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How Not to Kill a Grant Application, Part Five: The Facts of the Case Thus Far

"Facts, Hercule, facts! Nothing matters but the facts. Without them the science of criminal investigation is nothing more than a guessing game."

Inspector Clouseau's words ring true as much for scientific investigation as they do for legal proceedings--especially because research grants can prove to be as slippery to nail down as the Pink Panther.

Let's just recap the facts of grant writing thus far: We've established how to set the overall tone of your application; we've discussed how to design a good title, work out the structure of your abstract, and come up with logical aims and hypotheses; and we've learned the importance of careful editing. But before we move on to the next stage of the game--how best to put together methods, results, and your game-winning conclusions and discussions--let's review the suggestions, advice, and facts about grant writing that have been mentioned in this series:

Part One: Murder Most Foul

20/20 Hindsight Without Time-Travel

Only a quarter to a third of applicants who submit applications to the main federal funding agencies--the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation--get funded. That's some 17,000 to 23,000 grants and renewals out of the 70,000 or so applications sent to the federal agencies every year!

  • Know the chances of grant-funding success.
  • Be aware that there is a good possibility that you will have to resubmit your proposals.

Young Dogs, New Tricks, Old Mistakes

Be aware of mistakes, errors, and oversights that continue to crop up:

  • Failing to support hypotheses.
  • Failing to explain how data will be analyzed or how results will be interpreted.
  • Failing to cite pertinent research findings.
  • Including jargon.
  • Being overly technical.
  • Making sweeping generalities.

Project Titles: The Sweet Smell of Success

The project title needs to be:

  • The total summary of the proposal.
  • Clever (but not cutesy).
  • Informative.

Part Two: Abstract Killers

What's in an Abstract?

Your grant application abstract should address the four following points:

  • What do you intend to do?
  • Why is the work important?
  • What has already been done?
  • How are you going to do the work?

Half-Baked Abstracts

To be complete, your abstract should:

  • Summarize the full proposal.
  • Include some indication of the costs of your proposal.
  • Be hypothesis-driven.
  • Never assume your hypotheses are true.

Dog Walker or Cocktail Talker?

Be sure to set aside enough time to "walk the dog" (i.e., write the proposal), and remember that "an idea without a plan is simply cocktail talk."

  • Sit down and write every day.
  • Write a four-page summary of your research.
  • "Boil down" the summary to create the abstract.
  • Make sure this summary fits with and reflects the entire research project.

Om1t J@R/g0n

Everyone involved in evaluating grants--from program officers to reviewers to funding committees--stresses that jargon should be avoided at all costs.

  • Make the specific aims and ultimate goals very clear.
  • Do not assume reviewers know that you know how to overcome and solve problems.
  • Do not write for audiences that are intimately familiar with your field of research.

Keywords Perhaps Not Key

Referral offices--such as those at the NIH--use more than just the title or description to make assignments or pick reviewers.

  • "There is no point in trying to direct assignments by judicious word choices."

Rate Your Abstract

Not all reviewers on a panel will be formally assigned to read your entire proposal: Decisions--and the reviews--can be based largely upon this summary. That is why your abstract has to be perfectly constructed and why it is so important to carefully rate your abstract.

  • Does it address the funding agency's criteria?
  • Is it concise?
  • What does it lack?

Part Three: So What?

Psychological Tailoring

Before dashing off to write a full-length proposal, first step back and ask yourself how you want to sell your research:

  • Decide where and how to pitch your proposal.
  • Ensure your application matches the ideals of the organization.
  • Check out funding agency home pages for submission criteria.
  • Make sure your proposal is honest and realistic.

Uninformed, But Infinitely Intelligent

The research plan should begin with a basic but thorough introduction to the subject.

  • Be explicit and state the obvious.
  • Do not skip over basic information that can help clarify your research project.
  • Be aware of how diverse your audience is.
  • Educate the reviewers.
  • "Don't let your reviewer's mind wander or jump."

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

Some application forms ask for the aims of your research proposal explicitly, others ask for it implicitly.

  • Keep the number of aims to a minimum: two to four aims. Do not be over ambitious.
  • Each aim should consist of only one sentence.
  • The specific aims must be logical and "stand alone."
  • Keep aims related but independent of the successful outcomes of the previous aim.

So What?!? We've Heard It All Before

After reading the title, abstract, aims, and hypotheses, the reviewer should have a pretty clear idea of what you hope to achieve and how you plan to go about doing it. In your introduction or "significance" section, you have to now describe why you want to accomplish these aims.

  • Do not be subtle--deliver your message fast.
  • Describe the significance of your research at the top of your introduction. Go for the jugular right away.
  • Make a compelling case for your proposed research project.

Part Four: Lost at Sea

"Say It Again, Sam"

Reviewers become frustrated at having to read, reread, and decipher a research plan before understanding a project. To write well:

  • Read aloud what you write.
  • Avoid using "this," "that," and dangling participles.
  • Use bold and italicized text.
  • Use clear headings and subheadings.
  • Leave spaces between paragraphs.
  • Drive home your message by repeating words or concepts in the title throughout the application.

Funnels, Paper, and Brainstorms

How can you organize your thoughts?

  • Buy a sheet of paper, pin it up on a wall, and write headers on it.
  • Brainstorm and write down every idea that comes to mind.
  • Connect the ideas and words by arrows and develop a visual flow.
  • Convert the pathways and arrows into typed sentences.
  • Work in increments: "When you write, write in paragraphs."

Review thermodynamics

Treat your reviewers fairly and give them an application that is easy and enjoyable to read.

  • "The more energy and time a reviewer has to devote to figuring out your application, the less energy a reviewer has to actually review your application!"

Positive and Negative Feedback

Whatever writing assignment you undertake--editing is crucial to polishing the final work. For grant applications:

  • Circulate your research plan among colleagues.
  • Find out about professional editing services.
  • Approach grant reviewers for editorial advice.
  • Realize that editing is only the halfway mark of grant writing-- not the end stages.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff---Just Do It!

Applicants can bolster their applications with data from relatively easy but purposeful experiments.

  • If possible, write the proposal one full grant cycle before the intended deadline.
  • Use the extra time to perform the obvious experiments that reviewers will ask to see.
  • Amend the text of your earlier application draft with the new results.
  • Write with confidence, and don't list all methodological details such as buffer concentrations, unless necessary.
  • A reviewer will read your application only once, so you really need that 'Wow!' factor.

That's it for now. We'll get to grips with the remainder of a grant application in upcoming issues of the Career Development Center--including postings of funded proposals. In the meantime, apply as many as possible of the techniques addressed by the contributors to this series, and what a "WOW!" you'll get! The Pink Panther could soon be in your clutches.

How Not to Kill a Grant Application, continues in 2 weeks ... developing your research plan.

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