Grant Me Strength

One of my goals for this year is to apply for some grants: two for conference travel and one internal grant for research at least. My position has no explicit expectations for external funding, and even if a massive grant to buy research leave fell in my lap, my department would not be happy if they had to scramble to cover my classes. So I have the luxury of keeping my expectations manageable.

Street sign reading

“Grant” by Benson Kua on Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I have written a few small grants before, and even had some funded, but I’m still a rank amateur. To bring my game up a notch, I’ve been reading a lot about good grantsmanship. But I’ve overshot: now I have far more information about grant writing than I can possibly read, much less implement, before my due dates hit. So I’m trying to focus on three major points.

  1. “Chase the idea, not the money.” If you’ve seen Lee Zia from the NSF speak at the joint meetings about grants, you’ve heard him say this. And he said it again at a panel here at Hood last week. After the panel, I realized I still hadn’t internalized it – I was still thinking about applying for grants because I thought I should be applying for grants. Even though I have plenty of ideas for worthwhile, potentially fundable projects, my mental process was still putting the cart before the horse. How do you avoid this? Zia gives some advice: identify a problem that you care about. Identify other people who care about it too. What will you (and the funding agency) learn from your investigation of, and solution to, this problem? Write a one-page summary of all this, and then write your application.
  2. The government is not the only source of money. Three-letter-agencies are the most obvious place to look for money, but not the only ones. Your school may have a foundation office separate from the grants office to help with private funding, so ask around. Also provides information on grantsmanship and funding sources, much of it open to the public. Your institution may have a membership to allow you access to even more resources. Advice we were given at our panel: build a relationship with the program officers, and if a foundation states that they are not accepting unsolicited applications, you can still send your one-page summary and invite them to contact you if they want more information.
  3. Put yourself in the reviewers’ shoes, either literally or figuratively. I just signed up to review for the NSF’s Department of Undergraduate Education, but the rest of the NSF and the NIH are also soliciting reviewers. If you can’t manage the time commitment of reviewing, at least solicit outside feedback on your application from experienced colleagues. If your grant is for a general audience, your grants office can make sure your application is accessible to a non-mathematician. Ultimately, be respectful of the reviewers’ time – if you make them slog through your whole proposal before you get to the point in the last paragraph, don’t expect them to look kindly upon you.

There’s a much longer list of what not to do. The NSF provides one in their presentations called “10 Ways to Write A Good Proposal…That Won’t Get Funded.” Highlights include the obvious (spellcheck!) and the non-obvious (assume a project website is sufficient for dissemination). Your grants office may even have this as a nice glossy brochure. How to Fail in Grant Writing from The Chronicle of Higher Education is another great list of don’ts. Personal favorite: “Remember the old axiom: The longer the equation, the better. Panelists will be afraid to acknowledge in front of others that they don’t understand it, so they will be more likely to recommend you receive a grant.”

Any more tips? Please leave them in the comments. If you’re a reviewer, you might end up saving us both some work.

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4 Responses to Grant Me Strength

  1. Annette Emerson says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. It would be great to see feedback from reviewers.

  2. Crazy guy says:

    “My position has no explicit expectations for external funding, and even if a massive grant to buy research leave fell in my lap, my department would not be happy if they had to scramble to cover my classes.” What?!?! o_O’. Your department “encourages excellence” in a very weird way…

    • smalec says:

      Weird for a research university or a top SLAC sure, but we’re one of the hundreds of schools that’s not either of those. I am primarily evaluated on teaching excellence, with a somewhat smaller (but definitely nonzero) emphasis on research. Plus, with such a small department, we just don’t have the personnel to pick up the courses that research leave would vacate.

  3. bmalmskog says:

    The comments on the blog were down for a while last week, and I want to pass on this comment from Michelle:

    “Biggest advice: keep writing grants. You’re going to not get funded. Probably a lot. But you will definitely not get funded if you don’t try.

    “And mathematicians of “women who do work in number theory” persuasion should hurry up and apply to this workshop:”

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