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How Not to Kill a Grant Application, Part 6: Developing Your Research Plan

So, after whetting the reviewers' appetites with a well-rounded introduction and some logical (and testable!) hypotheses, it's time to let them sink their teeth into your research plan.

Details, Details ...

In practice, applicants do often detail the experiments they plan to conduct, but many fail to realize until it is too late that experimental details are not enough! Reviewers want to understand the rationale behind your proposed studies before they pass judgment. "Much more important than experimental detail is a clear discussion of the design, including the underlying logic, of the proposed experiments," reveals a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program official.

For example, it is not enough to state that you're going to add a "special buffer" to an enzyme and measure its activity. Reviewers want to know whether you expect the activity to be enhanced or diminished and why. They want to know what is special about the "special buffer." How will you interpret the data? How will you use that information? Remember that for each statement you make, reviewers will be ready with a dozen questions. Stay a couple of steps ahead of the game by offering the answers before reviewers even think to ask the questions--and before they begin to poke holes in your methods.

Tips to Make Your Research Plan a Winner:

  • Address all questions readers may have about your experiments.

  • Identify potential weaknesses in your protocols and research design.

  • Offer alternative methods, in case your primary method fails.

  • Show you are capable of adapting future experiments depending upon the results generated.

  • Be focused, but put your immediate experiments into the context of the "big picture."

If Plan A Fails, Here Is Plan B...and Plan C and Plan D ...

Openly recognizing any inherent holes or pitfalls in your research design can "show maturity," says John Schwab, program director in the Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). "It is entirely appropriate to acknowledge weaknesses in your project and to present alternative plans," says Schwab, formerly a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University, who joined the NIH in 1996. Schwab is well versed in grantwriting: In addition to his official duties, he regularly conducts grant workshops, and he has just finished co-authoring a book chapter on grantwriting. "It is to applicants' credit," he says, to highlight potential hiccups in their research protocols--as long as adequate methods to overcome those problems are included. It is a common and costly mistake to leave this kind of information out of your research plan.

"Your research plan must be adequately focused, and yet at the same time, you must also provide a long-range view of your research goals," explains Schwab. Discuss, for example, the experimental protocols you will use to investigate a problem, but also mention how your studies fit with other research being conducted in the field. In short, put your project in context.

Also be aware that reviewers are very keen to read about any relevant preliminary data you may have generated--especially if you're proposing to use new or controversial methods. "A new principal investigator will not have an extensive track record, so there is no basis on which to give him or her the benefit of the doubt," say NIGMS officials. Highlighting your previous findings and discussing how you will interpret your data, therefore, "provides an indication of '[your] critical thinking and grasp of logic" and are crucial to grantwriting (and funding!) success.

More Tips ...

  • Discuss how you will interpret your data.

  • Do not overwhelm readers with facts.

  • Prioritize your experiments.

  • Refer to supportive and conflicting (if any) scientific literature relevant to your work.

  • Make sure your text is visually easy to read.

  • Check your use of English spelling and grammar.

  • Broaden your horizons: Read anything you can get your hands on.

  • Keep reading Next Wave!

Same Old, Same Old ...

Don't forget that just as the logic and structure of your proposed experiments are under scrutiny, so, too, is your command of written English. New applicants "get low scores for reasons that were clearly avoidable," reveals Schwab. He identifies spelling mistakes, grammatically incorrect sentences, and convoluted paragraphs as a few of the blunders that continue to crop up in research plans. And no matter how objective reviewers are, if the research plan is poorly organized or poorly written it's bound to color their opinion: If you're slipshod with your grantwriting, reviewers will question your abilities in the lab and at the bench. There's no other way to say it: Check, double-check, and proofread your entire application before sending it off.

In fact, it is foolish not to circulate your research plan before expediting it off to the funding agency. Your colleagues can offer valuable insights and highlight areas in your plan that still need work. But many young faculty members think that distributing their application would be an "imposition," says Schwab. Some actually fear--or even shun--feedback from their peers, whereas others are "not ready to sacrifice their pride," he says. Like any kind of public writing, grantwriting requires the author to take criticism on the chin. Working in a university or a research institution presents many opportunities to share your application with other scientists. Do so, and reap the benefits: You will become more established within your research community and earn the respect of those from whom you are seeking assistance.

Use References Wisely

To be a successful grantwriter, you need to know what to say and what not to say. This is particularly important when referring to literature that describes the methods and techniques in your research plan. As long as you refer to the original papers, you do not need to needlessly explain specific details of commonly used methods, say NIH officials. And as a general rule--whether it is in your research plan, or elsewhere in your application--refer to scientific studies that support your work, but also include pertinent references that do not support your work or that even hold opposing views. Be sure, however, to summarize succinctly the references you cite, because reviewers will not have time to track down each one of them.

Useful Links...

Make sure the organization of your key experiments follows the same order as your specific aims and hypotheses. Prioritize experiments that address different aims and put them in chronological context. Learning how to construct an outline of your research plan is extremely beneficial. Consider, also, including a time line; it will show the reviewers that you're thinking ahead and plan to work logically toward your goals.

Read, Write, and Be Merry!

The harder the reviewers have to work to plow through laborious text or to scramble to the library to check your references, the less inclined they will be to cut you a break. "Make your application a joy to read," advises Schwab. The grants process has "become so competitive that if you fail to win the reviewers' enthusiasm, you hurt your chances considerably," he discloses.

Improve your writing skills by simply reading beyond the scientific literature. Expose yourself to writing styles other than those in journals and papers. Read about subjects other than your immediate research. Read short stories, magazine features, biographies, or the latest best seller. As you develop your own style and better understand what reviewers are looking for, you will become more and more skilled in weaving the reader through your proposals and in expressing your ambitions. You know your research is stimulating, exciting, and groundbreaking; the only thing you need to do now is to convince those holding the purse strings.

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