Thursday, October 4, 2012

Degus eat money; all about grant proposals

(The first half of this post is a general introduction to what grants are and how I applied for them. The second half of this post is advice for students writing grant proposals.)

Scientific research requires thoughtful preparation, careful execution, and painstaking analysis. It takes a lot of time to design a good experiment, carry it out, analyze the data, and then finally communicate the results. But what many people don't realize is that scientists have to spend additional time and effort to just get the money to do their research. This money is typically in the form of grants, which can be from the government (like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, etc) or independent organizations (scientific societies, conservation groups, etc).

Typically, the Principal Investigator (the head of the lab) is the person in charge of securing research funds, while the graduate students, post-doctorates (post-docs are researchers who already have their PhDs), and technicians are in charge of carrying out the research. If a graduate student or post-doc wants to pursue a research project that's unrelated to their adviser's current grants, then they usually have to find their own research funds. That's what happened in my case, so by working on other scientist's grants and applying for my own funds, I've been able to carry out my research in Chile.

During my first field season in Chile, my collaborator from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (Dr. Loren Hayes) funded my research through an International Research Experience for Students (IRES) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). After my first field season in Chile I knew that I wanted to return, so I started applying for other grants (the IRES grant can only fund each student one time).

The first big step was finding grants; through a series of internet searches I found about 11 grants that seemed likely to fund my research project. The first place I looked at was my own university, Tufts! The Tufts Graduate School has several grants-in-aid of research that they award every semester. While small (max. of $700), these grants are a great springboard and have a high funding rate. The Tufts Graduate School also has a list of grants on their website (, which helped me find a few more funding opportunities. 

My adviser and thesis committee also recommended a few grants to me, like the NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, the American Mammalogist Society grant-in-aid of research, and the Sigma Xi grant-in-aid of research. And by chatting with other students in my department, I found out about grants available from Graduate Women in Science and the American Philosophical Society. After more internet searching, I also found grants from the Explorer's Club, the National Geographic Society, the Animal Behavior Society, and the Society of Comparative and Integrative Biology (the reason I'm listing all of these grants is so that it might be useful for other students in my field).

Then, the next big step was actually writing the grants. Writing the first grant was the most difficult, and then it got a lot easier from there since I could reuse sections from my first grant. Here's an outline for a basic grant:

1) Introduction- The first few sentences should discuss the unique phenomenon that's related to your project. You want something that will immediately interest your audience and make them agree that your project is going to help explore an important scientific question. The introduction should then continue, with each sentence logically building on the last, until you find a good place to introduce your study system. And then the introduction should continue on, narrowing and narrowing until you finally get to your hypothesis, and then don't be afraid to state your hypothesis in bold letters, italics, or whichever way you think it will best stand out!

2) Methods- This section should be brief and to the point, avoid going into too much detail! You want to convince your audience that what you're doing is feasible, but you also don't want to spend a lot of time describing your techniques. Don't forget to include the important facts like place of work, time frame, and number of animals. Try to present your steps in chronological order- this makes the section more logical and easy to read.

3) Expected Results- State what you think you're going to find, don't be afraid to use different fonts to make parts of this section stand out. Depending on the length of the grant, this can also be a good section to discuss the broader impacts of your study. How will this study make a novel contribution to your field of research? Are you going to do any outreach activities? Are you going to mentor or collaborate with other people?

4) References- Grants usually have word or space limits and you almost always want to write more than you're allowed. So, for once, avoid parenthetical citations and opt for superscript numbers. You can also save space by limiting the number of citations you use- the reviewers want to know that your statements are backed up, but they're more interested in what you're planning to do in your project.

Here are some general tips for writing grants;

-Ask for your letters of recommendation well in advance.
-Double-check that you've followed ALL grant guidelines! Many organizations will toss out a grant if you forget a section, use the wrong format, etc.
-Give yourself a lot of time to write your first grant, then the next grants will take much less time.
-Ask other students in your department if you can read their funded grant proposals. This was probably the most helpful thing for me, I learned a lot by reading other people's grants!
-Ask your peers to read your grants over, it's good to get a first round of editing before you send your grant to your adviser.
-Try to submit your grant at least one day before the deadline. Sometimes there are problems with the website because of high traffic and you'll experience technical problems, don't cut it close!
-Spend a lot of time on your grant budget. There's usually no space limit for your budget justification, so go ahead and lay out every detail if you can. I usually make a list of costs, and then I write a few paragraphs explaining how I calculated each cost.
-Start writing grants early in your career, it's best to start when you're an undergraduate! The more practice you have, the better. Many universities have undergraduate research grants, and 1st/2nd year graduate students should definitely apply for the NSF graduate research fellowship.
-Because your first grants will most likely not be funded, apply BEFORE you really need research funds so you can get feedback and improve your grant writing skills.
-That being said, don't let grant writing get in the way of your research, try to write grants only when you need the money or when you have the time to write grants.
-Don't be discouraged by rejections. There's a lot of rejection in science, and the best scientists are those that don't brood over failed attempts and instead jump back up and try again. Be persistent. 

I hope this post was informative and helpful. Grant writing isn't the most exciting thing to write about, but I spend quite a bit of time writing grants and it's an important part of scientific research, so I felt that the topic was appropriate for my blog.

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