The Research Plan represents only 8% of your final application, don’t forget the other 92%.
One of the hardest things about writing a grant application is to understand the vast number of complex moving pieces that need to be finished prior to the deadline. Often, a PI will spend months writing the research plan only to fail on submission day because the rest of the application was incomplete.
The typical application is 150 pages long—only 12 of those pages is the research plan. Don’t become so obsessed with the research plan, that you forget about the other 92% of your application.
Read the Instructions and Write a Checklist
Read the instructions, it’s the first thing you were taught in school every single year. It’s the first thing every professor tells you at the start of a new term. It’s the first thing you do when you write an application for grant funding. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.
If you don’t understand the instructions, read them again. If you still don’t understand, find someone smarter, older, and wiser who has done this before. Surround yourself with people who know the mechanics and rules of your application.
Save yourself from the agony of a catastrophe on submission day because you didn’t understand the rules. Sometimes the funding agency will not pay for specific types of equipment, or will only accept one application from your institution, or they may not even fund projects in your country. Pay attention and learn these rules early.
Write a Complete Draft from Start to Finish
As quickly as you can, write a complete draft of your grant application start to finish. Get those documents up and running, and get words down on the page. If you struggle with the introduction, start with the institutional facilities—everyone knows how many freezers are in the backroom.
Get it down on paper, focus on the structure—good headings and topic flow, let the details fall into place later.
A completed application draft is a useful thing. You can distribute for comments and feedback, and version tracking is easier and cleaner. Going through the entire application upfront will help you see the bigger picture, understand your weaker points, and know what questions still need to be answered. This will help you understand your project budget, risks and timelines—allowing you to get down to business.
And, in the very worst case scenario, should you get pulled away onto another project (life happens), you still have something to submit on due day.
Back to the Drawing Board, Do it Again
Go back and write your application all over again. You’ve seen your weaknesses, you know the holes in your project design and application paperwork—go back to the drawing board and rework everything all over again. Make a complete second draft from start to finish.
When you feel yourself dragging your feet, remember that you are asking for $200,000-$500,000 per year for the next three to five years of your life. This application represents a defining moment for your career and resume—don’t take it lightly. This deserves your time and attention, go get another cup of coffee.
Trust the rewriting process, it makes you, your application, and the project itself cleaner and better. You want to submit the best idea possible, and that means you’ll need to take your idea to your colleagues and friends for some harsh criticism. No one gets it right the first time, plan on rewriting this beast three times.
Divide and Conquer your Checklist Items
Remember all the complex and moving pieces we were talking about? Don’t try to conquer them alone if you don’t have too. Pull on your administrative support staff, your coordinator, your collaborators, and your grant specialist to help get all the details pulled together.
Print off your master to-do checklist. Gather your team together in one room if you can. Then go through the items together and divide up the work. Clearly identify who is doing what, when they will have it ready for review, and who they will turn it in to. Once your team knows where to spend their time, the application gets pulled together faster and better.
Examples and Organizational Boilerplate
Depending on the size of your institution, there is potentially 5-15 of your immediate colleagues applying for the same sponsor. That means that your research administration office knows who and what they are dealing with, trust them for some reliable examples and boilerplate language for the more standard pieces, such as your Facilities, Organizational Resources, etc.
Draft, Draft, Draft….
Work up your elevator speech. Write a one-page specific aims. Write a draft. Write another draft. Go back to the drawing board. Write another draft. Constant movement forward and progressive elaboration will help you complete the application one step at a time. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be better each time.
Get everyone involved from the beginning, let others read and comment, let your collaborators know and feel out their roles in the project. You are not just planning a paper application, you are planning the next five years of your life. Plan for the long-term, plan team-wide, and plan it right the first time.
Plan long, plan wide, and plan right.
This post was influenced by Jonathan O’Donnell and his work “Respect the Work” written on January 31, 2012. More information about Jonathan O’Donnell can be found at this website: https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/work/.