|Common Mistakes in Grant Application Writing|
|It is the season for grant applications as usual. As we have helped a number of clients for editing their grant applications, we accumulate experience in mistakes that researchers commonly make in preparation of applications. In the present essay, we summarize these mistakes in order to improve your success rate for applications.
A successful grant application is orchestrated to convince the target funding agency that you have a meaningful research project with rationale evidence to support, as well as you and your team have the competence and well-designed plan to achieve it. An outstanding research proposal consists of the objectives you are planning to achieve, the capacity you bear, and the significance of the subject. Meanwhile, the key point to decide the winners of a grant in this highly competitive environment is who has made the least mistakes in applications. Here are the common mistakes we found in our services. We are hoping researchers could avoid these in future grant competitions.
1. Start too late. Avoid waiting until the last minute. The deadline for a particular funding agency is decided in advance, and applicants have enough time to prepare it. If you are unfamiliar with the deadlines, you can ask your colleagues, officials in the agency, or the funder’s website. It is worth noting that many institutes require an internal deadline, which is a few days earlier than that of the funder.
2. Lack of knowledge of the application instruction. Read the instruction carefully, especially the application format and forms. Funding agencies require institutional permission and ethical approval, missing of which leads to immediate unqualification.
3. Lack of proper editing. Writing and editing are different processes in application preparation. The writer usually neglects errors in spelling and grammars. Appropriate editing avoids negative impressions of reviewers. More importantly, some flaws in applications written by multiple researchers are often missed by all the authors. For instance, a lung cancer research proposal cited two different figures in the prevalence of lung cancer by two authors. Both of the authors are correct in the prevalence from different references, but the reviewers might think this is a floppiness. Careful editing will pick up these flaws.
4. Lack of specificity. You cannot have a vague introduction and method section in an outstanding research proposal. If the introduction is not specific enough, or you failed to cite certain landmark papers, the reviewers will question how familiar you are with the research topic. Similarly, if the method section does not provide detailed enough information on techniques, the suspicion that the team might not be able to complete the project will emerge.
5. Carelessness in budget planning. The budget section is not just about how much money you are asking from the agency, it is also an indication on how much you know the project and techniques, as well as how seriously you treat this application. For instance, I have had three occasions in this application season to spot the applicant asks compensation for graduate students without any graduate students listed as team members. I would always ask how serious the applicant is for the research proposal in this circumstance.
6. Lack of organization. A successful proposal must be well organized. How you organize your layout, your preliminary data, and your workflow reflect how a good scientist you are. Put yourself in the position of a reviewer, would you recommend an application with poorly-presented data?
7. Absence of statistical justification. How data will be presented and analyzed should be indicated in the method section. Meanwhile, the estimation of sample size in human participants and animal studies should be clarified.
8. Lack of potential pitfalls and solutions. Every project has shortcomings. Awareness of these potential pitfalls allows researchers to plan ahead to solve these pitfalls in future research. However, failure of presenting pitfalls in the proposal suggests the applicant does not understand the project thoroughly.
9. Lack of consistency. When we edited or consulted proposals, we found a number of sharp switches in subjects discussed in the content. The reason for these sudden changes is either another author wrote the next subject or the author had a long pause during writing. These sudden changes in the content will certainly surprise reviewers, and also leave an impression that the authors have troubles in managing the project and knowledge in the research area.
10. Lack of interpretation of results. You may be surprised that reviews would have a hard time to understand your data. Do the reviewer and yourself a favour to explain the meaning behind your data. A small section of interpretation of results helps to demonstrate the significance of your preliminary data, and to indicate that you understand your data.
11. Domino aims. We use a series of aims to test the hypothesis of the project. In some proposals, the success of a particular aim totally relays on the accomplishment of the prior aim. We refer these aims as “domino aims”. This is very dangerous, as there is a chance that the failure of the first aim will result in that of the entire project. Try to avoid this kind of aims, and try to connect your aims with an independent way (at least in part). If you can only use these domino aims, try to use your preliminary data to justify the usage, and also present a contingency plan when the prior aim does not develop as you have planned.
However, there are a number of circumstances that are beyond repair by editing, which requires to rewrite the proposal. These circumstances include: (1) the rational to raise the hypothesis is not logical at all; (2) the hypothesis is not testable; (3) the subject has no practical significance; and (4) aims are not achievable.
In order to win a grant award, we need to start as early as possible, and revise as many times as possible to correct the above-mentioned mistakes.