page draft of your Specific Aims according to the requirements of your granting agency.

This draft is not supposed to be perfect, it’s supposed to be a starting point. Don’t get stuck trying to perfect it before you circulate it. That defeats the whole purpose!

2. Get some feedback on your aims from colleagues and/or mentors. 

Take it from someone who’s made this mistake: ask your readers to comment on your concept or idea, otherwise you might get feedback that’s not useful to you at this stage. 

3. Refine your aims based on the feedback you get. 

I get asked a lot how to handle conflicting advice from colleagues and mentors. My best advice? You’re the PI, so you have to decide. It isn’t easy, but it’s part of your job. What’s the best way forward for your project? Let that be your guide.

4. Now that your aims are starting to get a bit closer to their final form, reach out to a grants officer to see if your idea is a good fit for the funding agency’s mission and priorities.

They won’t be able to tell you whether your project will get funded, of course, but you’ll be able to figure out if your application is something they’re interested in.

5. Only start writing your full application once you feel confident that you have your aims locked down and you have a fundable idea. 

Otherwise you’re wasting your own time. 

Of course, writing and refining your specific aims before you tackle your full application means that you need to be really, really organized and start well in advance of the deadline. And that’s another huge challenge for most PIs (early career or otherwise).

But the students I work with tell me that this is, hands-down, the piece of advice that makes the biggest difference in their grant writing process. 

Have you used this approach before? Will you try it? I’d love to hear how it goes.

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

About the Author:

Sarah Dobson is a grant writing consultant specializing in applications to the US National Institutes of Health and other health research funding agencies. She works primarily with early career clinical and translational scientists to help them write clear, persuasive, and more competitive grant proposals. She has taught more than 1500 researchers from around the world in her online grant writing workshops, and hosts in-person workshops at universities across North America. Sign up for updates about her next grant writing workshop at www.sarahdobson.ca/newsletter and follow her on Twitter @sarahcdobson.

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Want to Write a Successful Grant? Nail This Part First. [Guest Post]

Learn how to save time when writing grants by getting feedback on your research idea early. Guest author and health grant specialist Sarah Dobson kicks off a mini-series on grant writing.

I recently spent some time chatting with a few early career researchers who’d submitted at least one major application to a funding agency. I wanted to know about what they found challenging about writing a major grant application.

In my work as a grant consultant I tend to see the same issues over and over again, so I have my own opinions about what PIs struggle with. But I wanted to hear directly from them: what do they see as their biggest challenge? 

I’m glad I asked. Because the answers I got from these folks helped me to clarify one of the most important pieces of grant writing advice I offer my clients and students.   

Here’s what these early career researchers said about what they find most challenging when it comes to grant writing:

“I required too much time to get the grant into a shape where it could be reasonably criticized by others.”

“If you do it the way I do it now, you’re getting so married to your idea because you spend so much time on it. But you probably won’t see fundamental issues anymore or opportunities to spin things in a different way.”

Graphic promoting a free scientific writing class for researchers

In other words: they get so immersed in their own writing that they don’t leave enough time for a good critique from colleagues, and they don’t create enough distance that they can identify flaws in their proposal. And even if they did get good, timely feedback they’re already so invested in their idea that they’re reluctant to change it.

Sound familiar?

At first, I thought this was a planning issue. But when I asked the PIs what they thought would solve the problem, I got this instead:

“Putting out a kind of architecture that can be changed, instead of a final building.”

That insight got all my strategic gears turning. When you’re just starting to get your ideas down on paper, you need to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. You want to avoid spending so much time on your proposal that you end up married to a bad idea. 

But how?

To use the construction analogy, what would it mean as a grant writer to create a blueprint instead of starting to build right away?

The answer is:

Focus on your Specific Aims page first, before you write your full application.

Your research blueprint—written on a single page—is way easier to adapt than a full draft of your research plan.

Using your Specific Aims page as the framework for your full proposal will save you from getting too attached to a poorly or incompletely conceived idea. Once you’ve nailed your aims page, you know that you’re headed in the right direction with your full grant proposal. Spending the time to get your aims page right is one of the smartest and most efficient ways to write your application.

Here’s the process I recommend:

1. Write a one-page draft of your Specific Aims according to the requirements of your granting agency.

This draft is not supposed to be perfect, it’s supposed to be a starting point. Don’t get stuck trying to perfect it before you circulate it. That defeats the whole purpose!

2. Get some feedback on your aims from colleagues and/or mentors. 

Take it from someone who’s made this mistake: ask your readers to comment on your concept or idea, otherwise you might get feedback that’s not useful to you at this stage. 

3. Refine your aims based on the feedback you get. 

I get asked a lot how to handle conflicting advice from colleagues and mentors. My best advice? You’re the PI, so you have to decide. It isn’t easy, but it’s part of your job. What’s the best way forward for your project? Let that be your guide.

4. Now that your aims are starting to get a bit closer to their final form, reach out to a grants officer to see if your idea is a good fit for the funding agency’s mission and priorities.

They won’t be able to tell you whether your project will get funded, of course, but you’ll be able to figure out if your application is something they’re interested in.

5. Only start writing your full application once you feel confident that you have your aims locked down and you have a fundable idea. 

Otherwise you’re wasting your own time. 

Of course, writing and refining your specific aims before you tackle your full application means that you need to be really, really organized and start well in advance of the deadline. And that’s another huge challenge for most PIs (early career or otherwise).

But the students I work with tell me that this is, hands-down, the piece of advice that makes the biggest difference in their grant writing process. 

Have you used this approach before? Will you try it? I’d love to hear how it goes.

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

About the Author:

Sarah Dobson is a grant writing consultant specializing in applications to the US National Institutes of Health and other health research funding agencies. She works primarily with early career clinical and translational scientists to help them write clear, persuasive, and more competitive grant proposals. She has taught more than 1500 researchers from around the world in her online grant writing workshops, and hosts in-person workshops at universities across North America. Sign up for updates about her next grant writing workshop at www.sarahdobson.ca/newsletter and follow her on Twitter @sarahcdobson.

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Photography by Alice Dix