Cover Story

Grant writing 101

When Thomas Eissenberg, PhD, gives the first lecture of his grant-writing course for grad students, he asks his students how many plan to become professional writers. "Nobody raises their hands," says Eissenberg, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. "That's too bad, because as a scientist, you'll be writing for a living."

Grant writing is a necessary part of life for many psychologists. If you plan a career in research, knowing how to find funding is key. But even psychologists who plan to go into practice benefit from grant-writing skills, says John G. Borkowski, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame. "A student going into an applied mental health career might very well have to apply for grants," he says. Someone working in community mental health, for instance, might seek funding for outreach programs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the state mental health agency.

No matter where your interests lie, it's never too early to familiarize yourself with the grant-writing process. "You're going to be doing it," says Eissenberg, "and you need to excel at it."

Special skills

If your university offers a grant-writing course, you should sign up, Eissenberg says. Just as writing a manuscript is completely different from writing a newspaper article or a novel, grant writing, too, is its own beast — and it's a tough skill to teach yourself. "It's not something that can be done in a list of 10 tips," he says.

Your mentor and other experienced faculty are also an invaluable resource. Ask if you can read their grants, or even offer to help your mentor write or edit a section. "Be your own advocate, and ask to see your mentor's grant proposals," says Amber Story, PhD, the deputy director of the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). "Grant writing is a collaborative process and being part of it early gets you a big leg up," she says.

Luckily, most psychology grad students aren't expected to come up with the funds to cover their entire dissertation research costs. Often, they're covered by departmental funds or grants awarded to their mentors. Once you start planning your own research projects, however, it's a good idea to start thinking about grants.

Talk to your advisor and your university's grant office for information on available funding, both internal and external. (See "Grant Resources" in the box below for more information on locating grant opportunities.)

The U.S. government is the biggest source of research funding for scientists. In fiscal year 2012, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded more than $21 billion in research grants, plus another $772 million in training grants. The NSF, meanwhile, awarded more than $6.7 billion for research support, equipment and education.

For psychology graduate students, among the most coveted awards are the NIH's Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards for Individual Predoctoral Fellows, known as the F31. This training grant helps cover the cost of your education — and it looks great on your resume, says Eissenberg. The NSF also offers a Graduate Research Fellowship.

After you've finished your degree, the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards for Individual Postdoctoral Fellowships, or F32, are similarly prestigious grants that can help you land a great postdoc position. Ideally, you should apply for this grant during your dissertation year. At NSF, the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate offers SBE Postdoctoral Research Fellowships along two tracks — broadening participation and interdisciplinary training. Many smaller grants are also available to students and early-career scientists, both through the government and private foundations, including the American Psychological Foundation.

Your best foot forward

So you found a grant to apply for. Now what? First, make sure it's the right fit, Story says. The NSF and NIH have program officers to assist in the proposal process. They can help you make sure your idea is appropriate for a particular grant or funding agency before you write up the entire application.

"Write a few paragraphs about your project, email it to the program officer and ask for a phone call to discuss it," Story advises. "Call early to save yourself the time and grief."

And then make sure your application is watertight. To do that, say experts:

  • Know your audience. Different agencies and programs have different procedures, requirements and funding missions, says Story. Make sure you know the priorities of the agency you're applying to.

  • Take your time. It can be tempting to rush to get a proposal out when you see an opportunity. But if you don't budget enough time for your application, it shows, says Molly Wagster, PhD, the chief of the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch at the NIH's National Institute on Aging. For all NIH grants, applicants may only revise and resubmit their proposal once, she says. If you don't put in a stellar effort in the first place, you're doing yourself a big disservice.

  • Pay attention to detail. Make sure your nouns agree with your verbs. Use spell check. Follow the submission guidelines exactly. "A sloppy proposal does give reviewers pause," Story says. "If you're not conscientious enough to take care with the proposal, how conscientious are you as a researcher?"

  • Be concise and clear. Have a compelling theoretical framework, and make sure your experiments will clearly test the hypothesis you've derived from that framework, Story says. "Those links have to be crystal clear." And don't forget that grant reviewers are mostly volunteer scientists and faculty members with busy full-time jobs, Eissenbeg adds. Make it easy for them to keep reading. "If your application isn't focused, you'll lose your audience very quickly."

  • Cover the bases. Some predoctoral grants require information about the applicant's training plan as well as his or her research plan. Sometimes applicants focus their energy on their research plans but give their training plans short shrift, Wagster says. Include details, such as how and when you'll be interacting with your primary mentor, and clearly describe your training timeline.

  • Rein it in. Being overly ambitious is a common problem, says Eissenberg. "Don't try to do too much. If the review committee senses a project can't be done in the time allotted and with the money requested, they can't possibly give you a good score," he says.

  • Show you care. Too often, applicants don't fully convey their enthusiasm, Eissenberg says. "Communicating passion for your idea counts for a lot."

  • Ask for help. Enlist your mentor or another colleague to read your application and offer critiques. Don't submit an application that hasn't been looked at by another set of eyes, says Borkowski.

  • Don't get discouraged. In fiscal year 2012, fewer than 20 percent of applicants to the NIH were awarded grants. The NSF success rate was less than 25 percent. Rejection is part of the process, even for experienced investigators. Hang in there. "Don't put the application in a drawer and leave it there. Build on it, resubmit it or submit it somewhere else," Borkowski says. "The first no is just the beginning to getting a yes."

A creative process

Submitting a polished application is obviously essential. But there are other steps you can take to make yourself attractive to grant committees. For instance, start publishing as early as possible.

"Publications show your past track record," says Borkowski. "Funding agencies want to give money to someone they can trust."

Also keep in mind current funding trends. Lately, Borkowski says, some funding agencies are particularly keen on research that explores the biological basis of behavior, as well as bench-to-bedside research that connects basic science to real-world problems. Interdisciplinary science is also highly prized by funding agencies, Eissenberg adds.

That said, don't contort your interests to make your research fit the latest funding fashions. Ultimately, your enthusiasm for an idea is what will make you successful both as a researcher and a grant writer. "If you're passionate about an idea, that's what's going to drive you forward," Eissenberg says.

Above all, don't be afraid of writing grant applications. The process isn't just about scoring dollars. It's also a way to hone your ideas.

"Grant writing should be a creative process," says Eissenberg — a chance to figure out how to solve a puzzle that intrigues you. "At least until you get to the budget stage and have reality hit, you have a question you want to answer and all the resources in the world to try to answer it," he adds. "It's an exciting enterprise, and you should want to write a grant."