A Reflection on Writing My First Grant Proposal

Earlier this week my advisors and I submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and now that I have had a little time to celebrate that achievement, I wanted to reflect on the process. The grant writing experience was unlike anything I’d ever done before. I have mixed feelings about writing grants, but I definitely learned a lot and I wanted to share some tips with others who may be going through this process as well. In this post, I will give a brief overview of the writing process, some general reflections on what I learned from writing the grant, and then a list of tips of actions that helped me through the process of writing the grant.

The Grant-Writing Process Timeline

We knew a long time ago (fall of 2019) that we were going to apply for this grant, which was due in mid-June 2020, so I had a lot of time to start thinking and preparing. In Nov/Dec 2019 I read the guidance for the grant thoroughly, making notes along the way. I also read advice by experts like Susan Finger on how to write good NSF grants specifically. At this point I only had general ideas about what we were going to propose.

In March 2020 I picked up this project again after a 2 month hiatus and began by reading widely from disciplines including AI, DNA nanotechnology, architecture, robotics and chemistry to begin collecting ideas. At this point I was sketching out potential experiments (i.e. literally drawing pictures in my notebook) and I knew what kinds of research questions I was interested in. I had another hiatus in late March and early April but then I spent more time in April reading a wide range of DNA nanotechnology papers as recommended to me by my advisor, and then ones that I sought out myself to explore other ideas.

In May I turned my attention to reading AI papers on the kinds of graph neural networks (GNNs) we were interested in building. I spent a couple weeks doing a deep dive into some particulars of GNNs and came out the other side with a better understanding of what they could do and what data they required. This helped me spend late May and early June revising the plan of work for my proposal and refining the research questions I would ask.

Finally, in June I had established the scope of the proposal and I focused on writing better drafts and figures. By mid-June, in the week before the proposal was due, we were able to focus on improving the writing of the proposal and getting the formatting to meet NSF standards.

General Reflections

Did I Really Learn as Much as I Had Hoped to Learn?

I asked my advisors to let me write the grant originally because I saw it as a fantastic opportunity to gain an entry-level understanding of some AI topics and break into that space of research. And I was able to do this to some extent: I learned about graph neural networks, Bayesian probability, particle filtering, and a host of other topics. It was a more focused and narrow range of topics than I was hoping to cover, but it still got me started.

The downside to this particular grant was that it was interdisciplinary in nature and so I had to divide my time between reading AI papers, which I was highly motivated to read, and DNA nanotechnology papers, which were interesting as well but I did not necessarily want to build my career on that topic. But this is the nature of being an interdisciplinary PhD student so that’s probably a discussion for another time.

I Had No Idea How Hard it is to do Blue Sky Thinking

I have started to build experience writing technical documents, both for classes and, recently, a submission to IROS. But writing a grant proposal requires a degree of blue sky thinking I had not encountered before. This process requires you to come up with a plan of research you are going to do over a span of years. The IROS submission I wrote represented about 3 months of work - that’s a big difference in scope. Initially my ideas were far too grand and I quickly had to pare them down, but at the same time, I had to come up with ideas that would move the entire research field forwards, which I have never tried to do before. Usually technical papers make incremental progress towards a larger goal, but a grant proposal has to think through several papers’ worth of progress all at once. That was very challenging for me.

Turn to Your Labmates for Help

I was reluctant at first to talk to any of my labmates and ask them for help. That was stupid. The very first time I got on a call with three of my labmates, they helped me come up with a whole slew of ideas in an hour which completely changed my approach to my grant proposal and made the whole thing much better. Likewise, a couple hours on the phone with some of my other buddies to talk about characterization techniques in the lab made it possible for me to write intelligently in the proposal about what I could realistically hope to achieve at the bench. My labmates also gave me lists of papers to read, images I could use in my proposal, and introduced me to concepts I did not see while reading. Your labmates have the most experience that is relevant to you out of anyone on the planet, and they are a huge resource just waiting to be tapped. Don’t wait - talk to them today!

I also frequently presented in lab meetings, even when the only thing I had to show was a hand-drawn picture representing something I wanted to do in the proposal. This was very useful because it gave me a weekly opportunity to talk through my thinking out loud with a group of intelligent people, and it became a good time to get advice and also to get constructive feedback on what I was missing in my approach.

Get Ready to Learn a Lot Very Quickly

Maybe this particular piece of advice is unique to people writing interdisciplinary grant proposals, but either way, it probably does not hurt to get comfortable with drinking from the firehose. You need to have strategies to learn a lot of new material quickly, whether that is by watching YouTube videos, reading papers, reading blog posts, talking to your friends, writing your own blog posts, writing paragraphs in your grant proposal to explain concepts, drawing pictures…I did all of these things and together they helped me learn the range of material I was encountering as I researched this proposal. I am not an expert in anything now but I do have a better grasp of a lot of topics, and I needed to do that so that I could write intelligently about how I would use these ideas to conduct a three year research project in the proposal.

Tips for Writing Grants

Finally, I want to share a random list of advice I have for other people learning to write grants for the first time. You can do it, trust me! This is definitely not a complete list, and you may find that this advice really doesn’t work for you. If so, let me know! I’d love to hear your ideas too - I’m still a novice.

(1) Begin by understanding what the grant-giving institution is looking for, but do not spend too much time on this step if you have lots of additional resources available to you. I would definitely recommend becoming familiar with the language in the call for proposals - you need to know what pieces the institution wants from applicants, and what their research priorities are. It also does help to read third party advice on how to apply for specific grants (see links to Susan Finger’s writing above). But I may have spent too much time on reading these documents over and over again, because I also had another tool that ultimately was more useful: I had my advisors’ old proposals. Prior proposals were invaluable in showing me what section headings I would need, how much space to allocate to each section, and what the “gestalt” of the document should be.

(2) Develop a system for tracking your paper reading activities at the beginning of the process. I did not do this: I began this process by reading printouts of papers that I marked up manually. The shutdown imposed by Covid-19 blocked my access to a printer and so I was forced to go electronic. I began using Mendeley not just to store all my paper citations, but I also learned to use its note-taking features. I could add notes and highlight sections the same as I could on a paper copy, and I could even search for keywords or read back through my notes later to find a specific fact that I wanted to reference. Mendeley (or similar tools) is extremely powerful and I am grateful that Covid-19 finally forced me to adopt it as my primary tool for reading papers.

(3) Regulate the amount of time you spend on reading a single paper. I mean this both in the sense that you do not want to spend too little time on a paper, and that you can also spend too much time on a single paper. Honestly, you have so much material you need to get through that I would recommend being very stingy with your time. First, read the abstract of a paper - only commit to giving it a second glance if the abstract has convinced you that it might contain something useful to you. I was far too willing to read papers that turned out to be useless, even though I could probably have figured that out from the abstract. Once you’ve decided the paper is worth more time, I would still recommend only spending 20 minutes per paper on the first round. Read the Introduction, figure captions, Results and Conclusions. Pull any interesting references out of the bibliography, and then move on. If you are getting bored with a paper, do not waste time trying to refocus on it. Just move on. Seriously, think about it: a good proposal has 90+ references. Even if you only spent 20 minutes on each one that’s still at least 30 hours of reading, assuming that you have done a perfect job of picking papers to read.

(4) Write your first draft weeks before you feel ready. My writing improves immensely once I have words on the page that I can rearrange and edit, so my priority was to get to the point where I had words on the page as quickly as possible. Writing early helps you figure out what things you are clear about and where there are gaps in your knowledge. But I can understand if you, like me, fear imperfection and struggle to start writing when you’re not sure where you’re going. To be honest with you, I got over this by listening to dance music and writing on Friday afternoons with a beer in hand so that I was in a mindset where I felt playful and creative enough to be willing to write unabashedly. I do not advocate for substance abuse but I do advocate for writing without fear. Ultimately, nothing from my first draft survived! But because I had started writing so early, I was able to start developing my ideas more fully and the second draft was much easier because there were already ideas on the page for me to play with.

(5) Spend most of your time on the first 3 pages of the proposal. Look, reviewers are human. I know they asked for 15 pages but they are probably going to have made up their minds (and lost patience and focus) by page 3. So while it is important to write a proposal that is solid and has a continuous story throughout, your time will be well spent in heavily revising the Summary, Introduction, and Background sections. These are the sections that will convince the reviewer if they like your proposal or not - the rest of the pages will only reinforce whatever judgement they have already made. I do not think that page 13 of 15 is going to save you if the first 12 pages were crummy.

(6) If you aren’t already, become an expert in using a good vector graphics software package. Confession time: up until June 2020 I was using Microsoft Powerpoint for all of my graphics, for everything. Don’t be like me! Learn to use something like Inkscape or Photoshop early and learn to master it. We live in an attention economy and so the material that is easy to grok (i.e. understand) is the material that will get the most attention and buy-in. Simply put, you cannot afford not to be good at building clean, informative graphics if you want to communicate and sell your science. I am still learning, but some tricks I have include using Solidworks to build 3D models of objects, and then importing images of those models into Inkscape to build into figures. I choose a color palette for a specific project and stick to it, recording the hexadecimal numbers of the colors. I revise each figure I make several times to improve clarity and remove excess whitespace.

(7) Know the formatting requirements for your proposal before you write it. Have you ever been hours away from a huge deadline and gotten a text from your advisor that says “And this is where we freak out”? I have. It was not my finest moment. I don’t want you to ever experience that, so CHECK. THE. FORMATTING. RULES. Know the font size, font style, page count, margin sizes, etc. weeks before you submit and incorporate them into your document so that you are tailoring the document to the correct length. Trust me on this.

(8) Have a (wildly aggressive) plan for how you are going to hit your deadline. This proposal was due on June 22nd. I had a plan for how I would submit on June 8th. Why did I do that, you might ask? Because then on June 8th I had a complete draft of the proposal written and I felt very calm as I spent the final two weeks revising text and improving my figures. I knew that no matter what, I would have something to submit on June 22nd. Having a plan is great for making sure you have time to revise, revise, revise your text so that its quality can improve dramatically. It’s also a great way to keep your fellow writers on track and your advisors aware of when you are going to need their attention for revisions, and when you want them to ignore you so that you can do your writing in peace. Oh, and no matter how well you plan, just know that the final week before the proposal due date is going to be a nightmare. Do not make plans. Tell your friends and family that you are going to be AWOL and if they want your attention they need to send you chocolate first.

(9) Draw pictures all the time and don’t be afraid to put them in early drafts. I mentioned earlier that figures are really important for quickly communicating your ideas in the proposal, and that is also true while you are developing the proposal ideas. I was sketching new ideas in my notebook several times per week, and I used them in lab meetings, in conversations with professors and labmates, and in explanations to my advisors. They helped me minimize the time I had to spend explaining things, and they maximized the time I spent listening to my colleagues’ great ideas and insights. Also, by the time I had to put figures in my proposal, I had already prototyped a lot of the images, so I did not waste time on making beautiful figures that I did not use. Every figure I made in Inkscape appeared, in some fashion, in my proposal.

(10) Learn to write effective paragraphs that are short and have only one idea in them. Remember those rules about writing that you learned in high school? Yeah, those are great rules. Use them! Make sure every paragraph has a topic sentence that links to the previous paragraph and also indicates what this paragraph is going to talk about. Make sure the paragraph only contains arguments that support this one idea. Embed equations in the text as much as possible. Even your sentences should only have one idea in them - do not use run-on sentences. And end every paragraph by recapping what the main idea was and hinting at where you are going next. You should be able to get the gist of your whole proposal just by reading the first and last sentences of every paragraph. This gets much easier if you plan before you write. I used the comments in LaTex to plan every paragraph in every subsection before writing it out. Of course, I still argue that you will benefit from having already written a first draft so you can see your ideas on the page when you begin to structure your paragraphs for the second draft.

(11) Collect 90+ references for your proposal. The rule of thumb for good proposals is they should have over 90 references. This was difficult for me to do, and there were a couple ways I could have made it easier on myself. Solicit suggestions and reading lists from your colleagues early. When you find a lab that does a lot of work on the same area, collect multiple papers that they have written and review them all. Make sure your list includes the foundational papers in your area, as well as papers by the current giants in the field. (They could be one of your reviewers!) Ask your advisors for reference recommendations. Read quickly (see above). And finally, resign yourself to the fact that there are probably going to be groups of papers that you very diligently read, and which ultimately turned out to be irrelevant to your proposal. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

(12) When this process becomes a drag, use the Pomodoro technique. There were several parts of the grant writing process that, at times, felt very slow and not necessarily very exciting or interesting. There were long afternoons spent reading piles of papers. There were endless mornings where I would plan and write one paragraph at a time. Maybe you will feel differently about these experiences, but if you do ever hit a point where the writing process feels tedious or boring, I would recommend using the Pomodoro technique. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a technique for working in 25 minute increments, with 5 minute breaks in between. After 4 work sessions, you take a longer break. I structured my entire days into Pomodoro chunks and it made things much better. I got up regularly so I didn’t feel as though I was chained to my desk. One Pomodoro work session was the amount of time I was willing to dedicate to a single paper. I could quantify my writing progress by measuring that I could write about 2 paragraphs in 3-4 work sessions, and that helped me feel as though I was making progress.

Okay, that’s about all I have to say on the subject of writing grants, for now. Please keep in mind that I am still very much a novice, and we will not know the outcome of the grant application for six months. If you have made it this far, please send me an e-mail with your own experiences writing grants, I would love to learn how to do it better. Thanks!

Written on June 24, 2020