Monthly Archives: September 2009

Learning to write proposals.

I noticed that my advisor is always applying for some grant, but I don’t know the first thing about writing proposals and my advisor is too busy to help me. How can I learn this skill?

by Dr. Benjamin Brown

It goes without saying that securing research funding through federal grants is essential to maintaining a thriving research program. The good news is that succeeding with grant proposals is a skill that can be learned. The bad news is that few senior researchers take the time to expose junior researchers – even those about to make the leap to “PI-hood” – to the proposal-writing process. While many scientists recoil from the notion of “marketing” themselves or their work (“my work speaks for itself”) learning how to sell yourself and your research is obviously critical to success at many stages of your scientific career (e.g., landing your first permanent job, succeeding at your tenure review).

No matter how busy your advisor is you can ask him or her for a copy of the funding announcement and the submitted proposal. You can even ask for earlier drafts to see how your advisor and his/her collaborators honed the proposal. Be clear that your intent is to learn about both the drafting of the proposal and the process involved, and don’t be afraid to be persistent. After you’ve studied the documents even a couple of focused questions at the right time could pry useful insight from your advisor.

If your advisor is truly too busy or unwilling to help, there are other avenues. If your group has a postdoc who worked on a proposal, he or she might be willing to share the documents with you. Another approach is to ask present or former colleagues just ahead of you in the “career queue” about their first experiences with grant writing.