What reviewers look for in a grant proposal
Writing grant proposals can be a difficult process, involving significant amounts of time, resources, and energy until the proposal is successfully submitted. This energy is expended on the writing of the technical components of the grant, and it is also expended on a variety of other grant-related issues: ensuring that all aspects of the proposal follows all the formatting guidelines and specifications; that the budget and budget justification are well-written and fully justified; that figures are eye-catching, well-designed, and well-placed; that the biographical sketches of the investigators are formatted appropriately and connect well to the content of the proposal; and more.
Unfortunately, even with all of the effort and energy that researchers expend writing and submitting grant proposals, the vast majority of proposals are rejected. Success rates can range widely: from as low as 11% successful funding rate for the National Cancer Institute (NCI; part of the National Institutes of Health) in 2018, to as high as 35% for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS; which is also part of the National Institutes of Health), also in 2018.1 This means that even in the best case scenario, more than six out of ten researchers who write a grant proposal will have their grant rejected. There are ways to improve one’s chances of having a grant successfully funded, however, and this guide will discuss several of those ways.
I am a chemistry professor, which means that most of my knowledge of grants comes from writing and reviewing grants in the physical sciences. I have had countless numbers of grants rejected, and fortunately, several of them funded. The information presented herein is based on my own experience, my internet research, and conversations with several of my colleagues.
1. Design and use illustrations well. Oftentimes, you will feel constrained by the page limits that the grant proposal guidelines dictate. You will think to yourself, “I have so much good science! So many ideas! How can I be constrained in this way?” And once you feel that way, every inch of real estate in those pages will feel precious. How do you ensure that you use them in the best possible way? Not by filling them with as many words as possible, but by using illustrations strategically and carefully.
Illustrations are important; they can add significantly to the proposal and will break up the text for the reviewer. Every illustration should add something to the proposal that was not conveyed (or not fully conveyed) by the text alone. If you are simply restating what was said in the text, that is a waste of precious real estate. Also be sure that the words in the illustrations are readable. Oftentimes, grant writers will create a figure in another program, and import it into the grant file in a smaller sized version of how it was designed. This shrinking can make words unreadable. Ensure that the words are readable after the illustration is in its final size.
2. Ensure that the proposal is proofread by a native speaker. Even for people who have fluent knowledge of another language, there can be errors in sentence syntax and/or nuances that will only be found by a native speaker of the language of your proposal. Find a native speaker to proofread your proposal; if you have difficulty finding someone, use the vast resources of the internet to locate someone who can proofread your proposal and is a native speaker of the proposal language. You absolutely do not want a reviewer to become aggravated or impatient with errors in your proposal writing.
3. Use the specific aims page effectively. Not every proposal has a specific aims page, but many of them have a summary document/page/section that allows you to summarize the overall goals of the proposal and the research proposed therein. Know that it is possible, albeit not likely, that a reviewer may only read the specific aims page and not the entire proposal. Know also that it is slightly more possible that a reviewer will have formed an overall impression after reading your specific aims page and before reading any other part of your proposal. Every inch of that paper is precious real estate in your proposal. Make sure that you are using it to your advantage to clearly and concisely communicate the strongest parts of your proposal. Strongly consider using at least one well-designed graphic to highlight the important points of your research proposal is a visually appealing fashion.
4. Use clear and concise language and sentences. Nobody is going to give you extra credit on your proposal if you use overly complicated words, long and convoluted sentences, or otherwise complicate the text of the proposal unnecessarily. Use clear and unambiguous language. When you are in doubt about whether your sentence is too long, split it in two. Have someone who is not an expert in your field read through your proposal and ask them about the readability. Break up paragraphs more often than you would in other types of writing. Overall, remember that your reviewer may have a short attention span. They may have an overwhelming workload. Use words and word choices that will make it easy for them to understand and focus on the content of the proposal.
5. Be specific. Do not write “I am going to cure cancer.” Spoiler alert: You are not likely to be able to cure cancer. Instead, write specifically the experiments that you are going to do, and how those experiments are going to lead to advances in your particular field. How specific should you be? This is tricky to answer conclusively, and probably depends on personal preference and particular field of study. Overall it does not have to be as specific as a laboratory manual (i.e. I am not going to list out the amounts of each reagent to add and how long the reaction will take), but it has to be specific enough that a reviewer will understand that I have actually considered what is involved in executing this research plan. Let’s consider an example:
Too specific: We will measure 10 mg of a sample and put it into an NMR tube and then add 1 mL of deuterated solvent.
Too general: We will use NMR spectroscopy.
Just right: We plan to use 1H NMR spectroscopy to measure binding constants, through monitoring signal changes of the guest as a function of concentration of host.
Also just right: We will use 1H NMR spectroscopy to measure binding affinities, following well-established literature precedent.
Note: The last option only works if the literature precedent is actually well-established; if it is not, and you are requiring the reviewer to look up articles in order to understand this part of the proposal, then you are requiring the reviewer to do too much work. See Tip 12.
6. Include potential problems and alternate approaches. This is critical. Everyone who has done research knows that things don’t always go exactly as planned, and that problems are virtually guaranteed to arise. You need to make sure that the reviewer sees that you have thought about potential problems that can occur, and that you have alternate approaches that are available to you to solve this problem. What you want to avoid is having a reviewer who is concerned that your science won’t work and that you won’t know what to do when it doesn’t work.
Note: This section can be a little bit tricky because the problems have to be real and specific, and the solutions have to be realistic. For example, you cannot write, “A potential problem is that everything will fail,” nor can your solution be “I will throw everything in the trash and burn down the building.” Instead, consider a problem statement such as, “Challenges in characterizing the molecules using spectroscopic techniques may arise due to the high flexibility of the molecular structures.” A solution to this problem might then be, “We will investigate alternate techniques, including microscopic imaging, to characterize the structures so that we do not rely solely on spectroscopic techniques.”
7. Include a timeline. Much like the inclusion of a “potential problems and alternate approaches” section, the inclusion of a timeline shows the reviewer that you have thought in detail about the research proposed herein and that you have a realistic chance of actually doing what you are proposing. A timeline also lets the reviewer know which sections you think are most important and/or likely to be most time-consuming, and which ones do you think can be completed relatively quickly. Instead of a timeline that is presented in a text format, consider using a graphic to illustrate a timeline for the proposed research. A quick internet search for such timelines will provide you with some examples of grant proposal timelines presented in a visually appealing fashion.
8. Assume nobody will print your proposal. In 2019, it is a fairly safe bet that whoever is reviewing your proposal is going to do so on an electronic device rather than printing out the document. This means that your formatting of the proposal should be done in a way that maximizes readability on a screen. In practice, maximizing on-screen readability means usually avoiding multiple columns on a page; using a dark text on a white background; and ensuring that figures, charts and schemes can be seen in their entirety on a screen without requiring the reader to scroll up or down to get the full picture.
9. Double and triple checking that the proposal follows all guidelines. Because funding rates are so low, reviewers are essentially looking for reasons to reject your grant proposal. ANY deviation from the stated guidelines (margins, font size, reference formatting, etc) will be a reason that the reviewers can reject your proposal. Do not give them that reason. Check that you are following all of the guidelines. Then check again. Then, just to be sure, check a third time.
10. Writing a cover letter requesting particular review assignments. In many cases, you have the opportunity to influence who will review your proposal. You can do so in the NIH through requesting assignment to a particular study section, but even in non-NIH grant proposals you can suggest particular reviewers in a cover letter. Use the opportunity to suggest reviewers. Make sure that you are suggesting people who are likely to be able to review the proposal, who have at least some familiarity with the field, and are not people with whom you have conflicts of interest. Do not suggest the top people in your field as they are likely to be too busy to review the proposal. Do not suggest completely new investigators as the program officer is unlikely to send the proposal to those people. Your best bet is to suggest reviewers who are at the Associate Professor level, whom you have had at least some interaction with but not a close interaction, and whose work is somewhat related to the work that you are proposing.
If your grant is rejected, do not get discouraged. Remember that most grant proposals are rejected. Remember that there are other opportunities for funding and that you will be able to apply for those opportunities. In many cases, you will be able to address the feedback on a resubmission for the same funding opportunity. Keep applying. Keep trying.
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