Strategies for a Successful Grant Proposal: Part Three

Writer(s): 
Robert Cvitkovic, Tokai University; Max Praver, Meijo University

Previously on Grant Writing Strategies

In the last installment, we generalized a 3-year research proposal into three stages, roughly one stage per year. The first year consists of preparations, the second year is best spent on piloting, data collection, and analysis, followed by the final year of results dissemination. We also discussed many ways of generating and improving on a research idea, particularly if you are having trouble getting a proposal accepted. Lastly, we discussed the pros and cons of creating and working with a team. In this installment, we dive into the proposal details. 

Nuts and Bolts of the Proposal

Should I translate my proposal into Japanese?

Not necessary. If Japanese is not your native language, having your grant translated into Japanese may cross your mind. Don’t do it, unless there is a really good reason to do so. There may have been a time when it was beneficial to have proposals translated into Japanese, when English was first being accepted into the system, but not anymore. We personally have submitted translated proposals, and have known others who have too, only to have them rejected. The fact is, plenty of English proposals get accepted. It is not worth anyone’s time and effort to translate a highly technical document and possibly make it more difficult to understand in the process. Don’t do it. 

Can I leave some white space?

Please don’t. Grant proposals need to strike a balance between details and specifics, brevity, and clarity. The author needs to include all the critical information in order to explain theoretical underpinnings, analytical methods, and other scientific details without overwhelming a judge with too much complexity or technical jargon. Do not change the font or line spacing but be sure to fill up the space provided. If you find yourself struggling to fill in the space, it may be because you are not providing enough information or details. It could also be that you are not as familiar with your topic as you thought you were. A good proposal writer will write too much and then find ways to simplify and trim fat from the submission. On the off-chance that you have done your best to fill the space but still come up short, then expand a table, figure, or illustration to take up the slack. 

What about bolding, highlighting, and underlining?

The key to bolding, highlighting, underlining, or using any other means to emphasize a point, is to be consistent. If you underline results, only underline results throughout the write-up. The reader may not notice this small detail but their mind will. Also, don’t overdo the emphasis. Pick a few things you want to emphasize, and go through the document consistently highlighting only those items. Then go through the application only reading the summaries, highlights, tables, charts, and figures. It might be the case that an overworked judge does just that. If you can get the gist of the proposal from just those parts, you’ve done your job.

How about in-text citations and a bibliography?

By all means, make 10-20 in-text citations; but no, do not waste space on the bibliography for all those citations. We are aware of many successful proposals without bibliographies. Judges will not bother to check the veracity of any of the references, but they will want to see that you are aware of the literature. The simplest and fastest way to show this is to use in-text citations. Be sure to include several seminal paper or book citations that anyone familiar with your topic would recognize. 

How important are the purpose and method summaries?

Very! The summaries at the top of the first and second sections are windows into your proposal. Judges might have 50 proposals to get through, so you need to clearly summarize your purpose and methodology. There is not enough space for rambling or detail. Get feedback on your wording and ask colleagues whether they get the gist of the project from just the summaries. These summaries can make or break a proposal, so spend some time on them.

What about repetition? 

It is a good idea to reword the purpose and outcomes of the research for emphasis throughout the proposal. There are several places this can be done: within the summary section, wherever it is explicitly asked for, at the end of the method section, or any other place that makes sense. Do not go overboard, but approaching the purpose and hypothesized results from several different perspectives may help a judge understand the value of your proposal. Combining repetition of key parts of your proposal, purpose, analytical methods, and results with consistent highlighting is a good strategy for success.

Should I include tables, charts, and figures?

Yes, please! Use tables, charts and figures not because they fill space, but because they clarify an idea, convey meaning, or explain a concept better than a lengthy description. Space is at a premium and chances are that if you are knowledgeable about your field you will not have enough space to write everything you would like to convey. You need to refer to tables, charts, and figures in the text and explain the main points, but they may clarify a complex idea in a succinct way. 

Can I fool the judges? If so how?

No. You won’t be able to. Just know what is expected of a successful proposal and include all those elements. The judges know all the tricks that you do, so you won’t be able to fool them. Just write a solid proposal, presenting what is expected and following the rules, and it should pass. Learn about the grading criteria and keep them in mind when writing the proposal (more on that later). Also, read the instructions on each page carefully and follow them. It’s pretty straightforward. Oh, and keep tweaking that awesome research idea until you have something original, fun, and exciting. 

Will they reject my proposal because of my budget?

No. Your proposal will not be rejected because you ask for too much money. If your proposal is sound, it will pass, and they will adjust the budget appropriately. No need to meticulously calculate every item in your budget to the last yen. Round up to about 1000 yen for each item. You will need to inflate your budget anyway because you can expect a lot of cuts. More on that topic in the fourth and final article.

What should I do if my proposal fails?

Check your feedback and take it seriously. Study the reasons given and address the points that reviewers have critiqued. Were you given an A, B, or C failing grade? Know why it failed, fix your mistakes, and reapply the next year. A failing grade of A means that you were in the top 20%, a B is 20% to 50%, and a C is in the bottom 50% of all failing applications. If you got an A then you might want to tweak your existing idea and resubmit the same proposal next year. If you got a C then you probably want to seriously rethink your research approach and the value of your idea. A failing grade of B is the hardest to interpret. If you are really in love with your idea, then you may want to keep it and try again. But if you can think of a better one, then you might want to redesign your experiment or try another idea. Either way, you will need to do major work on the proposal that got a B. Remember this misconception: Since 33% of applications pass, if I submit three years in a row, then on average my proposal will pass by the third year! That is not true. The reality is that solid, well-written research proposals will pass every time. Poor ideas and poorly written proposals will fail 10 years in a row. Take the reviewer’s feedback seriously and address all the comments as best you can.

Titles

You are allowed up to 200 characters for the title. Make several titles and sleep on them for a while. Don’t wait until the last minute to come up with one. Be sure that you have encapsulated the essence of either the purpose or the expected results in the title, or both. Also, think about the contributions to your field. Spend time on the title and get feedback from colleagues.

Fun Fact Box: Failing grades

There are three levels of failing grades: A, B, and C. 

Failing Grade Range

A: Top 20%  B: 20% - 50%  C: Bottom 50%

If you receive an A failing grade then all you need to do is adjust your proposal with the issues they nicked you on and resubmit next year. Don’t just resubmit the proposal exactly as is unless you are a masochist. Seriously address the issues they mention in your feedback. If you scored a C failing grade, you might want to think about rewriting the entire project from the ground up. Reconsider the methodology, the purpose, the research relevance in your field, everything. You are not striking a chord with many of the judges. If you score a B failing grade then you could go either way, either do some tweaking or rewrite from the ground up, but definitely address the feedback issues. 

Filling out the forms

Rather than show each page of the grant application and give an example of a successful proposal, we will give sentence stems for each section and subsection. This way, it will be more generalizable to any research context. This will increase the usefulness for your own project and help you get started immediately. Furthermore, this method will help you to think about your own project details without having to interpret from an example which may not use the same methods or analysis as your own. Not all sentence stems will be applicable, so, if not, simply skip that stem and move to the next. Comments are included to emphasize and clarify points relevant to that section of the application. Sentence stems are indicated with a bullet point, and comments are in numbered lists. There is a lot of information that follows so we invite you to come back to this section repeatedly during your proposal writing process. 

Fun Fact Box: Red skulls

In the military, some manuals have little red skulls next to a procedure or set of instructions. Those skulls refer to how many people died because they didn’t follow the instructions to the letter. On aircraft carriers, around jets and on a submarine, following protocol and instructions carefully can mean the difference between life and death. However, in our case, no one is going to die if your grant proposal doesn’t get accepted, but it sure does feel that way sometimes. Just note that the following stems and comments have been culled over a 10-year period from the authors’ trial and error hard knocks, and many years of discussions with successful and unsuccessful applicants. We hope you will get some use out of them. Each one has at least two red skulls next to it.

Purpose of the Research

Purpose of the research (summary)

  • The purpose is…
  • The aim/ objective/ goal is to …
  • In phase 1 we will…
  • In phase 2 we will…
  • We expect to find…

Scientific background for research

  1. Aim for 10-20 in-text citations. Sprinkle references in as many places as you can.
  2. It is not necessary to put a bibliography in the proposal. There is not enough space to include it, especially if you have upwards of 20+ citations.
  3. Underline, italicize, or highlight either the purpose, originality, or other important points. Be consistent with your emphasis.
  4. Put the most condensed literature review you have ever written on one page. That’s it. Write for a highly educated person, but chances are they will not be familiar with the nuances and subtleties in your field or topic. Explain technical jargon when needed and try to include diagrams and charts for explaining complex ideas.
  5. Pick one main theory and write as clearly as possible.
  6. A good way to end is with the gap. 
  7. Clearly state how and to what extent you will fill that gap with your proposal.
  • In recent years, …
  • Although (relevant field) has made significant gains in the last several years, more research into (the mechanism, interaction between A and B, how A affects B) is needed. Our research aims to investigate this area. 

What will be elucidated and to what extent will it be pursued during the research period

  1. This is a good place to put your research questions (RQs) for each phase of the research with optional RQs if the research progresses faster than expected. Also, indicate which is the primary RQ.
  2. Don’t include too many RQs. Don’t overreach. Balance is the key. Don’t think that putting as many goals as possible is better than one good one. Many judges will take points off for inability to complete a project in the required time due to an over-ambitious proposal. Balance and simplicity is often the best approach. 

Scientific characteristics

  1. For qualitative analysis, indicate what method you will use.
  2. For quantitative analysis, clearly state what statistical methods you will use. 
  3. For material creation, it might be helpful to mention the pedagogical approach you will be using that informs your content creation.
  4. In general, mention the theoretical underpinning that guides your research reasoning and choices, for example: cognitive science, social-constructionism, game-based learning, or self-determination theory.
  5. This is a good time to repeat the purpose from a statistical point of view. How will you calculate/ determine or triangulate your data?
  • Our research design will use X, Y, Z statistical analysis.
  • The design will combine qualitative and quantitative components, specifically…
  • We will validate our instruments using Rasch and PCA, etc…
  • We will run a multiple regression analysis, 2-way mixed ANCOVA, Path analysis, SEM (structural equation modelling), Rasch, etc. to investigate/ explore/ study/ scrutinize/ research…
  • In phase 1 we will run a X to determine Y
  • In phase 2 we will run a K to determine L

Originality

  • There exists a gap in the literature…
  • The original elements of this research are…
  • This research design has never appeared in the literature before… to the best of our knowledge.
  • First, we intend to carefully investigate … 
  • Second, we will measure X over a period of Y weeks, months, semesters to determine Z.
  • Third, we will do something that has never been done before...
  • We will contribute to the field of X by explaining Z

Expected Results 

  1. Be specific. State your hypothesized results. What is the scope of this research? Stay concentrated and focused. Three years may seem like a long time, but it goes by quickly when you are setting up an experiment, collecting data, and trying to make sense of it.
  • In Phase 1 we expect to find…
  • In Phase 2 we expect to find…
  • In experiment one, we expect to find a strong correlation between A and B.
  • In experiment two, we hypothesize that A will outperform B because of XYZ.

Significance of the research

  1. Closing statement about how this research will contribute to a) your research field, b) students, c) institutions, d) society at large, or e) the betterment of humanity.

Research plan and method

Research plan and method (summary)

  • This project consists of two experiments. In fiscal year (FY) 2026 (experiment one), X will be added to Y and tested. There will be 200 participants in four treatment groups. Data will be collected along with A, B, and C. A MANCOVA will be carried out to measure XYZ to determine their influence. In FY2027+ (experiment two), we will repeat experiment one with LMN to determine whether ABC.

Team

  • The team consists of three researchers, see Table 1 for responsibilities and expertise. This research project consists of two experiments. Experiment One will run for approximately XX-YY months. Experiment Two will run for approximately XX-YY months. 
  1. This information is also used in the online system. If you have it in your proposal you can cut and paste it into the system when the time comes. 

Fiscal year (FY) 20XX (1st year)

  1. Who will do what, when?
  2. How are you going to collect data?
  3. How long will things take?
  4. Add tables, figures, and illustrations to clarify your method or explain complex theories.
  • The purpose of Experiment One is to determine the influence of ABC on XYZ. 
  • The number of participants will be…

FY 20XX achievements

  • During the first year, we plan on setting up equipment, preparing X and contacting Y for data collection in the second year. As a result, we expect to be ready to collect data when students return in the spring of …
  • During the first year, we expect to have finished preparations for data collection… Also, we will have completed a small pilot study and expect to know Y.
  • We expect to find a significant effect from at least one ABC. 
  • The extent of the influence will be revealed by Experiment One. 
  • We hypothesize XYZ will occur to this extent due to the effect of treatment Y.

FY 20XX contingencies

  • The only issues that we foresee occurring during experiment one are ... 
  • These may cause delays of between X and Y months which would ...
  • In the event of this delay we will adjust our X accordingly and …
  • We expect that there could be a small delay in X, causing us to push back Y…

FY 20YY (2nd year and thereafter)

  1. How far along the experiment do you intend to be?
  2. How are you going to collect data?
  3. Who will do what and when?
  4. How long will things take?

FY 20YY achievements

  • We expect to find … 
  • We hypothesize that …

FY 20YY contingencies

  1. What could go wrong and how you will deal with it? 

State of preparations …and methods to disseminate …

The current state of research environment, facilities and materials

  1. Mention equipment that you have…, but that you need X to continue.

The state of preparation for starting the research

  1. Mention that you have gone as far as you can, and to continue, you need new funding.

How the research achievements are disseminated to society 

  1. Mention that you will write papers for international journals and present at conferences. Hold workshops for the public. Create a website. 
  2. Cover standard academic methods for dissemination. Write a book chapter…

Research achievements

  1. Don’t forget to number each entry.
  2. Double underline the primary investigator.
  3. Single underline all other co-researchers.
  4. This is another reason why working with others is beneficial. Find someone with recent publications and together you can fill up two pages over the previous 5-6 years.

Research funding received and achievements

If you have internal funding from your school, or if you plan on combining this with your personal budget, you need to list funding here. But more importantly, if you have previous grants or funding that have ended and this research is related, then you can put down your previous achievements. It keeps your research momentum going and shows the judges that you have been trusted in the past and are more likely to continue doing high quality work moving forward.

Protection of human rights …

Write some boilerplate ethics stuff here about …

  1. Participants privacy
  2. Consent forms from participants
  3. Approval from institutions
  4. Data encryption on hard drives
  5. Locked cabinets for sensitive papers
  6. Other ethical concerns

Rationality and justification of the research costs

  1. After you have finished creating your budget, break it down by year and category. 
  2. Describe where the money will be spent, and be specific. 
  3. You don’t need to fill in all this white space but be thorough.
  4. Judges will want to cut your budget out of habit. Don’t give them a reason to do so. If you have a large line item, explain why the cost is so high and why it is important to the success of your project.

Budget

See the next article in the series for budget details.

Application for research funding, current state … and effort

Add project titles and effort as a percentage of your total workload.

Next issue

In the final installment of this series of grant writing articles, we will address the main reason for this whole process, namely, the budget. The budget is not a make or break topic but there are a number of pitfalls that you will want to look out for. Your proposal will not be rejected because you ask for too much money, or make some other budgetary misstep, but you don’t want to leave it to the last minute. In our last article, we will discuss all things financial. We hope you come back. 

 
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