10 Red Flags in Grant Writing

Grant writing can occupy a disproportionate amount of faculty time and energy, write Jude Mikal and Sarah Grace, who offer advice to help ensure that such time and energy are well spent.

October 23, 2019
 
 
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A humdrum response from reviewers of your grant proposal can set off a cascade of questions and self-doubt. Did the reviewers not like your research question, or was your approach lacking? Did you effectively communicate the specific contributions of your research to science, or were you too focused on the broad social impacts?

Summary statements from federal agencies and foundations tend to focus on the research methods, and university leadership and research development professionals tend to concentrate on nonscientific errors that undermine proposal success. As a result, scholars double down on methods and presentation.

But what if the biggest issues impacting the quality of your grant proposals are not grant-writing problems at all? By being aware of 10 red flags in grant writing, you can avoid a so-so response to yours.

No. 1: Hyperfocusing. Early-stage researchers often structure grant proposals around specific and incremental advances in research. They promise modest advancements that have value to a specific subfield of research. But that narrow focus emphasizes that a proposal lacks the general interest required for success.

Solution: If you’re a researcher with strong theoretical or methodological interests, you may struggle to identify a broader impact. That level of specificity can be a red flag, indicating that you need to spend time considering the applications of your research. We recommend that you read cross-disciplinary empirical studies with an eye toward how your studies could be improved with a more applied methodological approach or theoretical foundation.

No. 2: Resistance to feedback. Recently, one of us, Jude, met with a junior faculty member to discuss an upcoming submission to the National Institutes of Health. As they discussed opportunities for improvement in the research, the conversation became more and more stilted and forced. This response to feedback can suggest that a researcher is not open to honest criticisms of their work.

Academics receive little coaching on how to provide or receive feedback. As a result, they may interpret it as a failure to meet expectations rather than an opportunity to engage critically with the work being proposed. Those who are resistant to feedback may experience reviewer criticisms as unpleasant or critical -- or may dismiss reviewers as either ideologically opposed, grumpy or simply inattentive.

Solution: By identifying when you are resistant to reviewer feedback, you can take precautions. To start, you can avoid face-to-face feedback in favor of written feedback that enables you to engage with it when and how you choose. In addition, you can seek out a feedback “interpreter.” That person might be a colleague, mentor or research development professional who can distill harsh messaging into palatable, addressable and constructive themes.

No. 3: Decision paralysis. In grant writing, you can get tripped up by small decisions, grinding to a halt over seemingly easy questions. Jude worked with one faculty member, for instance, who had trouble finishing a grant proposal because he could not decide whether to include another co-investigator.

Grant narratives require a series of decisions. You must decide on a topic, research questions and theoretical framing and method, as well as logistical considerations involving your investigative team, target agency and funding opportunity announcement. Making decisions is cognitively burdensome, and stalling in the face of minor ones can occur.

Solution: Remember that the success of a grant seldom hinges on a single decision. Rather, it’s based on a well-justified rationale for decision making. As such, when you stall in the face of small decisions, make a quick list of each option’s pros and cons. Which is easier to justify with respect to larger professional goals? Or could both options be possible?

No. 4: Conducting problem, not solution, research. A colleague of Jude’s proposed a project to identify and quantify the incidence of a particular issue in elder care. Jude's response was: 1) Why go looking for a problem that may not even exist? 2) Will facilities let you go rooting around for problems in their care practices? and 3) What happens if you find that no problem exists? As it turns out, the researcher has compelling preliminary data to suggest a problem in aging care at a number of institutional care facilities but was leery of generalizing.

Solution: Research, especially health-focused research, can be thought of on a broad continuum from identification of a problem to quantification to ultimate intervention and resolution. A focus on problems rather than solutions in grant proposals can be a red flag to scale up your research perspective. In this case, the researcher was starting with the identification of a problem when a more compelling proposal would have begun with its quantification and continued through intervention.

No. 5: Excluding readers. It’s not uncommon to receive grant proposals that are so overrun with field-specific jargon that, even armed with an online dictionary and Google Scholar, we cannot suss out basic information like the research objective, approach or impact.

Graduate schools teach students to speak with a new vocabulary. That new language has the advantage of being specific and of communicating expertise. But in grant writing, overreliance on field-specific terminology can not only confuse reviewers who are outside your specific discipline but also make them resistant to your message. And that can negatively impact your chances of obtaining funding.

Solution: Jargon-laden writing can communicate that the researcher is approaching writing as a student instead of a teacher. Students often write to demonstrate what they know, while instructors write for the benefit of their readers, to convey information and to highlight opportunities for growth in a particular field of research. To avoid jargon, we encourage you to read newspaper and magazine articles on your topic of interest to get a sense of the educated nonexpert’s knowledge, assumptions and language around a particular topic.

No. 6: Hoarding mentorship. In over a decade of research development and faculty support, we’ve seen a number of faculty members make the transition from new faculty to seasoned assistant professors to tenured associate professors. A particular phenomenon seems to happen in the years immediately preceding tenure: seasoned assistant professors begin to submit grant applications for programs that are better suited to new assistant professors or others seeking to make a pronounced midcareer pivot in expertise or approach.

Solution: When a seasoned assistant professor focuses too intently on mentorship opportunities, it can be a red flag that they may perceive themselves as more junior than they are, that they do not see the learning that has taken place and that they are not acknowledging the expertise they bring to collaborative projects. If that’s the case, we recommend looking for leadership opportunities to serve as a mentor for younger, junior investigators.

No. 7: Tearing down, not building up. In a talk Jude attended as a graduate student, the speaker told a story: when he was a graduate student in demography, he had written a critique on an established measurement technique. He was proud of the paper, but when he turned it in to his adviser, the adviser asked, “But what have you created?” Grant proposals can often follow a similar path: tearing down previous approaches rather than acknowledging those approaches as stepping-stones to where the field is currently heading. This overly critical approach can turn reviewers off.

Solution: In academe, engagement often takes the form of critique, but you should distinguish that from criticism. Critique expands while criticism diminishes. If your work is characterized by significant criticism, we recommend positive reframing. Rather than tearing down previous approaches, discuss the ways in which previous work has facilitated your forward progress, and identify the barriers -- technological or theoretical -- that prevented that previous work from reaching the step that you are proposing. The critique then becomes “X has made excellent strides in … but with new technology, we can now …”

No. 8: Generalizing. Jude recently met with a junior faculty member who had significant research experience and showed great promise but was having trouble deciding on a direction for her research. As a graduate student, she had worked on a number of research projects, adapting to project needs and filling a variety of disparate and disjointed roles. That fluidity and adaptability made it difficult for her to specialize, as she saw many of her opportunities as stemming from being an adaptable person who was in the right place at the right time.

Solution: Outgoing grant proposals typically aren’t looking for “someone” but for “someone who specializes in …” For generalists, we typically ask them to identify roles or projects that felt particularly fulfilling or necessary -- and to work on developing skills in those areas, if only in the short term. Once your colleagues know what you can do, they can start asking for your help in doing it.

No. 9: Conveyor belts. Recently, Jude consulted with a new faculty member who told him that he prided himself on his work ethic. The professor would craft a specific aims page for review and, within a day of receiving comments, would have a new draft to review. The problem with this, “OK, done! What now?” approach is that research development professionals are not gatekeepers. Good feedback consists of several open-ended questions designed to encourage researchers to ask themselves whether what they’re proposing is their best work. A quick turnaround can suggest that a researcher is trying to appease reviewers rather than identify his own best work.

Solution: Researchers who act like conveyor belts move quickly. They may easily create a list of plausible research strategies, approaches and justifications but have a harder time selecting the most plausible or convincing. Conveyor belts are the opposite of those who resist feedback, and they often benefit from talking through research ideas with someone who can not only listen but also ask questions and reflect back what they are hearing.

No. 10: Perfectionism. The most common red flag to crop up in grant writing is perfectionism. There is no perfect grant proposal, and even funded proposals often come back with significant critiques from reviewers. While it may be advisable to wait to submit a grant proposal if it’s far from completed, endlessly tinkering keeps you from moving ahead.

Solution: Scientific discovery typically occurs in fits and starts, and progress is rarely definitive. Each new discovery provides some foundation on which to build and some opportunities to replicate with better tools, theories and methods. By waiting for the perfect and definitive step forward, perfectionists exclude themselves from scientific discovery. If you’re a perfectionist, we prescribe submission. The work may not be perfect, but by making it public, you have the chance to be part of the definitive discovery that ultimately transforms your field.

Grant writing can occupy a disproportionate amount of faculty time and energy. Avoiding these 10 red flags will help make sure that time and energy is well spent. In many cases, looking beyond your written proposal and examining your overall approach to research may be the most effective strategy.

Bio

Jude Mikal is a research scientist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has worked for 10 years as an on-site grant reviewer, consulting with faculty and designing programs aimed at educating faculty on best practices in grant-proposal writing. Sarah Grace is a Ph.D. student and teaching and learning resource specialist in the Office of Academic Affairs at the University of Arizona.

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