This “Keep Your Job, Ken!” blog series post is on grants and funding. I will start with the disclaimer that I have by no means figured out how to best secure funding. We have been relatively successful (but also rejected a lot) so I can’t complain too much, but we also pale in comparison to others. Looking at the funding landscape leads me to believe that good ideas and well thought out plans are not enough, and that even weak and unoriginal research gets funding sometimes. Having now been on both sides of the submission and review process, I can confidently say it is a combination of timing, reputation, luck, name brand recognition (both institution and PI), the randomness of reviewers, as well as the number and quality of the proposals you submit. Since it is the only thing that we can control, I will limit my advice to the last variable. Much of what I share may be obvious or redundant but hopefully there are some useful tidbits.
1) Do your homework. There are many resources available that provide detailed and program specific advice that is better than anything I’ll provide here. One that I found useful was the NSF (and presumably the NIH) versions of The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook. Even if you don’t follow their writing prompts or formatting advice, they do a good job helping the reader view proposal writing through the lens of a reviewer. It really opened my eyes to the differences between writing a paper and writing a proposal. Also, take advantage of any grant writing workshops provided by your university. Many will be generalized across several disciplines, but some advice is universal. Alternatively, there are several discipline-specific workshops that not only give advice, but also offer peer and/or expert review of your proposal drafts. I have not attended the latter but heard many great things from those that have. Unfortunately, these will likely come with a fee and travel costs (check if your grants office offers support for these types of events). Finally, ask colleagues for their advice but do keep in mind, a senior colleague with a lot of name-brand recognition and history with a funding agency will have a very different lens than someone starting from scratch. The same is true with any proposal you may have helped your very successful graduate and postdoc advisor write. They have the luxury of having >100 publications of preliminary results, a reputation, and a history that you don’t.