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I am writing a proposal for external funding for two year postdoc. I won't give any detail here, other than it is naturally in the field of geometry and mathematical physics. I have not yet been successful in applying for this sort of external grant; my current position is funded "internally".

 

So, I thought it would be prudent to ask for some advice, hints and tips from the members here who have been successful in their applications for external funding. Of course each call is different, different organisations have different rules and their will be some cultural aspects related to subject specifics. That said, I am sure there is some general advice that can be given...

 

My advice (taking into account what I have just said) is

  • Read the call carefully and make a note of deadlines.
  • Make connections with your proposal and recent papers; people are interested in your topic.
  • Be purposely ambitious, but have some realistic goals along the way.
  • Let others read your proposal before you submit the final version.
So please, add to my list. It will be helpful to me and hopefully others in the near future.

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With the exception for the scientific part which obviously has to be original text, imitate as much as possible from successful previous proposals.

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One piece of advice I was given when doing this (for an industrial research proposal) was to make sure you structure the proposal so you have an effective "story" going from "what the problem is", what other approaches have been tried, what you (and partners, if relevant) will do (and why), why you think this will succeed (and why it may not - the risks) through to what the results will be why you think they will be useful/valuable.

 

I think the idea is to make it more engaging and easier for the reviewers to follow, rather than a dry summary of the facts. It seems to have worked...

Edited by Strange

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Thanks for these quick replies.

 

With the exception for the scientific part which obviously has to be original text, imitate as much as possible from successful previous proposals.

This is a tactic we (myself and the Prof. I will be working with) are using. He has been successful in getting money in recently and I hope he has worked out the rules of the game here.

... was to make sure you structure the proposal so you have an effective "story" going from "what the problem is", what other approaches have been tried, what you (and partners, if relevant) will do (and why), why you think this will succeed (and why it may not - the risks) through to what the results will be why you think they will be useful/valuable.

This sounds like good advice.

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Another for my list, which comes from someone who read my proposal, I will paraphrase;

 

Don't be bashful

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Mention some of the common buzzwords in your field in the introduction. :)

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Superficially, I have zero experience in this. But I have written many commercial proposals - and have a high success rate. I believe the following is crucial.

 

Open with a clear, concise, yet comprehensive summary. No mysteries remaining, no key problem overlooked. A simple, elegant, convincing story - in a couple of paragraphs.

 

Perhaps you already would automatically do so. On the other hand, given the number of abstracts I've read that fail as abstracts, I'm not convinced that all researchers understand this principle.

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I've been on a couple of grant review panels, so a couple of tips from that end:

 

1) In reality, you've got about 2 minutes to grab my attention. Grant review panels are swamped in proposals, and often directed to accept a very small proportion (sometimes around 5%). I'm looking for a reason to put grants in the "no" pile. If it isn't clear in the opening paragraphs what an application is proposing to do, why it's important and how the authors will do it, I'll probably stop reading and put it in the no pile. If I have to re-read parts of the application to understand it due to poor writing, I may well do the same. So:

 

A) Make the writing concise and absolutely crystal clear.

B) Clearly state what you want to do, how you will do it and why it is important early on.

C) Get as many people as you can to read particularly the introduction parts. In fact get people outside of your field to read it and see if they can quickly get what you're trying to say.

 

2) Agencies are looking to fund things that they see as high impact and important, but also low risk (contradictory, I know, but that's how it is). A lot of proposals get rejected not because the science is bad, the methodology isn't sound or the question isn't important, but because the first step in the study requires proof of concept - which if it turns out isn't supported, the rest of the study is moot: hypothetical e.g. "We are going to see if tree sap has antiviral properties, and if it does we will isolate and refine the antiviral compounds in it for pharmaceutical use." The problem being that if the answer to "Is tree sap antiviral?" is "No" the rest of the study can't be conducted.

 

The workaround is of course, generating preliminary data. If you had conducted an assay showing that the sap of say, pines had antiviral properties, and were proposing to isolate the antiviral compounds, it would make for a much more likely to be funded proposal that the former - it also demonstrates that you are capable of carrying out the study.

 

Ultimately, in the current funding climate, a lot of good proposals don't get funded and it's something of an art/stochastic process to getting your proposal into that 5 or 10% of "must fund" grants. Good luck.

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Good tips. A few things to add (and heavily echoing Arete):

 

-be mindful of the type of reviewers you get. Scientists? Adminstrators? Adjust language accordingly.

- always assume that reviewers are not experts on your field. Make it as broadly appealing as possible.

- be only slightly ahead of the innovation curve. As Arete said, funding decisions are typically very conservative

- be mindful of the mechanism. Howe much is the grant decision based on proposed research, vs quality of applicant? Is it a training grant, or do you have to demonstrate leadership? Are there outreach components? Do not underestimate the need to demonstrate abilities (i.e. more than just listing published papers)

- do not make the reviewer work to make sense of your abstract. Tell them at the beginning why the project is great and use the rest just to bolster your argument. You either convince them in the first paragraphs or you don't

- give yourself time to distance yourself from your writing in order to review it critically

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Thank you all for your tips. I have now submitted a draft to the research office of the university, it was okayed by the mathematics department, but now the university has to stamp it. I then have less than a week to make some minor modifications.

 

I will see if I can improve my opening paragraph to really grab the attention of the reviewer and try to say something about why these questions are important. I make this clear later on, but something right at the beginning may be useful.

 

Once again thank you all.

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I will see if I can improve my opening paragraph to really grab the attention of the reviewer and try to say something about why these questions are important. I make this clear later on, but something right at the beginning may be useful.

 

 

Just to clarify, when I worked on a panel, I was expected to read ~30, 15 page long applications - many outside my immediate field. I'd be the primary on ~10 of those. I was advised to recommend funding for a maximum of 3 grants of those 30. At the panel meeting, the primary reader is expected to give a short (~2 min) intro to what the grant is about and a recommendation. The secondary readers give a recommendation. If there is agreement, that's the end. If there's disagreement, more discussion takes place. You wind up with 3 columns on a whiteboard, "do not fund", "must fund", and "fund if possible." If you wind up with the panel's quota of grants in the must fund column, that's the end. If not, you discuss the fund if possibles. Maybe we can offer a reduced budget, move one over to the must column, etc.

 

You can't read all 15 pages of every grant in depth - so I and most other grant reviewers use a very cursory read through of each grant to decide initially if a grant will be potentially considered in the top three. Ideally you want the pile of considered applications to be as small as possible, as you'll have to read them more carefully. I'd usually aim for between 20-30% (or 5-10 applications in the above example).

 

As a grant writer, your first hurdle is getting past that first skim read where the reviewer is looking for a reason not to read your grant more carefully. Small fonts, poor grammar/spelling or layout, too much jargon, waffly text, etc will all do that. ONce you're over that hurdle, it become more about the criteria as CharonY mentioned and the minutia of the grant. Is it worth doing? Does the methodology seem sound? Is it within the scope of the agency, etc. All this stuff is somewhat dependent on what your competitors in the pile are doing as well. Ideally what you want is to be in more than one of the three reviewers top 3 "must fund" piles, but if you impress one of the three enough for them to go into bat for your proposal, you've got a good chance of getting up.

Edited by Arete

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As a grant writer, your first hurdle is getting past that first skim read where the reviewer is looking for a reason not to read your grant more carefully.

One tactic in writing that the Prof. I would be working with is using is to bold font a few very important statements within the main text. The things we would like the reader on first skimming to pick up and then hopefully read the details around this. For example, we have highlighted the fact we are very ambitious in places, but have many very achievable goals along the way. I will also highlight the two sentences about why bother doing what we propose.

 

And of course, thanks for your view from the other side, it has been helpful.

Edited by ajb

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Just be careful that the ambitious part is not only "sexy" element of your proposal. I.e. you may want to drum up the achievable goals. The reasons is that typically reviewers focus on the negatives (overall too ambitious) and easily dismiss things that may be perceived as minor outcomes.

 

I got more success by selling the cool ambitious part as a bonus element whereas using the mainstream elements (which I found boring) as the "regular" outcome.

Edited by CharonY

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Other advice I have been given, directly and indirectly, is to take all parts of the application seriously. On some applications there are parts that seem a bit pointless and only please the bureaucratic minded. That said, the reviewers are looking for a reason to put the proposal into the "do not fund pile".

 

Even if the science is good, I don't want to given the reviewers a valid reason to throw my application out like not following the formatting rules, length of application or having parts of the application poorly completed.

 

Just in case anyone was wondering, my proposal has now been approved by the university. So it all seems okay right now...

Edited by ajb

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It has now been submitted...

 

Still if anyone has further advice on this please add it. I hope what we say here will be useful to others in the future.

 

Thanks for all the replies.

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Keep us in the loop how it went. If we had more people it would be interesting to discuss the different types of grants and grant mechanisms. I have been in a few countries by now and it is interesting to see how the different granting agencies are driven by research culture, politics and funding sources...

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Well, my application was unsuccessful. Luckily I have a couple of other things to apply for over the next week or so.

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Sorry to hear. If it is any consolation, one of mine was recently shot down, too. As a collaborator said, it is basically like gambling. Only at casinos you get better odds.

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Sorry to hear. If it is any consolation, one of mine was recently shot down, too. As a collaborator said, it is basically like gambling. Only at casinos you get better odds.

There does seem an element of luck here with the reviewers. I really cannot see that I could have changed much on the proposal. Anyway, on with the next one.

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On balance do you feel that most worthy proposals are successful, or is the system fundamentally flawed? Let me ask the same question from a different perspective. Are those who are judging proposals sufficiently qualified and sufficiently interested to do an effective job?

Edited by Ophiolite

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On balance do you feel that most worthy proposals are successful, or is the system fundamentally flawed? Let me ask the same question from a different perspective. Are those who are judging proposals sufficiently qualified and sufficiently interested to do an effective job?

I am not experienced enough to offer much of an opinion on that. I am however, sure that there is an element of luck involved with the reviewers, just as there is with publishing papers. I would expect all proposals that are submitted to be good proposals, but some how they must be graded and the limited funds dispensed somehow.

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Are those who are judging proposals sufficiently qualified and sufficiently interested to do an effective job?

 

As usual there is quite a mixed bag. I know people who take that extremely seriously and sacrifice time and effort to properly judge a proposal. But then I have seen others and read reviews from people who obviously had no clue what they were doing. Some PIs even hand down the proposals they were supposed to review to postdocs and even grad students.

Finding the right reviewer is also a problem, especially when the proposal has a new approach or when it interdisciplinary.

 

The main issue is that there are vastly more proposals that can be realistically funded, so that the review process is geared towards eliminating proposals (similar as vetting CVs for high-competition jobs) rather than identifying outstanding ones. After elimination of obvious duds, there will still be a massive amount of proposals which have decent quality and for which it will be very hard to objectively rank them. At this point luck becomes a factor as the proposal may resonate well with certain reviewers, but less so with others. Also, name recognition is relevant as many would assume that an established PI with track record will have a higher likelihood to successfully fulfill the project.

 

Typically the system becomes conservative and proposal that are just ahead of the curve, but not too much, as well a established PIs have much higher chances of getting funded.

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Finding the right reviewer is also a problem, especially when the proposal has a new approach or when it interdisciplinary.

Again, this is can be a problem when publishing papers that uses no so popular methods or brand new ideas. Finding a reviewer that know enough about the topics around your paper/proposal can be difficult.

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On balance do you feel that most worthy proposals are successful, or is the system fundamentally flawed? Let me ask the same question from a different perspective. Are those who are judging proposals sufficiently qualified and sufficiently interested to do an effective job?

 

I think at the NIH/NSF level of reviewing, the process is pretty good. Grants are judged by a panel, and panelists have to physically be in attendance at the review, so there is no chance of it being unofficially palmed off to a subordinate like a paper review. The elephant in the room is always that there isn't enough money. The number of proposals/scientists keeps going up, with funding rates remaining stagnant or decreasing. What ends up happening is that you have many more perfectly appropriate, important and viable proposals from capable scientists than you have money to fund.

 

As a result, it becomes somewhat subjective as to which of these grants you will actually fund. Sometimes the reasons for not funding a grant can be extremely trivial and flimsy, because in reality, they probably are. This means there is a significant element of luck/stochasticity in what does and doesn't get funded, which is extremely frustrating for a scientist investing considerable effort in writing long and involved grant applications. It can seem like a considerable waste of time/effort/resources to have all these scientists writing applications when ~95% will not result in any return. However, on the other side, I think the likelihood of public money being spent on frivolous/flawed research is pretty low.

 

Ultimately, I think the big issue is that since the GFC (and even before it) there's less money to go around, so deciding who gets it can come down to unimportant details.

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