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It’s hard to gain control over your career as a scholar. The job market has been bleak and uneven for years. Promotion and tenure criteria are often nebulous. But there’s one clear way to gain control: Invest more in grant-writing skills.

Grant writing can be a key way to earn promotion and tenure. A 2020 study of 92 randomly selected institutions worldwide found that 67 percent listed grant funding as a major criterion for promotion and tenure. That study focused on the biomedical sciences. But grant writing has also been singled out as a crucial marker for promotion in other disciplines like geosciences.

Grant writing may be less crucial for promotion in disciplines like the humanities, but it can shape scholarly careers in other ways. A survey of 4,700 researchers worldwide found that 36 percent said grant writing made a difference in their career success.

Yet, unfortunately, many scholars don’t know how to write fundable grants, a problem I’d like to help fix. So, based on strategies that I’ve learned securing funding from agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, as well as interviews with 100 experts about their best grant-writing advice, I recommend that you take seven actions to write more fundable grants.

#1. Submit. Submitting is the only way to succeed in grant writing. This seems obvious. Yet women and scholars of color submit grants at lower rates than white men. Draft and submit your grants to practice grant writing skills and get feedback on your ideas.

#2. Find the right fit. A common mistake that new grant writers make is choosing a bad target. Funders and the scholars who review for the funder need to be convinced that your work matters, and it will be easier to make this case if you spend time identifying which funders are likely to appreciate your work.

Here are a few ways to determine fit: Ask mentors. Mentors will be able direct you to the funders most likely to fund your work. In addition, review CVs of scholars whose work you admire, and identify which funders supported their work. Last, study funders. Look for a list of their most recent awards. Does your work fit well with the type of work they have recently funded? Finding a good match with a funder is time well spent.;

#3. Address the funder’s mission. Funders aren’t looking for phenomenal grants—they are seeking phenomenal grants that further their mission. Learn the mission of the funder and show how your grant addresses that mission. For example, my program at the National Science Foundation is the Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment program. This program cares about how humans interact with their environment when exposed to hazards and disasters, so if you write a grant to this program, your work must show how you address those topics and issues. If you fail to meet this mission, even an amazing grant will not get funded. Research the mission of your program and funder, and make sure your work aligns. If not, seek out a different funder with a better fit.

#4. Choose an idea you care about. Scholars often get lost in chasing funding as the goal in grant writing. But that is a misunderstanding of the potential benefits for grant writing. Grant writing creates opportunities to pursue ideas you care about. Choose an idea you are willing to spend many hours on, as writing takes time. One of my recent grants took 68 hours to write, and this was a relatively fast writing time for me. Beyond writing, you will need to do the work of the grant if it’s funded.

Some questions to ask yourself to find ideas that matter to you:

  • In the last paper you wrote, what did you list as future directions for your work?
  • What talks are you drawn to at conferences? Why is that?
  • What ideas do you have that grow from the work you are drawn to?
  • What do you feel is missing from the current literature? Could a grant help you address those problems?

#5. Explain why your work matters. Many scholars get caught up in the technical details of how they will conduct their work. It’s much more important to start by making a case for why people should fund your work. You must explain why before you explain what. Practical ways to build the case for your work are to focus on significance:

  • What is the big question you hope to answer?
  • What’s under threat?
  • What would it mean if you could solve a problem with your work?
  • What’s the controversy that exists in the field? Why should we care?

#6. Talk to a program officer. Program officers understand the mission of their program and of the funder. Once you have a short (i.e., one page) draft of what you hope to do, reach out to one via email. Learn who your program officer is by reading the funding announcement for the grant you are applying for. Their name and email is usually listed in the announcement. Not all program officers will meet with applicants. However, as long as the funder does not explicitly forbid you from contacting program officers in their materials, it is acceptable to reach out to ask if this is a possibility. You are learning how the funder operates.

#7. Explain the rationale for your plan. In review panels, the most common reviewer complaint I hear is that the methods are underspecified or that it’s not clear why the person or team is choosing to do a particular activity. For instance, a proposal might state that the team plans to recruit 1,000 fathers. But the team has not explained why they are targeting fathers, whether they will be able to identify and recruit fathers, or why they thought 1,000 participants was the appropriate target number. As you write, make sure you are answering questions like: Why did you make this decision? Is this work feasible for you?

Taking these seven actions will help you write more fundable grants and gain control over your scholarly career. And don’t give up if you aren’t funded on the first try. Most people need to submit a grant multiple times to secure funding. For example, at the National Science Foundation, principal investigators submit about between two and three proposals for every award they receive. To succeed in grant writing, submit. And then submit again.

Betty S. Lai is an associate professor at Boston College and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. She is the author of The Grant Writing Guide: A Road Map for Scholars (Princeton University Press).

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