Monday, March 28, 2016

Get Funded - Part I

How to Write Winning Grant Proposals

In this post, we’ll look at some of the basic principles of writing a grant proposal. In the future I’ll go into more detail.

Writing a grant is a lot of work with no guaranteed return on investment. It’s a daunting task for many academics, especially if you are early in your career or at a smaller institution. In this introduction, we’ll talk about a few minor changes you can make in your way of thinking that will make you more successful.

In my experience as a grant writer at both arts organizations and academic institutions, I’ve seen both good and not-so-good approaches to grant writing.

The Wrong Approach

The not-so-good way to write a grant goes something like this:
You see a call for proposals from a funding source that would look good on your CV. The deadline is coming up soon, but you decide to slap something together anyway. This often takes one of two forms.
1. You cut and paste some language from an old proposal that didn’t get funded. Or you cut and past from a smaller proposal that got funded and is finished, thinking it could serve as the “pilot” experiment. You make a few modifications.
2. You figure “I could do something that relates to what they’re looking for,” even though it isn’t really a good fit. You start with a project you’ve been working on, and then modify some of the language, especially in sections that ask for context, impact, benefactors/benefits, or the statement of need.
In either case, you inflate the budget as much as you can.
Then you realize you really should include the colleague who worked with you on this earlier, so you send your proposal to them for sign-off as co-investigator. They don’t have enough time to make comments, suggestions, or revisions, but they give the OK anyway.

Why This Doesn’t Work

Organizations that give grants receive far more proposals than they could ever fund, which means this is a competitive process. Because they evaluate so many proposals, reviewers very quickly learn how to see through any BS. Once they smell the BS, you are in danger of being put in the “no” pile. You might make it to the “maybe” stack, but what they really want is an obvious “yes!”

A Better Approach

The first step in grant writing is to plan ahead. A really good grant proposal takes a few months to get right. Take the time to talk to colleagues and think about what research you would like to do together. Create a document that lists the various collaborations and projects you would like to get funded.
Then, talk to the grants officer at your institution. Show her/him your document. Often times, grant writers get early notification of deadlines. If they see something that is a good fit for you, they’ll let you know about it so you have plenty of time to write and submit your proposal.
It’s also important to understand that it is the responsibility of your fundraising office to coordinate grant applications. The worst case outcome of the not-so-good approach is that your proposal reaches the grants officer and you’re told someone else at your institution already applied and so you can’t. What a waste of time!
Finally, planning ahead allows you to truly collaborate. If you already have an agreement with colleagues, especially ones at other institutions or in other departments, it will be much easier for you to complete the sections on support and personnel. Most importantly, a team that is already invested will be more engaged throughout the life-cycle of your research.
You may think the above points are basic or obvious, but I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them. However, this blog is supposed to be about writing, so I’ll give a few pointers.

How to Write a Grant that Sells

First, understand your audience for this piece of writing. Unlike with academic papers, at grant-making institutions there is no guarantee that the person who reviews your grant will be an expert in your field.
For example, you’re a painter who wants to send a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts. Probably the person who reviews your application will be a painter, but they may not be well versed in your style or technique, or the themes you want to explore.
The situation is similar for a biomedical engineer who wants to submit to the National Institute for Health. It’s possible that your proposal will be reviewed by and MD, maybe with limited exposure to engineering.
I point this out because one of the biggest mistakes I see in grant proposals is too much technical language. Especially in scientific writing, researchers use a lot of jargon. To you, it may be very specific language, but if your reviewer can’t understand your proposal, it is most likely to be rejected.
Take the time to carefully craft the abstract and the introduction to your proposal so that it could be understood by an intelligent person who is not an expert in your field. 
Remember, you’re trying to communicate an idea or theory to a stranger. If they are able to see the importance of your work from the beginning, they will be more likely to look up unfamiliar terms later. Save the jargon, technical terms, and equations for the materials and methodology section.
One of the things I hate seeing in a grant is the same sentence or paragraph cut and pasted into multiple sections of the proposal. This looks lazy! By starting with simple language and increasing the complexity as you go down the page, you’ll avoid this, even if you are reiterating the same point.
In the future, we’ll have several posts dedicated specifically to simple vs. complex language. I’ll offer examples and case studies, so you can see how to do this effective.
Until then, start your planning process. And remember to allow enough time for all collaborators and the grants office to review and proofread the final document.

Good luck!  

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Purpose of Academic Writing

The Purpose of Writing = Communicating Ideas

Many academics don't think of themselves as writers, but in reality, you are. Maybe times we hear the phrase "publish or perish," but it doesn't tell the whole story. 

Researchers don't just publish papers to lengthen their CVs, you publish papers to communicate ideas, share data, and influence the world around you. As a researcher, you want others to cite your work. 

In his book Writing Science, Joshua Schimel, PhD says:
Having your work matter, matters. Success is defined not by the number of pages you have in print but by their influence. 
But influence is not just about getting your paper cited. It's about causing change in the thinking and behavior of other people. Does your research motivate your peers and the next generation of researchers? Do your ideas have cultural impact? Whether your field is science & technology or pedagogy or philosophy, you ideas could improve peoples lives. 

In the video on the product page of her book, Resonate, Nancy Duarte says: 
Great ideas that are effectively communicated have formed the world around you. 
I encourage you to watch the video, even if you aren't interested in her book.  

Can Your Research Change the World?  

Maybe you won't change the world overnight, but by communicating effectively, in a way that reaches your audience, you can influence people's thinking. If your writing is inspiring, the importance of you work will be recognized more readily. Grant-makers will want to fund you. The press will want to cover your stories. 

In my next post, I'll talk specifically about getting funded. We'll look at who your audience is when you're writing a grant. And we'll talk about how to write elegantly with them in mind. 

After that, I'll address getting published in more detail. We'll talk about how to write so your ideas are understood, and how to get picked up by the media. If you've ever dreamed of your research being covered by Scientific American, Science News, or the Science section of the NYT, be sure to watch for this post. 

Homework: Your Elevator Pitch

Take a few minutes to craft one or two sentences that summarize your research in a way that expresses your enthusiasm. Try to avoid technical jargon. Imagine your in an elevator and you have one minute to explain what you do to a new faculty member in a totally different field. 

Share your work in the comments below. I'd love to know more about your work! 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Defining Your Audience

Did you know that you have an audience? 

Many academics don't think that they have an audience, but you do. 

Sure, you sit in a lab or an office squeezing your research into the spaces between teaching, advising students, department meetings, and grading papers. Nobody is watching you. Nobody applauds when you finally finish an abstract. 

It's true you're not up on a stage. So what do I mean by saying you have an audience? Simple - your audience consists of the people who read your work. This is more than just the journal editor who accepts (or rejects, or requests revisions of) your paper. It's more than just the reviewer who funds (or rejects, or requests changes to) your grant proposal. 

They may seem like the most important members of your audience, but let's look at who else reads your work and influences your career. I'm talking about anybody who cites your work. 

Your audience includes:

  • Your peers
  • Your school's administration
  • Other experts in your field
  • Students doing lit reviews
  • Reporters who cover your field
  • Members of the community who benefit from your research
  • Interested hobbyists
  • Reviewers at grant-making institutions
  • Reviewers and editors at journals and conferences
You'll notice most of these people are not other experts in your field. They may only have a limited understanding of the technical language you use to describe your work. In the next few posts we're going to talk about how to write so that you don't alienate these readers without compromising the integrity of your research. 

Homework: Dream Big

Take a few minutes to write down a project (grant or research project) that you are currently working on. Who is your audience for that project? 

Tell me about your work in the comments below. I'd love to hear about what you do!