How [NOT] to fail at grantwriting

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A few years ago there was an editorial in the Chronicle titled Do Your Job Better: How to Fail in Grant Writing. You can read it at The witty article mentioned that to get on the quick path to rejection, grantwriters should use lots of acronyms (and preferably not define them), incorporate the word transformative into as many sentences as possible, and change your type styles, fonts, formatting, etc. throughout the document.

There are a lot of elements to grantwriting that are also true for manuscript writing – but writing grants is not something many of us are explicitly trained to do, despite the fact that both effective research and effective teaching will likely eventually require a grant submission. I need to preface this entry with one statement: I am not an expert grantwriter. I am barely even a novice grantwriter. Because that is the case, I have brought someone I would consider to be an expert grantwriter and SRA member on board for this particular topic – Dr. Jennie Noll. Dr. Noll has found a way to be continuously self-funded for over 10 years while at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. She currently has 3 grants, totaling over $1 million, from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). But those aren’t the reasons I have asked her to help me with this – here is the real reason.  Under her leadership as Research Director at the hospital, the 17 research faculty in her division (all psychology PhDs) received $7.6 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is astounding when you consider that NIH currently funds only about 10% of the applications it receives. So when Dr. Noll gives advice on grantwriting, it is worth paying attention to.

Before we jump into her advice on how to get grant funding, I offer a brief primer on grants and grantwriting based on my barely-novice status. I organized this into two categories: (1) Where to get grants, and (2) Why to get grants.

Where to get grants

Grants are dollars of any amount, ranging from a few hundred to several million, given by public or private agencies to individuals or groups to accomplish something related to the mission of that agency. Some of those funds might help to: provide physical equipment or improve facilities in a community (e.g., U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [public], United Way [private]), provide travel for academic conferences or additional training (e.g., NIH K-awards [public], SRA travel awards [private]),enhance teaching (e.g., National Science Foundation [public], NEA Foundation [private]), or support research (e.g., NIH/NSF/Health and Human Services (HHS)/Department of Justice (DOJ) [public], William T. Grant Foundation/Jacobs Foundation [private]). For a more comprehensive list of funding opportunities for emerging scholars, see Depending on your needs, the kinds of agencies interested in funding you will vary – which can be frustrating, but can also promote some creativity. For example, you might be interested in the impact of improved housing on children’s mental health – and you might be able to partner with one agency to examine the children’s mental health component, and with another agency to address the improved housing component.  Finding the funds you need requires creativity (e.g., adjusting your question to fit the mission of the agency) and diligence (e.g., hours of searching the internet for foundations, reading calls for funding). In this process, it is important to balance the funding offered and mission of the funding source with your own needs – if you really truly need $5k for a project, there is not much you can do to make a single grant for $500 work. And while many foundations will be open to partnering their funds with others (i.e., $500 from source A, $1500 from source B, etc.), this can require a commitment from all agencies simultaneously, which could be challenging to accomplish.

Why to get grants

At first glance, this is a straightforward question: You get grants because you need money. Duh.  This leads me to the only pseudo-important thing that I, as an almost-novice grantwriter, can offer: Money is not the only reason for writing a grant. See, in grad school I didn’t apply for things like SRA and SRCD travel awards, not because I was lazy, but instead because I held the distinct belief that those kinds of awards were only when you needed money for travel, and we had internal travel stipends to off-set the cost of attending a conference every year. So I didn’t apply. I volunteered to get free registration, but I didn’t take the (pretty easy) steps to apply for the travel awards. And when it came time for my dissertation, I only applied for one award, again, not out of laziness, but because I knew I could do my dissertation research with minimal resources (thank you University of Nebraska psychology research subject pool and pre-existing national longitudinal datasets) so I did not feel that I needed to apply – because I didn’t need the money.

But here’s the thing, Emerging Scholars (and some of you are way smarter than me, and already know this): Getting grants is not just about the money. To get grants, you need to have grants. Sure, you might not need the travel award, but when you decide you want to submit a K-award or write to the W.T. Grant Foundation for that study where you do need money, the fact that other organizations have chosen to invest in you can be extremely helpful in demonstrating that A) you are the kind of person other people think are worth investing in, and B) you have previous experience applying for and managing grants (even if it is just a travel award). 

Advice from an Expert

Consistent with this idea of needing grants to get grants, Dr. Noll suggests that emerging scholars start small when it comes to writing grants – concentrate on internal grants at your institution to build a track record and get pilot data. From a reviewer’s perspective, it is easier to believe that you can carry out the proposed study and handle the budget when you have done that in the past, and small internal mechanisms demonstrate that. Dr. Noll also stressed the importance of not attempting to apply for grant funding without the help and support of a mentor – and suggested some ways of demonstrating that we are not on our own with our first grant:

-          Consider writing a supplement (e.g., a minority supplement, for an already-funded R01.

-          Write a K-award (e.g., K01, that builds on an R01. K-awards generally do not have a lot of research dollars attached to them, but some great projects can come out of a K-award affiliated with an R01.

-          Ancillary grants that add additional aims to R01 awards (e.g., an R21) can also be competitive and add an additional aim to an already-funded grant.

While it may be obvious, the important component of getting these supplemental or partner grants with an existing R01 is someone to partner with – as in, emerging scholars need to have mentors to help them with this process. Dr. Noll stated that this was a critical piece to emerging scholars getting grant funding. In selecting a mentor, it is important to identify someone who has experience writing grants for the agency/foundation you are interested in getting funding from – and if you are going for NIH, making sure that your mentor has written grants (and been successful) with the new requirements and funding priorities of NIH. Once you have identified this person (or persons), listen to what they tell you, and do what they say. The experiences that mentors bring to the table may be somewhat counter to what you think. They may tell you, for example, not to include some citations or review of some literature that, if you were writing a manuscript, you would want to have in there.  But (and I can say this with 100% confidence after having submitted my K-award) writing a grant is nothing at all like writing a manuscript. So listen and obey.

Once you have a mentor and a project that builds on something that mentor has already done (or is doing), Dr. Noll emphasized that it is absolutely necessary for emerging scholars to talk to program officers (POs). What we do not understand is that POs are paid to talk to people like us about our research and how it might fit with the funding opportunities at their organization. So when those people come to our conferences and stand at their posters, it is a good idea for us to go and talk to them – they may not be the PO we ultimately work with, but they will be able to connect us with the person who best fits our research agendas. Another option is to talk to the PO of the project your identified mentor has – again, that may not be your lifelong PO, but it gets you in the door and pointed in the right direction.

There are some really important benefits to being a new investigator/emerging scholar when it comes to grants, and part of the craft of grantwriting is showcasing that we are new to the grant world. There are a few ways to do this – ensuring that your biosketch clearly states that you are a new investigator (e.g., you haven’t had an R01 with NIH before) and talking with your program officer and sponsored programs office at the institution you are working for to make sure that your status is reflected in the submission paperwork. Having new investigator status can result in our grants being discussed at study section reviews when they otherwise would not (study sections are the groups of people that read your grant, discuss it at their meeting, and then score it for the agency to use to decide which grants get funded) – typically with R01s, for example, only 40% of grants are discussed, but the top 50% of grants for new investigators are discussed at study section meetings. Also, there is a higher pay-line for early investigators at NIH (pay-lines are the score an investigator needs to get  funded, with 1 being the best score and 9 being the worst), to help new investigators have an advantage when getting grants (also true for many foundation grants).  For a discussion of this issue with the NIH, see

Dr. Noll concluded her discussion with me by giving two final pieces of wisdom: 1 – with regard to NIH specifically, but also to many foundations (especially those that follow the NIH model) significance and impact are everything. Funders are looking for good ideas that are communicated well and that are going to make a difference in the communities they care about. They are not concerned with who those ideas come from, and a lot of good ideas come from emerging scholars. Where we can fall short is in how we package and present those good ideas, which is why having an experienced mentor can really make a difference. 2 – We have to be persistent. It is incredibly hard to break into a funding source (NIH or other organizations), and we have to be willing to be rejected (multiple times) and get back in the game. This is especially true in the current fiscal climate, where getting K-awards, R21s, and R03s at NIH are practically just as competitive as the coveted R01s are (this is also true of non-NIH funding mechanisms: large and small grants are all highly competitive these days). But we will learn to write good grants by writing and submitting grants, and eventually we will be successful in securing funding for the things we need.

For those of you who are really interested in this topic, here are some additional grantwriting resources:



great advice for a daunting aspect of emerging scholar-dom

 Excellent post Sarah!  If at all possible, get involved with grant writing while in grad school or as a post-doc - even if it's not your grant. I think having a frame of reference for things like budgets as well as writing the body of the grant would be so helpful in the future - especially at a time when you're meant to be learning and training as a researcher.  And, as you mention, having a mentor when you're actually writing your first grant can be so valuable in learning how to package those great ideas we have!