This is a general overview to the process of grantwriting, with some general tips about timing and how to execute certain activities. It is primarily written for faculty or PIs who are already or nearly independent, although certainly many elements will be applicable for grad students and postdocs as well.

Identify what specific activities, if any, you need your grant funds to be able to cover.

Perhaps you need funding for supplies for a particular experiment that is holding up progress in your lab. Or, perhaps you need to be able to provide wages for yourself, students, postdocs, or staff. Do you need a particular piece of expensive equipment? Travel funds to present at meetings? Tuition or educational supplies for students? Funds to organize a conference?

There are many, many grant opportunities out there, even in a very specific field. Consider what you need the grant money to do for you before you start grant-searching, and it will speed up the process by helping you more quickly filter out funding avenues that don’t meet your funding needs.

If you don’t have one particular pressing need for the grant funds, then feel free to browse – it will give you more flexibility to take advantage of opportunities that broadly support the research directions and needs of your lab.

Find grant(s) that meet your funding needs.

In an earlier article [https://www.ascb.org/where-to-find-research-funding-opportunities/], we discussed a variety of approaches to finding research funding, including searching opportunities through common funding agencies and talking to various groups of people with more experience. It is relatively easy to search for funding opportunities by research topic or research goal. But, unless you are quite familiar with many different grant mechanisms, it is very labor-intensive to search for funding that permits you to use the grant funds in specific ways. So – if you really need to find a way to fund a research tech, or the $12,000 bioanalyzer, it’s a lot easier to know what sort of grants you need to look for before you start searching. That’s where it’s much more efficient to start by talking to experienced people “in the know” – institutional colleagues, professional colleagues, mentors, and people at your institution’s research support office.

Skim the guidelines. Closely read them. Then read them again.

Here’s what you need to find out first:

  1. Does this grant meet my specific funding need (e.g., able to buy major equipment, able to cover salary or wages)?
  2. Am I, and is my institution, eligible for funding through this grant?

Skim to get a general sense of what’s allowed and who’s eligible. Does it seem like a grant that meets your funding need?

If it seems like a good match, settle down to read the guidelines carefully. By the time you’re done, be sure you understand what outcomes the funder is trying to achieve by providing this grant money. If you can’t see a way that their intended program outcome can overlap what you will propose to do, this grant may not be a good fit for you – move on to another. While reading, you should pay particular attention to the rules governing:

  • which institutions are eligible to apply for this funding (e.g., only undergraduate institutions, only non-research institutions)
  • who the grant money may be spent on (who is eligible to be participants, who is eligible to be grant personnel, and how can funds be used for each of these)
  • who is eligible to be PI, and what are the time commitments expected to be for the PI? (e.g., must the PI be tenure-track? have had PhD for 5 years or less?)
  • what the grant money MUST be used for – that is, what are required activities in the proposed program? (e.g., perhaps 10% of funds must be used for program evaluation, or data must be presented at a conference for which travel should be budgeted)
  • what the grant money MAY NOT be used for (this list often includes food, housing, tuition
  • any specific required commitments from the institution (e.g., perhaps it must provide match funds for some aspect of the program, or commit to partner with another institution).

Note exactly what the overarching goal of the funder’s grant program is – you want your proposed grant program to align with that as well as possible. Also, make a checklist of: what information you’ll need; what proposal pieces you’ll need; and anything from the guidelines that was surprising to you that you want to be sure to remember. Refer to this list as you develop your proposal.

Notify the grants office of your intention to submit.

This is an important step for two reasons. First, some grant programs only permit one submission from an institution – if someone already has secured permission to submit, you won’t be allowed to (although you may be encouraged to work with that party to submit together.) You don’t want to commit too much time to preparing a grant you can’t submit (although it can probably be repurposed down the line!). Also, the grants office administratively prepares for a grants submission in a variety of ways – giving them plenty of notice is helpful for everyone.

Since you’re already talking to the grants office, ask if anyone at your institution has recently gotten funding through the same mechanism. If you can, talk to them to see whether they can point out anything tricky in the guidelines or review to look out for. Just bear in mind that they likely have gotten their funding under a previous version of the guidelines, and things may have changed. Double-check their recommendations against your version of the guidelines to be sure. When in doubt, ask a program officer.

Draft an outline or logic model, and talk with the program officer.

Ask the program officer or people at your grants office if there’s an example of a successful proposal that you can look at, or if the grant officer can connect you with some recent awardees of this type of funding.

Make a timeline of activities you need to complete to submit the grant on-time.

Is there information you need to have to develop your proposed strategy? (For example, perhaps you need to know where most of the community-college transfer students come from to figure out who to partner with.) Getting this information should be priority, because developing the proposal will be significantly hindered without it. Identify this information as quickly as possible, and figure out how to either get it yourself or request it. These requests often take time – often weeks. Do not assume you can get it quickly, no matter how simple the information request may seem to you.

Take into account the timeframe required for administrative activities. For example, the grant must usually make the rounds of various admin offices before it can be submitted, and they are not just sitting in their offices waiting for your grant to come across their desks. They usually require some amount of time to get to and review the grant – so this time needs to be included in your timetable. The same is also true for requesting letters of support, and requesting institutional commitments (e.g., funding support through match dollars, or in-kind support like equipment purchases). Before you make any of these requests, you’ll want to have at least a fairly final version of the specific aims, the research plan, and a working budget draft to present to those from whom you’re requesting support, so be sure to account for that in your timeline.

Another important consideration is whether you need any formal committee approval for any of the proposed activities in your grant. If you’re doing any sort of research using human subjects, carefully assess whether you need IRB approval – if so, it usually needs to be attached to the grant proposal before submission. Similarly, if you’re doing research with animals, you may need IACUC approval. Both of these committees may only meet at certain intervals, and they’ll often require some time to evaluate your project for approval. Incorporate this into your timeline. Also, if you’re unfamiliar with how quickly the committee tends to work at your school, it is a great idea to talk to others more familiar with them to be sure you’re leaving enough time to complete the approval process.

Don’t forget to pay attention to common vacation times at your institution – specifically inquire whether the committee or office personnel will be able to evaluate your submission over spring break, for example, or just plan to avoid the conflict. (Also, be sure to include any of your own vacation activities in the timeline from the beginning!)

If you’re not sure how long to expect things to take, TALK to people at your institution – for preference, more than just one person, and also, people who are experienced grantwriters at your institution. It’s a great idea to talk to your grants office about timelines, too. As far as possible, protect yourself by estimating that everything will take a bit longer than expected – if you can, include extra time to complete everything. If you’re finished early – go celebrate! But, it’s there in case you need it.

Draft and revise specific aims, strategy/plan, and budget iteratively.

Keep budget size in mind as you’re developing your strategy. Use grants reporting database (like NIH RePorter) to look at the overall award size for similar projects that have been recently approved – this can give you a ballpark idea for what budget range has been found acceptable in the past. (Of course, it is absolutely essential that you justify the costs for your budget based on the activities you propose.)

After you’ve developed your strategy and specific aims, finalize your budget based on known and estimated specific costs and commitments. Try not to include much padding, as that will likely be noticed during the review.

Do your own “mini-review” of your proposal – make sure you can identify what specific items should be noted by the reviewer based on published review criteria (this criteria is often found at the bottom of the grant guidelines). If you don’t understand the criteria, use Google and talk to to colleagues with grantwriting (or even better, grant reviewing) experience. Consider revising the proposal to make it easy for the reviewer to find these things – e.g., for those activities or approaches that you think are innovative, describe them with words like “innovative” in the text.

Have colleagues read it over critically

People just like your colleagues will be evaluating your proposal during the peer review process. It is far better to identify a confusing section before submission rather than wasting an opportunity at submission, and your colleagues can help you do that. In particular, ask them to read over the specific aims and strategy. Having them look over the budget could highlight problems you can fix, especially if you are not very experienced in grant budgeting. When you ask them to read your proposal, provide them with a summary of review criteria, and ask them to please look for any specific places the proposal seems to be weaker based on these criteria, likely flags for concern at review, and typos.

Request letters of support, gather other requested support documents, and write other administrative portions of the grant.

Now’s a good time to really use the checklist you made when you read the guidelines to ensure you’re in position to gather and submit everything that is requested by the funding agency.

When you request a letter from administration and from partners, it’s often a good idea to provide draft a letter of support that includes the information you want the letter to convey. If, as expected, the recipient is planning to support your project, this makes the task much easier for them (it’s easier to edit a letter than to write one fresh). What’s easier for your letter-writers is easier for you — you’re much more likely to get a timely turnaround.

If the letter of support is expected to include specific institutional commitments (e.g., “The University commits to covering 50% of Dr. So-and-so’s summer wages, and also will provide institutional funds for a new sequencer”), it’s wise to negotiate those commitments BEFORE sending a draft letter.

If you’re not familiar with what a typical letter of support looks like for your institution, have your draft letter read by some more experienced colleagues before sending it on to any institutional bigshots.

Prepare to submit.

Do a final check that you have each requested proposal component. Work with your grants office to circulate the proposal for institutional approval. Collect, organize, and carefully label every file you will need to submit. (Since you never know who will see them – use filenames that are professionally appropriate.) Once they’re collected – open each one and verify that they’re the version you want to submit.

Submit! And celebrate.

Do you know or resources or content that should be in this post? Email me at svolk@ascb.edu

Resources for Grant Writing Web Links
Our post on writing NIH grants
Our post on writing NSF grants
Our post on understanding the grant review process
Proposal Writing Short Course (Foundation Center) – especially for private grant funds Link

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