Research Administration

Surviving Your First Grant Application

Girl holding and smelling flowersThere are a few lucky people whose research doesn’t require funding, all they need is a quiet space, a whiteboard, and an occasional smart person to bounce ideas off of. These are the theoretical physicists and uber-nerd geniuses totally lacking in social skills who can do their research with a quiet space with a whiteboard (I love you Sheldon Cooper). If you are one of these people, congratulations, please return to your regularly scheduled programming—this post is not for you.

The majority of researchers need funding to keep their research projects moving forward. We need large equipment, elegant tests, dangerous chemicals, travel, and publications. You need funding. But unfortunately applying for research funding takes a lot of time and effort. It will disrupt your entire life—professionally and personally—but with proper planning, you can make it though.

Writing a grant application is incredibly hard. Writing your first application is like putting together a robot with Chinese instructions on Christmas morning—there are random checklists, the kids are screaming, there are extra pieces that may or may not apply to you, and the instructions are indecipherable and appear to be teaching you how to care for chickens.  It takes time and it is hard on you both emotionally and intellectually. Here are some helpful tips to get your through writing your first grant application.

Tips for Intellectual Survival:

  1. Distinct Developmental Progression
    1. You need to stretch yourself intellectually—keep expanding and tightening your research focus.
    2. Explore and go beyond your current limits, read abstracts and learn as much as you can.
    3. Become the expert and then teach someone else—learn and expand your ideas and your thought process.
    4. Re-think the way that you learn. Sit in on a college class or watch TED Talks.
  2. Your Intellectual Place In History
    1. You need to find out where the edge of your research field is today, and then test the boundaries.
    2. Contribute new knowledge that moves the field forward and upward. No stagnation.
    3. What is the problem you are solving—why does it need to be solved?
    4. Why are you the best person to solve this driving need?
  3. Necessary Communications
    1. Argue with administration over small details and struggle through internal processes.
    2. Work on your CV and ensure you have the correct formatting.
    3. Must everyone’s citations be in the same format? Yes, they do.
    4. Why do we need to have the exact day when everyone received their PhDs? Because it’s important.
  4. Competition in Your Field
    1. You do not live in a vacuum. Do not harshly criticize a publication in your field—the author could be your reviewer.
    2. Try to reconstruct how your field of research lead to this moment—then envision the future in an equally structured way.
    3. Parts of your application may become public after submission—understand the application and don’t leak your best ideas.
    4. If you cannot do the project alone; collaborate with people you trust and build systems to accomplish the work.
  5. Existence of Other Exceptional People
    1. You are pouring your heart and dreams into this application, be prepared for persecution.
    2. Be prepared to expose your new-ideas into the harsh unforgiving hands of a reviewer.
    3. Understand that raw critical feedback from your idol, your mentor, is lovingly meant and is priceless.
    4. It will take compromises to ensure that everyone on your team has the same expectations and dreams as you.


Tips for Emotional Survival:

  1. Self-Awareness
    1. Keep your stress levels low and your energy high by taking Vitamins D & B12 and afternoon walks.
    2. Don’t let gut-feelings guide your research design, instead bounce ideas off your team and edit as you get feedback.
    3. Know your strengths and weaknesses and ask for help on the areas you’re not sure about.
    4. Understand what drives you, your values and goals and post it in your writing space.
  2. Discipline
    1. Keep a steady writing routine and post it on your work calendar.
    2. When things change, or take a new direction, adapt and make your application stronger.
    3. Didn’t meet your goal today? Don’t give up—adjust your writing routine to make up the difference.
    4. Stressed out? Redirect that energy into a dance-break. Then attack the problem from a different angle.
  3. Motivation
    1. Understand why you are doing this application. Write it down. Write it down again. Post it in your car.
    2. Ask a team member, a mentor, or a friend to help you keep motivated when you have an off-day.
    3. Remember your competitor in Germany?—imagine what it will be like when your named Keynote in two years.
    4. Understand what drives you…and do it.
  4. Social Skills
    1. Get your research team ready for the submission by involving them in the planning process.
    2. Ask 3 or 4 mentors if they will read your application early so they are ready to review when the time comes.
    3. Ask your family to come up with special ways to support you while you write.
    4. Grease the wheels with your department head by getting internal reviews and permissions.
  5. Empathy
    1. Ask your research team to meet with you about their abilities and availability to take on the new project.
    2. Assign clear roles for the project so that everyone shares the same expectations.
    3. Post a sign on your work space when you are writing so others know not to disturb you.
    4. Contact your grants specialist about the application to get their support and guidance.

Writing your first grant application is a difficult business, but I know that you can do it! Pour your heart and dreams into this application, and the next one, and the next one, and then the next one after that. Keep your motivation and values at the forefront and you will do great.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, let me know! If you need some motivation, let me know!

For additional tips, check out “Should I apply?” a post by Jonathan O’Donnell at:



Article publié pour la première fois le 27/04/2020

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