Strategies for a Successful Grant Proposal: Part Two

Book Writer & Publisher: 
Robert Cvitkovic, Tokai University; Max Praver, Meijo University

Previously on Grant Writing Strategies

In our first article we emphasized that a research grant proposal is a roadmap to innovation, breakthrough, and exploration. A good proposal writer usually starts with a solid research idea and then adds layer after layer of details that describe key components of the proposal. We also discussed the importance of knowing how your proposal is evaluated so that you won’t lose valuable points from the judges. In this installment, we start with a naïve 3-year research proposal to highlight typical errors you want to avoid, before discussing what you should do. 

First Pass: An Idealized 3-Year Schedule

In this section, we describe an entire typical 3-year research project. We start with the research process because that is what the grant proposal describes. Once you start the grant writing process, it is assumed you have a good idea of your research plan for the next 3 years: how you will collect data, the goals, hypothesis, expected outcomes, statistical analyses, participants, and other relevant research benchmarks. If you find yourself struggling to fill out a section of the application this usually means that your research plan is not clear in your mind and perhaps you need to take a few steps back. Reviewers and judges assume you are describing a multi-year activity and not some hypothetical one-time event. You will be spending tax payer’s money over a period of several years and judges want to know that you will make advances in your field and the money will not be wasted. 

So, we start there: the research process. Let’s assume that you have already carried out some preliminary work, whether that is a pilot study or just determining your participants. Furthermore, let’s assume there is a data collection component. This may involve classroom research, or situations such as case studies, materials development, or corpus studies. After a semester-long data collection phase there will be an analysis phase followed by a second data collection. Then another 3-6 months of further analysis. And finally, conferences and paper writing. This all seems reasonable, right? This idealized process is summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Idealistic Schedule

Year School semester Activity
1 Spring semester Initial data collection
  Summer Analysis
  Fall semester Follow up data collection
2 Spring semester Preliminary write-up and domestic conference
  Summer Continued write-up and international conference
  Fall semester Continue to mine data, attend conferences, and write papers
3 3rd year Final write ups, submit two papers to international journals, attend another international conference. Enjoy the fruits of your labor

There are several problems with this idealized schedule. First, it does not take delays and problems into consideration. It is difficult to know exactly what problems will arise but there will always be delays and unforeseen issues for which you will need contingency plans. The longer the project and the more complex it is, the more likely some unforeseen problem will arise. These typically include: delays in purchasing and setting up equipment, delays in data collection, problems with your data collection protocols, waiting for a third party to complete a portion of the work and not being able to continue until that work is complete, underestimating the time it takes to prepare for conference presentations, underestimating the time it takes to complete a high caliber paper, and having papers rejected or needing rewriting. You should pick a few problems, randomly if you cannot decide, and add them to your schedule. Second, the idealized schedule does not take into consideration the initial delay of money in the first year. Assuming you are applying for the grant to purchase equipment, which is the whole point of funding, you will not receive the money until June or July. After you make your purchases, the initial equipment may not arrive until the end of summer. Finally, family, teaching, committee work, and other non-project related responsibilities will impact your ability to spend the necessary time on your research. 

Second Pass: The Reality of a Research Schedule

So, let’s reconsider this schedule with these issues in mind. Table 2 shows a revised schedule, which might seem overly pessimistic but is actually closer to a well-run project. As you can see, the first year is taken up with preparation for your experiment, the second year is data collection and analysis, and the third year is dissemination of your findings. 

Table 2. Realistic Schedule

Year School semester Activity
1 Spring semester Waiting for funds to arrive
  Summer Submit first request to purchasing department but because it is summer, stuff doesn’t start arriving until September
  Fall semester Set up equipment and experiment, forgot to get formal ethics approval from respective institutes and subjects. Data collection delayed until next year
  March Finish setting up equipment and surveys, finalize all ethics approvals from all institutes
2 Spring semester Start data collection
  Summer Analyze data and realize that you made a serious mistake and half the data is unusable. Label it the second pilot study
  Fall semester Recollect data with adjustments to data collection protocol
  February & March Complete preliminary analysis of data and attend domestic conference to present your work thus far
3 1st semester Collect more data
  Summer Attend international conference and present main findings with all your data combined
  Fall Frantically write two papers for international publication. One is accepted with major revisions and the other is rejected
4   Project is over, but you rework the paper that was rejected and finally get it published late in the fourth year

Breaking down our realistic 3-year project, in the first year we have the experimental setup, preparation of surveys, waiting for funds to arrive, buying equipment, arranging ethical approvals, setting up equipment, and preparation for data collection. Then in the second year there is data collection, preliminary analysis, and attending one or two conferences to present initial findings. Finally, in the third year we have collecting more last-minute data, completing the analysis, attending several international conferences, writing several papers for international journals, and dissemination of any significant findings to society, your institution, and the peers in your field.

However, after all this, the new schedule is still missing one important aspect. During the summer or fall of the final year, you will want to apply for another grant. As your current grant is ending you will probably want to receive another one and continue seamlessly. Good researchers do not have gaps between their funding. Considering that there are different sources of funding, such as school, industry, and other government sources, it is easier to have multiple grants running at the same time, even if they are not your own. More on working in a team later.

Generating or Improving a Research Idea

Chances are that you have an idea, but what happens if your proposals keep getting rejected? You should always assume that it is the idea, not the writing style that is being rejected. If you have several rejections already, maybe it is time to tweak your idea or find a new approach. In this section, we address these issues. 

Several of the major sections in grant writing are purpose, hypothesis, research questions, originality, method, and expected results. If those topics sound familiar, it’s because the grant application parallels good research and papers in many ways, which is not a coincidence. So, what better way to get ideas than to read other high-quality papers in your field? However, since there is so much information out there, it is hard to keep up with all the latest developments, let alone related and cross-disciplinary fields. Therefore, it is important to read strategically. 

When looking to tweak a research idea there are three types of publications that might be of value. First, recent review articles or meta-analyses. Usually these papers have extensive bibliographies of many of the most important and recent papers and research perspectives. They often have sections on what future work is needed and under-researched areas. Second, a recent handbook in your field can be very helpful. They are usually written by knowledgeable and active researchers, have the most up-to-date versions of relevant theory, and most chapters have sections on future research needs. Third, pick up a recent PhD dissertation related to your topic. It should have a comprehensive literature review section followed by a detailed description of methods and statistical analysis. It is an excellent way to take a deep dive into a topic without having to do years of work yourself. 

There are several other things you can do to get ideas or inspiration. Although not cutting edge, sometimes re-reading seminal papers on your topic helps you understand the foundations of the theories underpinning key areas and gives you insight into how much your topic has evolved from its inception. Finally, instead of reading, try explaining any partial or half-formed ideas you may have to colleagues, friends, or anyone who will listen. Get their feedback, discuss high level concepts, or just brainstorm with them. You may make an elusive connection or hit upon an original idea that was hiding in plain sight. 

By first strengthening your understanding of principles and foundational theories, familiarizing yourself with the most up-to-date advances, and creatively discussing ideas with other scientists or even lay-people, you may find that generating ideas will be the least of your worries. 

Lastly, we are assuming that you are not a full-time researcher. If you were, you probably would not be reading this column. More likely, you have a day job and are expected to teach classes, attend meetings, and do committee work. You may be on an entrance exam writing committee or a new curriculum development committee, or any number of very time-consuming committees. Also, you might have a family and maybe even a hobby (but honestly, I don’t know where you find the time). Research is not happening in isolation, but in the context of your life, which is already quite full of things that occupy your time, and this leads us to working in a team.

Should You Create a Team?

The question of whether to create a team is vital. It can be the difference between an exciting, well-funded, successful research project and endless delays, potentially forcing you to cut back on your research goals. In addition to helping with the three phases of preparation, data collection, and dissemination, there are several other important advantages of having co-investigators. The main pro for having co-investigators is sharing a very large work load. However, it goes further than that. During data collection, everyone on the team can collect data, increasing your sample size and the power of your experiment. If you are creating content or materials, you will create twice as much in the same time, or the same amount in half the time. When it comes time to write papers, you can divide the writing load as well. Also, assuming every member has a different area of expertise, you will have more perspectives from which to interpret data. Specifically, if there is at least one person with statistics knowledge, such as survey validation or advanced statistical analysis and interpretation, embarrassing analysis errors will be less likely. You can check each other’s work and assumptions, and when it comes to writing the grant itself, it will be easier to fill up the two pages of research achievements on the application form. 

Other, less obvious, advantages include supporting each other when the research gets difficult or tiresome, going to international conferences with a friend, and, maybe most importantly, having someone to keep you honest and catch any careless mistakes. Some mistakes can cost months and cause severe amounts of stress, but with someone to discuss experimental designs, survey question wording, or data interpretation, you and your team can avoid wasting time from carelessness or lack of knowledge. 

You may think that by working alone there will be more money to spend on your pet project and more funding for international conferences for yourself. That may be true, but at what cost to the overall quality of the project, your stress levels, family, and other work responsibilities? The pressure to do all the work yourself can become overwhelming at times, and you may find that no matter how real your difficulties are, your colleagues are not so sympathetic when you are sitting on a sizable grant. 

Also, consider that you have about two solid years to complete a research project of international caliber. Remember that the first six months you are waiting for funds to arrive so that you can purchase equipment, and the last half of the final year you are attending conferences and writing papers. To put this into perspective, a full-time PhD student might typically graduate in 4 years, but many students take extensions and a considerable number even drop out altogether. Now, consider that the government is paying you up to 5 million yen to do your project in half that time. Then there are your other responsibilities such as teaching, meetings, committee work, and family life. Having a trusted colleague or two on the team to alleviate the work load and stress and share in successes can be the difference between completing a high-quality research project and dismal failure.

Having said all this, there are times when working alone is better. It may be better to work alone if you have experience in your research field, if you know exactly what you want to do, how to do it, and prefer to work alone. It may also be better to work alone if you cannot find anyone who can contribute in any positive way because of lack of necessary skills or willingness to learn along the way. The worst co-investigator is someone who is a dead weight. 

Lastly, in the spirit of teamwork, another benefit of working with others is the creation of synergy that comes with being a co-investigator on others’ projects, as well. Chances are you will have found someone whose research topic is related to yours, so while they are assisting you with your project, you are assisting them on theirs. That way you can have multiple sources of grant funding in any given year. By staggering projects, which happens naturally, you may be at the beginning phases of your project and just wrapping up your colleague’s, with no end to all the funding you will be receiving. Your biggest problem may well be deciding what to do with all that money for the next round of projects you have planned. 

Next Issue: Writing a Grant Proposal

In the third instalment of this series, we will cover a lot of ground discussing the concrete nuts and bolts issues of each section of the grant proposal. When you think of a workshop or article on grant writing strategies, you are probably thinking of the things included in our next instalment, so come on back. We can only say, it will be filled with more tips and tricks than you can shake a stick at. Our apologies in making you wait for ‘the goods,’ but we felt that it was necessary to first contextualize the research process as best we could. If you have come this far with us, we invite you to come back for our ‘secret sauce’ that will make your proposal irresistible to any judge.