What are the best practices for writing research grant proposals?
To fund their research projects, academics apply for research grants from governments and philanthropies. Research grant writing has become a fundamental activity of academic researchers in sociology, psychology, and political science.
But grant writing is difficult, even for experienced social scientists. There are many things to learn.
This article provides ten tips on how to write a research grant proposal.
At a glance
- What are the best practices for writing research grant proposals?
- First look at eligibility. Then, carefully examine the guidelines.
- Know your audience.
- Much of grant writing is like article writing.
- Do Explanatory Projects
- Good writing matters.
- Previous accomplishments matter. Build on your strengths.
- Make sure your project is feasible.
- Ethics must be straightforwardly addressed.
- Budget must be clear and justifiable.
- Guetzkow et al (2004) were right: panelists make moral judgements.
1. First look at eligibility. Then, carefully examine the guidelines.
Even expert grant writers can screw up this first step. It is easy to get excited over a possibility. But, after the rush, a clear head is needed to scrutinize the eligibility. Are you eligible? It is extremely important to look at the guidelines for the proposal. What is needed? How long is the proposal? What other supporting documents are needed? And so on. Make a list.
If you are eligible, and you want to pursue it, meet with some people — advisor and colleagues, etc. — to discuss the possibilities.
If you do decide to pursue the grant, inform the administrative unit in your institute that is responsible for grants. Why? Because for many grants, it is actually the institution that is the applicant. Also, your institute may have deadlines that are well before (perhaps as much as two weeks) the deadline specified in the Call for Applications. Administration needs time to prepare and administrate the submission of the grant proposal.
2. Know your audience.
Your immediate audience consists of both the funding agency administrators and the panel that will evaluate your proposal. Large funding organizations have their own language. You must use that language. If they use the term “milestone” to denote the stages of progress, then use the term “milestone” to denote the stages of progress. If they use the term “work package” to denote smaller sub-studies that comprise your research, then use “work package,” etc.
Many organizations that evaluate many proposals at once use numeric scores to discriminate one proposal from another. Everything is ranked. Even if you hate numbers, these numbers rule. Read the guidelines to determine what part of the proposal is worth the most points (or, highest percentage of the total). Your success will mostly hinge on your scores in what the funding organization considers as the most important parts of the proposal. You have to score high to have a chance. But, at the highest level of competition, when it comes down to the handful of proposals that will get considered to be funded, the smaller things will be decisive. Thus, pay attention to the small details, too.
The first people to look at your proposal are administrators of the funding agency with advanced graduate degrees and academic professionals who are probably not experts in your particular field. What does that mean? It means that your audience must also be well-educated laypeople. Some jargon can be used, but you must also explain your research idea to experts outside of your field. These people like a good intellectual puzzle. Present that puzzle, clearly, and with a clear knowledge gap and contribution to the field and thus to knowledge itself, and you have a chance at funding.
3. Much of grant writing is like article writing.
Clarity and knowledge gap (answer the “so what?” question). Define your main concepts clearly and use those definitions consistently. Clearly describe your methods: the who, what, when, where, and why of your data. Clearly describe how you will collect these data.
And do all of this within the specific guidelines, including the space or word count, provided by the funding organization.
4. Do Explanatory Projects
Descriptive projects present new data and understanding about a group or phenomenon, but do not test theory. Explanatory projects use data to test theory. Many panelists take a dim view of merely descriptive projects. A project designed to “describe” the situation is usually, but not always, graded lower than a theory-testing project.
But, sometimes, description is great. A description is desirable when there is little basic information about the phenomenon or group of study. This is exceedingly rare in an era with hundreds of thousands of working social scientists all writing about modern life. But, it can happen, especially to novel phenomena.
In writing theory, the best approach is to connect old theory to new theory.
5. Good writing matters.
Grammar and proofreading mistakes can sink a good idea. Bad writing with lots of mistakes will annoy the panelists and make it unlikely that your proposal will get funded. They will consider a poorly-written proposal as a strong sign that the applicant (really, the PI) has not done their Due Diligence. Good writing, and excellent writing, can curry favor with the panelists. Thus: clear, simple, and engaging writing is worthwhile.
6. Previous accomplishments matter. Build on your strengths.
If you apply for funding, your name and CV will be known to the panel. Your previous publications, or, in the case of PhD grants, also your presentations and work in research teams, will be evaluated. So, it’s good to start early in building your CV.
7. Make sure your project is feasible.
Feasibility of a proposal can be defined as (a) difficulty of the project, (b) time and money allocated to it, (c) applicant capacity (or ability) to collect and analyze the data, and (d) degree of outsourcing. The difficulty of the project must be matched by the time and money you want to allocate toward its execution. Panelists may deem that you do not have the experience or capacity to collect and analyze the data, or that the outsourcing of data collection is unrealistic. They would then say that the project is “not feasible.” This would be the end of that proposal at that time for that funding opportunity.
8. Ethics must be straightforwardly addressed.
Ethics matters. Proposals can be eliminated from the competition if the ethics are not fully addressed.
9. Budget must be clear and justifiable.
The budget connects to the feasibility of the project. Problems can be in over- and under-budgeting: a project that requests too much for too little can be eliminated for budget concerns. A project that requests too little for too much may be deemed “not feasible.”
10. Guetzkow et al (2004) were right: panelists make moral judgements.
Guetzkow et al (2004), writing in the American Sociological Review, asked “What is originality?” To find out, they interviewed panelists from top US grant funding agencies.
A key finding was that panelists attribute morality to their interpretation of research proposals. Panelists are professionals and they are humans. They look at proposals with a professional eye, but they also make moral judgments about the proposal author or the work. The author who uses popular topics or too much jargon can be considered as “too trendy.” There are “courageous risk takers” and “lazy conformists.”
Unfortunately, this moralizing exists. This matters for how people view the proposal. Even if you cannot quantify it, having a positive or negative moral evaluation can be helpful/harmful.
Some panelists will see the “potential” of the proposal that is not clearly written, but seems to be there. Thus, however, often loses to actual potential. So, be clear. You may find a champion of your proposal in that panel, but you cannot count on it.
Guetzkow, Joshua, Michèle Lamont and Grégoire Mallard. 2004. “What Is Originality in the Humanities and the Social Sciences?” American Sociological Review 69(2): 190-212.
Davis, Murray S. 1971. “That’s Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and Sociology of
Phenomenology.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1(4).
Henson, Kenneth T. 2003. “Debunking Some Myths about Grant Writing.” The Chronicle of
Higher Education, June 26.
See also: Grant Writing Myths to Debunk
Moffat, Anne Simon. 1994. “Grantsmanship: what makes proposals work?” Science 265
Przeworski, Adam and Frank Salomon. 1995. On the Art of Writing Proposals: Some Candid
Suggestions for Applicants to Social Science Research Council Competitions. SSRC.
Copyright Joshua Dubrow The Sociology Place 2022
Cover photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.