Writing Successful Grant Proposals

Most sizable grants are just too large and complex to write in a single heroic burst of last-minute effort, says Victoria McGovern, who offers advice on how to craft successful proposals.

August 7, 2017

If you are working toward getting your first substantial grant funded, expect to spend at least a couple of months learning what a good grant is. Then expect to work on your proposal for another two or three months.

A 2015 paper looking at faculty effort spent on writing grants in two fields, psychology and astronomy, found that among those experienced writers, the principal investigator -- the person taking the lead in the grant and proposed work -- spent an average of 116 hours on a proposal while a co-investigator spent 55 hours. Even faculty members who like to work under deadline pressure have to spread the work out. Most sizable grants are just too large and complex to write in a single heroic burst of last-minute effort.

Attending short grant-writing seminars or watching them online can help you understand the elements of the type of proposal you aim to write. The National Institutes of Health has a wealth of materials, ranging from cut-and-dried instructions to a two-part video grant-writing course, that can help you gain insight into preparing each element of a grant from the scientific abstract to your personal statement.

Multiple NIH divisions have also developed their own instructional materials, so if you want to get numerous takes on what is important in a proposal, just browse the various institutes’ resources. Although the National Endowment for the Humanities doesn’t have the benefit of many institutes generating content, they too have materials online to help walk you through preparing your first grants.

While scientific and humanistic grants look substantially different, they have much in common. Whatever your field, you can analyze a grant much like you can a short story: read it through whole once or a few times, then begin dissecting it to see how and why its parts fit together. What is the title? Why did the writer pick it? What does the writer tell you about the world as it is now understood, and how does that person construct an argument that will take the reader through questions that could generate a new and different understanding?

The key to writing good grants is reading well-written grants, really studying them until you understand what makes them persuasive. If you read until you can recognize a well-written grant, then write a serious draft yourself and seek out hard criticism from experienced grant writers, you can accelerate your development as a writer and a thinker.

Given the importance of grants to the research enterprise, surprisingly few papers have been written on how institutions teach it. Virginia Commonwealth University’s psychology department has documented its approach -- a special-topics course in which small groups of students learn the craft by writing applications for F31s, NIH's code for individual predoctoral fellowships. Emory University’s graduate division of biochemistry, cell and developmental biology has recently written about its course, which also uses preparation of an F31 application as a teaching tool.

Both courses meet once a week for a semester and draw early graduate students. VCU’s course introduces the elements of the grant and provides students with persuasive and less-compelling proposals to help them recognize what makes effective grant proposals work and how ineffective ones err. Students participate in multiple rounds of review of sample grants, learning to critically compare proposals and gaining a sense of the workload involved in service on peer-review panels. After analyzing and reviewing other researchers’ proposals for several weeks, the students begin work on writing their own, focusing on one element at a time starting with the “Specific Aims” section, the concise description of the work each writer planned to achieve with the proposed support.

Emory’s class, named Hypothesis Design and Scientific Writing, requires a similar level of effort from students. With nearly 20 years’ worth of their own students’ writing, the course directors have a substantial set of successful proposals and less accomplished counterexamples to illustrate convincing and dubious ways of building the F31’s subparts and assembling them into a whole. By the end of the course, students will have written and rewritten up to four times each element of their proposal, and every proposal will have gone through multiple rounds of critical review -- including by fellow students, senior students who have already gone through the same training, course faculty members and the students’ dissertation advisers.

Ways to Learn the Skills

At both institutions, students taking the course have seen their invested time and hard work pay off with a funded fellowship. But what if your institution has not developed something similar? Whether or not formal training is available, anyone who can succeed in graduate school can do the work required to acquire at this crucial skill.

You might try asking your faculty to develop a course, either as a formal part of the curriculum or as an occasional informal opportunity. If no one faculty member has time to build a course, you’re still not out of luck. Ask faculty members in your program if they would share their past proposals, funded or not, with interested graduate students and postdocs in the department.

If an expectation of getting grants is relatively new to academics in your field and your faculty members are themselves struggling to master the genre, you can conduct a web search. For example, searching terms like "humanities research grant examples" or "NSF proposal samples" will yield plenty of models to dissect. Searching for "funded grant proposals" will lead you both to grants that researchers have posted online and to philosophical discussions on what a scholar should share and when.

Talk to other students and postdocs around you and try to find a few people who are also interested in developing grant-writing skills. You don’t need to put together a large group -- you can learn a great deal by working with a group small enough to sit around a kitchen table. Even if none of you knows the ins and outs of writing grants, comparing your opinions on sample proposals will help you gain a sense of what makes a good grant work.

When you start reading grants, you may be impressed by descriptions of work using cutting-edge technologies or by buzzword-strewn introductions. But after working carefully through the proposals, you will soon begin recognizing the linear thinking and logical experimental design that convince a reasonable reader that the proposed work won’t become meaningless if the universe turns out to work differently than the author expected.

Polishing one another’s own draft proposals will improve your own writing and ensure that when your adviser or another faculty member reads your first solid draft, their critique will focus on your ideas and improving grant-writing elements rather than on your spelling, grammar or rhetoric. Then it’s back to the computer to improve on your attempt. It may take writing one or a few more drafts, but your proposal will get better and stronger, and then it will be ready for peer review.


Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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