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Crowd-sourced advice for writing your #firstgrant

I love Twitter for a lot of reasons (community building, outreach, networking, finding great content), but one of best quick-and-dirty ways to show an academic the power of Twitter is to crowd-source advice on an important topic. A couple of weeks, ago, Sandra Chung at NEON and I were invited to National Science Foundation headquarters to talk to the Division of Environmental Biology about the power of social media for creating a home for important conversations. To do this, I decided to create a hashtag, #firstgrant, and ask for advice from my Twitter followers for first-time grant writers. Over the span of two days, I had dozens of responses, which in itself is a testament to the power of Twitter for generating useful conversations that academics (among others) can use to their advantage. I could have gone with a silly example, but I decided to go with #firstgrant so that a useful product could be generated. Normally, I’d use Storify to collect the tweets, but Twitter only archives tweets for about a week, and I dropped the ball. Luckily, there are alternatives for archiving, like Topsy, which I used to collate the advice that follows. You can read the original tweets here if you’d like.


1) Read the instructions. I was shocked by how many folks who have reviewed grants brought this up. Grant-writing is an incredible amount of work, and it’s hard to imagine shooting yourself in the foot by not following a basic requirement. 

“Read the RFP thoroughly. Take note of key language, and use it in your proposal. Clearly show tie-in to funder prioritites.” – @cbdawson

“formatting – font, layout – DO matter. Reviewers take notice if your proposal looks like a mess” – @Dr_Bik


2) Make use of your mentor network! Look at funded– and unfunded– proposals.  Drug Monkey Blog reiterates this point here

“Ask for help from funded people” – @tideliar

“Ask prof or colleagues if they’d let you read examples of successful proposals.” – @cbdawson

“define prob.&sol’n in 1st para, get group of people (esp if they’ve reviewed prior) to criticize it as you listen” – @drworms

“Look at prior awards – they started as strong proposals. for NSF” – @NSFgrega

“Advice – read as many other people’s grants as possible. Successful + unsuccessful. This helped me SO much.” – @DiseaseMapper


Funding rates versus proposal submissions for NSF-DEB. As funding rates decline, it becomes more and more critical to make sure that your proposal is as strong as it possibly can be.


3) Write clearly and succinctly, and use headings and white space to make it easy for reviewers to find what they’re looking for. This may seem like an obvious bit of advice, but it came up from a number of tweets. Several people referenced the fact that reviewers are overworked and/or likely to skim your proposal. 

“I can’t understand a single thing in this proposal. It must be brilliant! Fund it!” said by no one. Ever.” – @Odysseyblog

“Reviewers have a lot of proposal to read and will skim. Make it easy to skim. And write a great summary.” – @DoctorZen

“If your grant is too long, formatting tricks and robo-speak will only get you so far. Remove unnecessary sentences & paragraphs.” – @namnezia

“Remember that your panel reviewer is probably reading your grant at the last minute and maybe with a scotch in hand. CLARITY” – @proflikesubst

“Above *all else* resist impulse to cram in as much text as possible. Use headings. Create white space. Less is more.” – @drugmonkeyblog

“Jagged right justification is easier for reviewers to read” – @jaywacker

“keep it simple and very well organized, not too many questions, plenty of white space” – @johnfbruno


4) Know which parts of the grant are the most important, and really nail those. 

“Stock reason for rejection: “Too descriptive”. Make sure you are clearly stating hypotheses!” – @DoctorZen

“My experience: proposal lives or dies by project description first. Broader impacts: “Do you have some? Okay.” – @DoctorZen

“Main point – what you’ll do – should be within first few sentences of summary.” @paselkin


5) There’s a joke that you write grants to get funding for the work you’ve already done, but there’s some truth that– preliminary data help show that your project can be successful, and that you’re capable of delivering.

“include lots of pilot data” – @johnfbruno

“DO NOT underestimate how much “preliminary” data you need. Ideas dont get funded, despite the Big Idea NSF mantra” – @proflikesubst

“Excellent documentation of previous work is key” – @AmandaMcDC


6) Have clear, easy-to understand methods– especially keeping in mind that your proposal will likely be read by a non-expert. 

“Stop obsessing about the background. Nobody reads it.” – @mtomasson


7) Realize that you will almost certainly not get the money you’re asking for, so be strategic and try to anticipate things that will be cut.

“Reread it and ask urself, would u give $10k, $20k, $50k, of ur own $ for this project? Has to be *that* good & *exciting*.” – @HopeJahren

“@HopeJahren Yeah, but don’t trim your budget to the point where you can’t do the work. Remember that agency will likely cut too.” – @proflikesubst


8) Reach out to program officers and directors, participate in reviews, and get your name out there.

“try to convince someone to let you serve on a study section. Eg NIH has program to get new investigators involved” – @andrewsu

“always talk w/ program officer beforehand to discuss whether your proposal would be appropriate for the program” – @Dr_Bik

“Most valuable thing you can do is sit on a review panel & witness visceral dissection of live grants. Write for that audience.” – @jwoodgett


I was also pointed to a number of other resources, including this set of slides by Russ Altman at Stanford (thanks, @andrewsu!) and a list of publicly avilable grant proposals in the biological sciences by Jabberywocky Ecology. If you’re interested in reading more about NSF-DEB’s new pre-proposal process, you can read a guest post on this blog by Jack Williams here. Feel free to add other advice in the comments!

Categories: Academia Tips & Tricks

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Jacquelyn Gill

6 replies

  1. great post! here’s something to add, as stated by my advisor (not on twitter): “grant proposals aren’t mystery novels”.

    his point was that you can’t slowly bring reviewers to your points, at all allowing them to connect the dots on their own. you have to lead them everywhere you want them to go and don’t allow their brains to go anywhere else. a real help in this is being explicitly clear about your objectives by the end of the first page of the full proposal.


  2. Great post Jacquelyn. A lot of good advice that seems just as well suited to a job application as it is to a grant proposal! I’m bookmarking this post for sure.


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