Writing Skills Grants 101

How many grants should you write at a time?

Feb 01, 2024

How many grants should you write at a time? The odds of getting a grant are not high. Should you work on more grants to increase your chances, despite the time and energy costs?

It depends. There’s no right way to take chances in your career. It’s like asking what’s the right way to play the lottery. Everyone has a different approach. My aunt buys a ticket twice a week on her way to the gym. My partner buys a ticket when the jackpot is over $1 billion. I abstain, secretly hoping my partner will win.

Luckily (ha!), your chances of submitting a winning grant are much higher than lottery odds. NIH success rates are currently about 21% for research grants, and NSF’s rates are 26% overall. There’s more nuance to these numbers and more funders out in the world. But they show that you have a shot at getting your work funded. It will just take hard work, persistence, and some strategy.

To help you figure out your strategy, let’s break down challenges and strategies scholars use to figure out how many grants to write.

  • Challenge: Intense job pressure to secure grants. Strategy: Apply to multiple grants at a time. Example: My colleague is in a soft money position (e.g., she needs grants to cover her salary). She submits 1 grant per NIH grant cycle as a Principal Investigator, for a total of 3 grants per year. She also submits multiple grants as a Co-investigator (i.e., meaning she assists but does not lead the grant). This amounts to an additional 3 - 6 grants per year, for a total of 6 - 9 grants a year. Her rationale is being a Principal Investigator on grants allows her to cover large portions of her salary. But it’s hard to develop many new ideas on your own. Being a Co-investigator lets her round out her chances of securing funding, but it’s a lower lift in terms of workload.

  • Challenge: You’re not sure what people expect you to do in terms of grant writing. Strategy: Get advice from many people. Example: Talk to mentors, chairs, and deans. Ask how many grants they want you to apply to at a time. Asking directly has the added bonus that during your reviews, you can say, you asked me to submit ____ grants. I met that goal. This is true even if your grants aren’t funded. Then look at what peers who’ve recently been promoted have done. You’ll be compared to these people at promotion time, so you want these benchmarks.

  • Challenge: You don’t write well when you divide your attention. Strategy: Focus on a limited number of grants. Example: Submitting many grants theoretically ups your chances for funding. But when I started writing grants, I only worked on one grant at a time. This was risky because I put all my eggs in one basket. But I felt I could either submit my one best grant, or two mediocre grants. This bet paid off. My first NSF grant and my first NIH grant were both funded on the first try.

  • Challenge: Funding is time-limited in an area you care about. Strategy: Submit. Example: Many funders had time-limited funds to study issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When time-limited funds appear, many people choose to apply even if they don’t have the bandwidth. That’s because the funds will go away. In my case, I had to convert my course to remote learning, and I had no childcare. But I knew that if I wanted to study the pandemic, I had to submit despite those challenges. Funding availability matters - the NSF data I shared earlier noted that funding rates are down because funding to address COVID-19 decreased.

Finally, you can often submit the same grant to multiple funders. One scholar told me they did this for every grant they’ve ever written. They’d been continuously funded for decades. (I wish I’d heard about this strategy earlier in my career). If you take this strategy, check the rules for each funder to make sure this is allowed. And if you receive all the funding, talk with your program officers early and openly about how to handle the situation. You may have to give up some funding. But that’s a great problem to have.

Good luck figuring out how many grants you want on your docket. For more guidance, here are 7 questions to ask before pursuing a new grant.

If you know someone who might benefit from today’s newsletter, would you mind forwarding it to them? Thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


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P.S. Now that it’s cold, I’m getting back into bread baking. Here’s my favorite bread recipe: Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread. I make it so often, my kids call it “mama bread.”

P.P.S. You have to plan a day in advance for mama bread. If that’s too annoying or if you run out of time, this focaccia recipe is tasty. My kids say it’s a “close second” to mama bread.