Contributed by Shailee Shah, co-presenter of the workshop “Writing Successful Proposals for Small Grants” at AOS’s 2019 annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. This is the third in a series of blog posts developed from workshops presented at the meeting.
In the first two years of my PhD I applied for a slew of small grants and was roundly rejected from every single one. Multiple times. I found myself at a bit of a loss; I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong and I hadn’t received much concrete feedback from grant reviewers. A little frustrated, I was describing this to Amelia-Juliette Demery, chair of the AOS Student Affairs Committee, while we were discussing the upcoming AOS meeting. “Why not do a workshop at AOS?” she asked. She figured I was probably not the only one feeling like I needed some guidance, and the 2019 AOS meeting would be the perfect venue. So, we teamed up with fellow AOS members Sabrina McNew, Jennifer Houtz, Jack Hruska, Michael McCloy, Nick Mason, and Autumn Iverson to organize a workshop on writing successful proposals for small grants, with a special focus on AOS’s own Student & Postdoc Research Awards.
Dr. Brian Peer, chair of the AOS awards committee, kicked things off with a presentation on how the review process for AOS research awards works, what the awards committee looks for in a grant proposal, and some guidelines on writing a successful proposal. Then we formed small groups and workshopped some sample grant proposals, collectively coming up with some general do’s and don’ts for writing small grants including the AOS award and other similar grants such as the Chapman Grant, Sigma Xi Grant-in-Aid of Research, etc. Here are some of the main themes that emerged from the workshop!
- Have well-defined, novel objectives. These grants are competitive. Your project must have a broader scope than, say, studying the birds in your neighborhood park, and it must be original and address a significant gap in the existing research.
- Clarify how your project falls within the broader context. While these grants are typically between $1,000 and $3,000, thus funding a smaller-scale project or part of a bigger project, include a thorough literature review and state clearly how your project fits within the broader context.
- Get many eyes on it early on. All writing is improved with feedback from others. If your advisor doesn’t have a lot of time, have them look at a polished version that has gone through a couple of review cycles already; tap into your network to get diverse and plentiful feedback from fellow graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and other mentors. Start early to leave enough time to incorporate suggestions, especially since they might involve big changes such as reframing your objectives or tweaking your experimental design.
- Demonstrate competence in your methods. In the methods section, try to incorporate sufficient detail, especially regarding analytical methods, so that it’s clear that you know what you are talking about. If the methodology is new to you, be honest about your ability and state whose help you intend to seek in mastering these methods. Additionally, make sure to justify the methodology — the reviewers will want to know why you are choosing to use these specific methods. This is especially true if your research requires sacrificing living organisms.
- Justify budget needs. The budget is the most straightforward yet often the most difficult section in proposals for small grants. If you are planning to solicit funding from multiple sources to meet your project needs, make sure you prioritize essential items without which the project cannot even begin. Demonstrate that you have looked or are looking for other funding sources and specify what you will be funding with money from each source. Each budget item should be accompanied with a justification. For items such as airfare, make sure to look up the exact cost for the dates you will be travelling on and include the reference (for e.g. “$982 – cost of round-trip Economy ticket from New York City (JFK) to Nairobi on January 1, 2020 for Kenya Airways”).
- Demonstrate that you have figured out the logistics. Reviewers want to know that you are not going into this project blind. Provide enough detail to show that you have figured out the necessary logistics such as renting a car for travel between field sites or accessing a laboratory facility to prepare your samples for sequencing. It is especially important to demonstrate that you have acquired or are in the process of acquiring the necessary permits to conduct your research.
- Delete unnecessary information and avoid jargon. Make sure everything is in there for a reason. These proposals have a strict word or character limit, so don’t stuff them with unnecessary information. It’s often useful to have someone external to your project review your proposal to identify what elements are necessary and what can be deleted without losing the flow of logic. This is also useful for identifying and nixing field-specific jargon. Often your proposal will be reviewed by someone who isn’t necessarily familiar with your specific niche field of study, so explain (or even better, avoid) terms like “indirect benefits” or “Tajima’s D.”
- Follow directions. The solicitation for applications for each grant is accompanied with a page or two of instructions. Read them carefully and follow the directions. A sure-shot way to have your proposal rejected is to not break up it up into three sections as instructed or ask for more money than the indicated upper limit. The easiest way to ensure that your science speaks for itself is to follow these directions to a T.
- Don’t wait until the last minute. Start writing your grant proposal early, not only to leave time for incorporating feedback but also so that you are not trying to submit your proposal at the last minute, risking website or Internet issues. Make sure you have read the guidelines in advance so as not to be tripped up by any surprise questions or requirements. This is especially true of recommendation letters — if the grant application requires a recommendation letter (or two!), make sure you are aware and have solicited a letter at least two weeks in advance. And finally, don’t assume that all grant submissions are online — the Chapman Grant, for example, is a mailed-in application, which requires a little more advance planning than just a working Internet connection!
- If you don’t succeed at first, apply again. Having had my AOS grant application rejected twice before finally being successful, this is probably the most salient piece of advice I have received and can now authoritatively pass on — keep trying. Science is riddled with rejections and limited funding. Start applying to these grants early in your graduate career to leave yourself enough wiggle room to try again. Remember that if you are applying a second or third time, it will especially help your chances of success if you can present some preliminary data.
As the grant season begins anew this academic year, I hope you find this guide helpful — all the best!