Writing a Successful Grant Proposal

by Val Gerard

Getting and keeping your research funded is tough these days. It is especially hard to write that first successful grant proposal. Perhaps one proposal out of ten submitted, one in twenty, or even one in one hundred will be selected for funding. To beat those odds, you must be prepared to have your proposal criticized and rated by reviewers, be turned down once or more, and resubmit with appropriate revisions. If the funding agency staff members encourage resubmission, it is important to follow their suggestions, as well as those of the reviewers – the staff will probably be the same during your next submission, the reviewers may not be. But, the most important thing is to submit the best possible grant proposal the first time and every time. Here are some suggestions.

The three most important aspects of a grant proposal are justification, justification, justification. Your proposal must clearly justify the purpose and goals of the research, the approach and methods, and the ultimate contribution to your field. The abstract and statement of goals are probably the most important sections of the entire proposal and should be revised and re-revised until they are perfect.

Because every funding agency sets limits on the length of the proposal, each section should include only the most relevant information. For example, the Background section should not be a broad review of the literature, but should focus on previous work that is directly related to the proposed research. Be sure to cite papers by the prominent researchers in your field, since they may well review the proposal and will not appreciate being omitted. The methods section should include enough detail to convince reviewers that you know what you are doing, but not so many details that they might find minor points to disagree with.

Perhaps the fourth most important aspect of a grant proposal is preliminary data. If the data have already been published, so much the better. But, it is also valuable to include unpublished data that support your hypotheses or demonstrate your ability to master the proposed methods.

Finally, don’t do what so many of my colleagues have always done, which is to put off writing the proposal until a few days (or the night) before the deadline. Submitting the best possible proposal requires careful thought, writing, and polishing, which take time. No reviewer will be impressed by a sloppy submission that was obviously thrown together at the last minute. Leave sufficient time for a colleague, or graduate student or two, to read the proposal and provide feedback. If you are planning to resubmit a proposal that was previously rejected, start the revisions as soon as you have recovered from the sting of rejection. And consider getting help from a professional writer/editor. They might provide the help you need to beat the odds.

Good luck! I wish you success in getting your research funded.

Val Gerard, Ph.D.
Science and medicine editor