The Dos and Don’ts of Successful Grant-Writing

DO:

  • Prior to drafting the proposal, research the grant-making organization’s mission and funding interests thoroughly. Look for key phrases and try to integrate these into the text of your proposal.
  • Check the organization’s website to see if there is an archive of previous winners. Many opportunities, especially larger grants, publish titles—and occasionally even abstracts—of winning proposals from past years. See how well your idea lines up with what has been funded in the past.
  • Pay very close attention to the guidelines. Many grants are only for certain stages of graduate study (coursework, language study, pre-doctoral, dissertation research, dissertation completion, etc). Citizenship requirements may also be a factor, but especially for major grants, formatting requirements can be nightmarish. Ask yourself: Am I using the right font? Are my page numbers in the correct corner of the page? Have I followed all the requirements for the placement of charts, tables and citations?
  • Make sure to look into any internal IU requirements or deadlines for the opportunity. Some grants (especially for government-sponsored opportunities through organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health) require internal institutional compliance review for your application to be considered complete—this process can take weeks, so be sure to give yourself enough time to have everything ready well in advance of the published deadline. Other opportunities, like the Fulbright IIE, have separate campus and national deadlines. On a smaller scale, many awards specific to IU have deadlines for departmental submission that can fall weeks before the all-campus competition.
  • See if you can find someone from your field or department who has been awarded the grant for which you are applying. Ask them if you can look over a copy of the winning proposal. Failing that, ask for their advice on your draft and the application process in general.
  • Get as much feedback as you possibly can. Check with people in your field and disinterested third-party reviewers, including professors, colleagues, and the GradGrants Center. This is truly one of the most delicate and tricky parts about grant-writing: you have to write a proposal that is compelling and accessible about topics that are often highly complex, theoretical, and discipline-specific. Your professors will be able to tell you if the methodology and theory behind the proposal is sound, but GGC consultants will be able to tell you if your proposal makes sense. As such, you should…
  • Tailor your proposal to a broad but educated audience; keep in mind the chances are quite good that, unlike in academic writing, your readers will not have the same familiarity with the literature and terminology of your field.
  • Give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts of your proposal.
  • Use boldface and italics to delineate section headings and make key terms stand out.
  • Remember your allies and take care of them. When dealing with potential recommenders, provide these people with an up-to-date CV, a draft of your proposal (or at least an abstract thereof), an overview of the grant guidelines, and any other materials they may need to write you specific and accurate letters of recommendation. Let them know how the process is going, and send thank-you notes and/or baked goods/wine to let them know you appreciate their trouble.
  • Communicate clearly and precisely about the what, where, how, when and why of your research. This will usually include a detailed description of where you want to conduct your research, why there and then, and not somewhere else or some other time, and, perhaps most importantly, why the foundation should care about your research. The chances of a foundation giving you money to “go study something somewhere” are very slight. By contrast, the chances of a foundation giving you money to “go study X pressing issue in A, B, and C locations for D amount of time with professors E, F, and G, which will yield research outcomes H, I and practical outcomes J and K” are substantially greater.
  • Provide concrete details and examples when it comes to your particular skill set. For instance, when demonstrating your language competencies, instead of saying “I speak advanced French,” consider “my abilities in French enable me to conduct interviews, read complex archival documents related to my field, and converse with professionals about my research clearly.” Even if your skill levels are not yet where they need to be for a certain grant, in some cases it may be acceptable to prove your dedication by outlining specific plans for further study of or work with the language or skill before the funded period begins. The answer is, as usual: it all depends on the opportunity and its guidelines.
  • Point out any affiliations with professionals or institutions that you have created in your target research location. This will give your proposal a degree of specificity that will increase its competitiveness considerably.
  • Be sure to think about your research in broad terms, both when looking for opportunities and applying for grants. Try to reach outside your discipline and think of other fields or circles (academic, policy-making, private sector, etc) your research might interest, and reach out to them in your proposal. Many organizations are more interested in ideas that can have immediate practical applicability to a social or scientific problem, so “zooming out” of your area of study and putting things in a practical context may prove useful.
  • Be willing to “sell” or emphasize  an aspect of your research instead of the whole package; it is very rare to find a grant that pays you to do exactly what you want to do exactly where and when you want to do it. It pays to be flexible and change your emphasis with each grant proposal.

DON’T:

  • Try to make the funding organization bend to your ideas. Work within the organization’s mission and guidelines as presented.
  • Use jargon. Try instead to explain discipline-specific key terms early on with signal phrases. This will make it easier for your reader to work with you and learn something valuable from your proposal.
  • Hesitate to get in touch with the point of contact with specific questions about guidelines or requirements. Organizations want to see competitive applications that meet all requirements, so it behooves you to make sure you and the foundation are on the same page.
  • Be afraid to ask your recommenders for specific kinds of details or inclusions in your recommendation letter. This is the part of the application over which you have the least control, so do what you can to have recommendation letters that are as relevant to your research and the foundation’s mission as possible.
  • Give up. Many application processes are extremely competitive. If you get turned down, it doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on you, your research, or even your proposal. When a foundation receives thousands of applications and only has sixty fellowships, it’s going to mean some tough decisions.
  • Wait until the last minute to ask your recommenders for supporting documents. This can compromise the quality of your letters and, at worst, compromise your relationships with your allies.
  • Stop believing. Just kidding, but not really. Maintain faith in yourself, your abilities, and the marketability of your research. The right grant is out there–it is just a matter of finding the right grants and targeting your ideas to the right audience.