How to Write a Great Grant Application

April 16, 2017

Writing a grant application can be daunting, especially when you’re new to the process. How do you know what funding opportunities are available, how to make your writing both succinct and impactful, and how to make sure you’ve completed all of the forms correctly? Below, ASM Volunteers Cynthia Cornelissen, Ph.D. and Michael Ibba, Ph.D. give some handy tips on writing grant proposals, focusing on NIH and NSF.

Their general approach to applying for grants? “You can never start working on a proposal too early,” Ibba said. Cornelissen added, “Consider developing a summary figure to present your aims in the broader context of the hypotheses to be tested. This will benefit reviewers who are in your field as much as knowledgeable reviewer-scientists who are outside your field.” Cornelissen and Ibba teach ASM’s Grant Writing Online Course, which trains people on how to write effective grant proposals.

General Tips

  1. Know the grant landscape. Becoming familiar with the grants that are available and knowing where you fit in will help you determine which grants you are most likely to be awarded. Talk to program officers in your discipline and experienced colleagues.
  2. Create a checklist. Each grant mechanism has many different requirements. In order to ensure that you submit all required sections, create a checklist of all required items and a timeline of when to complete each item.
  3. View biosketches as a two-minute elevator talk.  A biosketch is the brief opportunity to describe why you are the best candidate for the project. Bring your research experience to life by showcasing your best work through a compelling story.
  4. Make sure your application is effective. Elements of effective applications include (i) good writing, (ii) clever approaches, (iii) an important topic, (iv) impact on the field, and (v) likely success of the project.
  5. Make your application accessible. Reviewers may not be experts in your subdiscipline, so make your application accessible to both a generalist and a specialist. Reviewers are looking for succinct, but innovative and impactful science.
  6. Improve your grant writing by DOING. Write your own grants, read other grants, and set up opportunities to critique and discuss grants with other colleagues.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Grant Applications

  1. NIH’s Specific Aims page is critical. The Specific Aims section is arguably the most vital part of the application, so take time to develop significant but achievable aims. They should be connected, but not interdependent.
  2. Grant review and award processes are completely separate at NIH. After your application is submitted, it will go into review for scientific and technical merit. At the review, your application will be assigned a score. Your application and score then go to another office that makes funding decisions.

National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant Applications

  1. NSF grants must have broad impacts. Since the mission of NSF is to fund basic science, clinical applications will not be reviewed. NSF grants require broader impacts, such as outreach into the community.
  2. Consider applying for your first NSF grant with a colleague. This is especially important if you are at an institution where not many faculty members have external funding. Choosing to apply for a grant with a more experienced colleague will allow you to go through the process together, keep each other accountable, and build on past success.

Author: Bethany Adamec

Bethany Adamec
Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.

Author: Contributor

As a Program Coordinator in the ASM Education Department, Leah Gibbons contributes to a team working to create unique opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral and early career scientists. She is passionate about providing young scientists with the tools they need to succeed in school and today’s workforce.