Let’s think for a minute about what happens once your grants specialist hits that magical submit button on due day. The application winds its way through electronic signals to end up on the desk of the program officer and gets added to a stack of hundreds—if not thousands—of identical 149 page applications.
The truth is, the decision on who gets funding and who does not, lays in the power of only a handful of people. And unfortunately, those people come from two very different backgrounds.
How do you write your application for the real audience—reviewers?
A grant application is a marketing tool to sell your idea to two very different audiences at the same time: the funding agency and the review committee. The review committee is the gatekeeper for the funding agency; they recommend which proposals the funding agency should support.
The reviewers often have a scientific background in your field and many will be familiar with not only the area of need you have identified to work in, but also your organization, if not you personally as an investigator. This can be a very daunting thought. It is important to understand how the review process works with your funding agency so that your funding strategy is successful.
Do your Background Research
First, do your background research. Ensure that your idea is truly new and unique; there is nothing worse than having a reviewer denial because an identical study was funded five years ago. Know your stuff when you write your application.
Then, understand how the review process works. Study sections and review panels change with each agency and even between RFPs depending on the situation. Understanding the review process is vital to your success. Ask your Program Officer to explain the reviewing process.
- What is the core criteria used to evaluate applications?
- How is the overall impact score generated? How does the scoring system work?
- Are there any special circumstances, such as young investigator exemptions?
- Which is the most qualified study section or review panel for my application?
Keep things Exciting and Easy to Read
Keep your proposal exciting to read. While each funding agency has a different review process, and each review committee is different; there are similarities to keep in mind while writing your application.
- Reviewers are often reading thousands of pages each day. You need to make a good impression fast and reviewers should understand your project by the end of the first page.
- You need to ensure that your enthusiasm for the project is transferred through reviewer understanding in the very first read, they should not have to re-read the proposal.
- Only about 10-20% of reviewers will be experts in your field, and they must understand your project clearly within the first read through of your paper.
You must write the application for the reviewer and not for yourself. The harder the application is to read, the less the reviewer will want to read it, and the less likely it becomes that they will be an advocate for your proposal in the final selection committee.
Your Background, Significance, and Methods Sections
The background is one of the least understood sections of the proposal. Most people summarize the relevant field and impress reviewers with their scope of knowledge; this is what you should NOT do. This section is not solely to justify you as a principal investigator; this section is to justify your proposed research.
Do not make the mistake of assuming the reviewer has magical knowledge of your problem. You need to explain the driving need or problem for your project as though your reader is new to your area. Take the time to develop a compelling problem and explain why this is an important puzzle to solve.
Back up your methods. If you are a young research, or your team has limited experience, you need to convince the reviewers that you understand the methods you are proposing and that they are evidence-based and proven methods. You can do this in many ways:
- Cite a publication that used a similar method that provides background and support.
- Focus on the experiments that highlight your expertise.
- Or, lay out a backup plan with alternative methods if you should get negative results.
The goal of the significance section is to engage the reviewer, to give them a compelling reason to pay attention and advocate for your application. You need to ensure that the reviewer will take interest in your project and choose your proposal among the hundreds he or she has read to advocate for acceptance.
Keep in mind that the reviewers for your proposal may be experts in your field and will not appreciate a long list of rudimentary publications to sift through. And no one will enjoy the citation of a publication that is nearly impossible to track down and read. Keep in mind legibility, readability and accessibility when you add publications to your research proposal.
Consider citing literature using the author/year in the following format (last name; year). Your reviewers will likely recognize the author without flipping to the bibliography section.
You do not know who your reviewers may be. There is nothing worse than to condemn a publication as a fraud, only to have the author as your reviewer. Use the literature to point out gaps in what has not yet been published. And focus on critically evaluating the existing knowledge gaps vs. the existing knowledge.
Letters of Support
Letters of support are a good way to show reviewers that you have both the institutional support and expertise to back up your research proposal and to form a strong foundation for your project. Request letters of support early with a clear deadline and focus so that you have a good range of letters to include with your application.
Is it Pretty?
Lastly, consider the following question: Is your application pretty? “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”, but an unattractive proposal leads to reviewer frustration and application failure. Avoid metaphors, clichés or empty words, make the most of the space that you have and write plainly.
Remember, you want the reviewer to enjoy reading your application. You want it to leave a lasting impression.