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Science Careers Blog

July 8, 2010

Getting to the Top of a Big Pile: How to Succeed at Grant-Writing

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One of the sessions organized by Science Careers this week at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy aimed to give young scientists a leg up in the increasingly competitive race for funds. The workshop offered advice from three different perspectives -- a national research council, an international funding organization, and a winner of a Starting Grant from the European Research Council -- which I summarize below:

  • Identifying a Grant Program

Identify existing funding programs well in advance. "For each step in your career, there is a program that fits. Look carefully, and find the right one," said Markus Behnke, a program officer in the Chemistry and Process Engineering Division of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in Bonn. 

Make sure you check out the details: the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), for example, ` only funds basic biology research with a focus on interdisciplinary and international collaborations. "We are very different from national research councils, though we are not a foundation," said Guntram Bauer, Director of Fellowships at HFSP in Strasbourg, France. "So first learn about the organization and its philosophy," Bauer added. Even when looking at opportunities within the same body, "Carefully read the guidelines, because they all are different and [there is a] rapid program turnover."

You should "Tailor your proposal according to the specific objectives of the program," Bauer said. But only up to a point: "Read carefully the grant call and see if your idea fits that kind of call... If you have any doubt, call and ask questions. It could be the wrong grant," said Vittoria Colizza, an ERC Starting Grant winner who leads the Computational Epidemiology Lab at the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI Foundation) in Turin, Italy. 

  • Finding a Good Research Idea

How much is expected of you depends on your career stage, but ultimately what you need is a good idea. Yet be aware that "to have a good idea is not good enough. You have to have it clear in your mind," Colizza said. 

For many funding bodies, good also means bold. ERC grants in particular require an ambitious project, which "by definition is risky and tricky," Colizza said. This means that you also need to prove your ability to seeing it through: "Say out aloud what is the problem, what are the risks, and how you think you are going to cope with them," she added. 

To get one of the ERC Starting Grants, which target young researchers aiming to become independent, you also need to develop a broader vision. At this point in their careers, "many have a vision limited to the day after. This cannot work. Think about the papers you'll be writing in the next 5 years," Colizza SAID. 

  • Finding a Host Institution

The host institution is especially important if you're applying for an individual fellowship: You have to demonstrate that this is really the right place for you, Behnke said. So explain your reasons for picking your host (to learn a new technique or follow a new research direction, for example) and how this fits into your career plans (your host may agree to you running a small team within the lab). This implies discussing the project with your host before hand and going to visit them to check out the equipment, Behnke added.  

  • Positioning Yourself

Know yourself and your competitors in the field, especially for an ERC Starting Grant. You should be able to say, "'Yes, there are several groups who do that in this way. I can do it in that way'," Colizza said. Also explain what it is going to bring to the community and demonstrate your ability and willingness to collaborate, she added. "Show that don't want to play solo, that you are able to reach out." 

If you are working in an interdisciplinary field, be prepared "to prove that you are the right person" for the project, said Colizza, who is a physicist studying the epidemiology of infectious diseases. Time and again she had to make the case to reviewers for why, even though she was not a biomedical doctor, not a biologist, and not a biostatistician, she could do the research. Demonstrate that you've got the training and are bringing something new and innovative, she said. 

  • Demonstrating Your Other Skills

To get an ERC Starting Grant in particular, you also need to demonstrate your ability to manage a research group. "If you are able to do very good science, this is not enough to get a grant. [You need] to convince [reviewers] that you are able to succeed in the project. This is science plus managing science," Colizza said. If you have supervised a few students in the past, assisted younger researchers, or taught classes, "all this helps," she added. "If you are still junior and nobody gives you enough independence, try to find some space because it gives you experience" that you can then add in into your application. 

  • Crafting Your Summary

Arguably, one of the most important bits in your application is the proposal's summary. "You can be a winner immediately if you convince people" in your summary, DFG's Behnke said. "Some say it's only the summary that's carefully analyzed by reviewers." 

So, what makes a good summary? Make it understandable to people who may not be experts in your field, Behnke explained. Keep it as short as possible. Regarding content, in a DFG application, for example, you will be expected to show that you can fill in a knowledge gap, and you also need to lay out your preliminary work, working hypotheses, and approaches to finding a solution. You should also define your research's key points and milestones, Behnke added.

  • Writing a Good Application

Give your C.V. a clear structure, and do not list articles that are 'in prep.' "Most people try to fill up the list with many, many publications, even if they are not written... Reviewers do not like it," Behnke said. "Add only the most relevant papers," he added, bearing in mind that reviewers have no time to figure out what is a poster and what is a peer-reviewed publication.

Be aware that many of the skills and strengths that are relevant in a grant application are "not something that you prove with a lot of publications," Colizza said. "You really need to write what you have been doing... [Reviewers] have to read it explicitly, not between the lines ... that you are proactive on carrying out your ideas," for example.

In your research proposal, when reviewing the state of the art in the field, "Make sure it is self-explanatory. Reviewers shouldn't have to read the literature to figure out the research," Behnke said. All the way through, be clear and precise: Detail what you aim to do and how, the timing, all the budget issues, and what you are going to do besides hiring staff, Colizza said. For example, when presenting the time line, break down your project into modules that build upon each other, Behnke added. 

 "All of this nicely, smoothly integrated and very, very clear, " Colizza said. This implies using simple language. "If you try to be a poet, you may hurt yourself. Just write plain and simple English. It can be really convincing," Bauer added.

  • Giving (no more than) What You're Being Asked

Expect funding bodies to ask for different things. The Young Investigators' Grant program run by the HFSP, which targets teams of 2-4 members all within 5 years of starting their independent position, for example offers a fixed amount of money relative to the size of the team. At the HFSP, reviewers "don't discuss the budget, just the science," Bauer said. No need either to include preliminary data, as the research should be "hypothesis-driven," Bauer added. Make sure you write a new application for each body. And "if we see a grant with milestones, we know it is a cheap copy of an ERC grant." 

  • Dealing With Rejection

If you're nut successful, "Take it easy. Don't take it personally. This is about science," Behnke said. If you feel there has been some bias, "phone the agency. It may happen," Behnke said. Above all, "don't be discouraged." You can resubmit, and notes from reviewers can greatly help you improve your application. Also get in touch with the agency to discuss future directions, Bauer recommended. 



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