Whether you’re a graduate student hoping to woo a potential postdoc mentor with cash or a new team leader scrambling to keep your lab open, we all need to support our scientific endeavours with grant money.
Even science is subject to the laws of capitalism. Every time I write a grant application, I picture the funding as a gleaming pot of gold -- literal gold bars -- plopped down at the end of a rainbow; basically, a manifestation of all my scientific hopes and dreams.
Each preliminary experiment I complete, each specific aim I stipulate, brings me one step closer to reaching the end of that rainbow. But as is the case for scientists in all fields, having a grant application rejected is an almost inevitable disappointment, no matter how good a scientist you are.
I’m going to hit you with some unpleasant statistics now, so please prepare yourself emotionally. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) funded fewer than 25% of the 49,415 proposals it received in 2017 , leaving tens of thousands of scientists like yourself out in the cold. In fact, according to Nature , almost US$4 billion worth of proposals were rejected, even though they had been rated very good or excellent. You can’t even get funding if you’re definitively excellent?
In fact, no one is immune to the difficulties of securing a grant. In 2009, the eminent biologist Carol Greider won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of telomerase. Hours later, her grant submission on telomerase research to the NIH was “triaged”, aka the reviewers wouldn’t even deign to talk about it. You can watch her discuss this here.
Look, the current grant review mechanisms obviously have their flaws, but if we want to succeed in science and grab that pot of gold, we need to learn how to navigate the existing system. I’m going to walk you through some of the common pitfalls that can cause a grant to be rejected, and how you can overcome them. Some of these points may seem trivial, but these are the exact issues that cause grant rejections. So take my hand and I’ll show you how to pick up the pieces, figure out where you went wrong, and how to write a successful application.
1. Your project doesn’t fit the scope of the call
All funding bodies have very specific criteria that are outlined in their calls for proposals. Before you even start thinking of writing a grant application, make sure your project exactly matches that criteria. Don’t expect that just because you have a stellar record or a great idea that you can fudge this. If you’re at all uncertain about the suitability of your proposal for a particular funding body, first get in touch with your institution’s grant support team. These individuals will likely have spent hours directly in contact with the funding bodies to learn the specifics of a grant call inside and out, and they’ll be happy to help you. You may have a hard time getting in touch with someone about your proposal if you try to directly contact a larger funding body like the NIH. We are like ants to the ill-tempered toddler that is the NIH. However, smaller funding bodies or NGOs may be more willing to speak with you on the phone or over email.
You should also ask your colleagues, especially scientists who are more senior to you and will be more likely to have already applied for the exact grant you’re thinking of. In addition, there are many resources online for getting information from those in the know. For example, you can read more about applying for funding at The Research Whisperer (Australian-based), Research Impact Academy (Australian-based), The Professor Is In (US-based), or Research Fundermentals (UK-based).
Another point to keep in mind is that you can always spin your applications to match the specific criteria of different funding bodies. For example, let’s say you have a medically-relevant project and you’re looking for funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). While NHMRC only funds medical research, ARC only funds basic research. If you can tailor your grant proposal to include an animal study or a clinical trial, you can use it to apply to NHMRC. If you can repurpose that same grant to only include basic research experiments, you can use it to apply to ARC.
2. You don’t meet the eligibility criteria
Just like with the scope of a call, funding bodies always have specific eligibility requirements for who and what they’ll fund. This is extremely important, as applications that don’t meet these criteria will be automatically disqualified. The funding body might not even tell you until the results are announced months later! Please don’t waste your time writing a kick-ass grant that ends up being rejected just because you graduated from your PhD program too long ago. These eligibility criteria could include everything from the kind of institution you work for, whether you’re planning to do the research in another country or not, and where you are in your career. I don’t think they necessarily care whether you prefer The Beatles or Wings, but smaller funding bodies can get very specific with their requirements. For example, many postdoctoral funding calls will require that you be within a certain number of years since graduating with your PhD. Alternatively, for later career stage grants, you might need to have more than 10 years of academic experience under your belt before you can apply.
There is hope though! In recent years it’s become common for funding bodies to be more lenient when it comes to extenuating life circumstances that may have side-tracked your career. Many grants have sections where you can explain a career interruption, like having a child, needing to change labs, or other personal issues. If a grant requires that only two years have passed since you received your PhD, but you took a year off during your postdoc to care for your newborn, you may still be eligible for the grant. Again, check with your institution’s grant support team if you’re uncertain.
3. Your track record isn’t up to par
Unfortunately, this one can be tricky to work around, especially for early-career researchers. Funding bodies and reviewers often have certain expectations for the number of publications, awards, and previous grant applications that you’ll have obtained by the time of your grant submission, and depending on the grant, you may be competing with scientists with an additional five+ years of experience over you. Luckily, many grant calls now take this into consideration, and allow you to discuss your track record relative to the opportunities you’ve had in your career so far.
Your “track record” can also include being able to prove you’ve used the methodology or technology that is mentioned in your grant. Unlike the number of publications you have, this is something you can more easily control. If you’re proposing to use a new technique, try to produce some preliminary data that can be included in the grant. You can even consider bringing on collaborator(s) to support experimental techniques that are new to you. And on that note...
4. Your team doesn’t make sense
If you’re going to apply for a project grant, you’ll need to assemble a team of three or four individuals, plus additional staff, who will all contribute to the project. While this might seem like a good opportunity to bring on a big-name scientist with an impressive track record, reviewers will catch on very quickly if that person will not actually be contributing anything and is only there for their name recognition.
5. You don’t have enough time
I know you’re extremely busy and have one hundred tasks you need to take care of now. Writing another grant is just one more thing to add to the pile. And for many of us, grant writing is a truly onerous task. It’s much easier to do one more experiment, take one more coffee break, or grade one more assignment than it is to get started writing. We’re all guilty of this! But if you don’t stop procrastinating and give yourself sufficient time to make sure your grants are the best they can be, you’re setting yourself up for failure. For some perspective: depending on the size of the grant and the amount of preliminary data they think they’ll need to collect, some people will spend up to a full year preparing a proposal.
A huge amount of work goes into writing a strong grant: coming up with a unique angle, finding collaborators, gathering preliminary data, developing a budget, reading the literature, the list goes on. Try to manage your time effectively by giving yourself specific, hard deadlines that are far in advance of the submission date. Outsource some of the work to the other members of your team, if relevant. Start getting feedback on your ideas and writing as early as possible. Remember that the time you invest in grant writing is an investment in the future of your research career. Give yourself enough time to do the best job you can.
6. You structured the grant application incorrectly
Most grants have strict structure and formatting rules, which can be really helpful for making sure you haven’t left anything out of your application. In some cases, however, you may not be given very many structure guidelines at all, which can be pretty intimidating. If that’s the case, be sure to create a clear, impactful summary of the entire grant at the very beginning of your application. This first page should include an abstract of the scope of the project, an outline of the aims and objectives, and the intended impacts and advances. To really get a sense of what makes an application successful, try to get your hands on a few winning grant applications from your institutions’ grant support team or a colleague.
Another option to consider is including a graphical abstract or even a video abstract to supplement your application. Can you imagine how much this would make it stand out? Although this is less common in certain regions of the world like the US, large graphical abstracts that take up half a page are actually de rigueur in Japanese grants. It’s also becoming the norm to have a figure on the first page of ARC grants in Australia. Make sure to check the grant guidelines, but including a diagram that simplifies the entire grant can make a huge difference for catching reviewers’ attention. If it’s an option, consider working with us at Animate Your Science to create a stunning graphical abstract or video abstract for your grant submission to really stand out.
7. Your grant is overly complicated
Less is more. This applies to both the actual written content of the grant, as well as the scope of your project. First of all, keep in mind that reviewers will most likely not be experts in your field, may not know all of the same jargon and acronyms you know, and will probably get annoyed while reading your proposal if it’s not clearly written. Actually, they’ll probably mentally check-out if they have trouble understanding the first page. Reviewers are people too, with limited attention spans, and a tendency to inadvertently start planning what to make for dinner and what wine to pair with it while skimming over the results of your blood, sweat, and tears. Make your writing concise, compelling, and easy to read. Focus more on the bigger picture objectives, expected outcomes, and impacts, rather than the minutiae of plasmid design. Second, don’t be too ambitious. Only include experiments that you know can be reasonably completed within the time-frame of the grant.
8. You submitted the grant incorrectly
Just like with the eligibility criteria, tiny errors in formatting (like using the wrong font size, margin width, or figure number) can result in an immediate disqualification. Wouldn’t it be sad to learn your grant was rejected because you used Calibri font instead of Arial? Yes, that really happened .
The moral of that story is to meticulously read and reread the formatting guidelines for your grants before final submission. I know it feels like a waste of time spending hours tweaking margin widths and moving figures around, but make sure you follow those instructions! You have to play by the rules if you want to (figuratively) cart away those end-of-the-rainbow gold bars in a wheelbarrow made of your dreams. In addition, some funding bodies have specific requirements for the means by which a grant is submitted -- this could be using an online submission platform, through your research institution, or through email. As has become a constant refrain, double-check the guidelines.
9. You didn’t get your colleagues’ input
I cannot stress enough the importance of getting outside feedback on your application. Not only should this include feedback from your supervisor, a senior researcher in your field, or a colleague, but also a senior researcher outside of your field. This is especially important because you’ll likely have individuals reviewing your grant who actually know very little about your specific area of research. You’ll need to ensure that your grant is easily understandable to a general science audience. Get rid of that jargon! Honestly, if you can get a non-scientist friend to take a look at it, that could be some of the most valuable feedback you receive.
Congratulations on making it this far! I suggest you bookmark this article and use it as a checklist while writing your next grant. Good luck… now go and win that pot of gold!
Thanks to Dr. Ken Dutton-Regester for his informative video on grant writing that inspired this article!
Bouncken, Ricarda & Brem, Alexander & Kraus, Sascha. (2015). Multi-cultural teams as sources for creativity and innovation: The role of cultural diversity on team performance. International Journal of Innovation Management. 20. 1650012. 10.1142/S1363919616500122.