Is Grant Writing Worth the Trouble?
Dear Research Strategists:
Learning how to write a grant is hard. Even worse, the chances of your grant being funded are low. Success rates across funders worldwide hover between 10 - 20%. Is all that hard work worth it?
To find out, I interviewed Associate Professor Michelle Meyer. Dr. Meyer is a disaster sociologist and the Director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC) at Texas A&M University.
What was your biggest challenge as you learned how to write grants?
I was lucky to have a wonderful advisor, Dr. Lori Peek, who encouraged me to pursue a small grant during graduate school. It funded my dissertation fieldwork. In my post-doc, a disaster happened only a short distance from us. I wanted to study it. The challenge for me then was making a concise (e.g., “doable” or “answerable”) research question. My questions were too big to be answered in one research project. To whittle down the idea, I worked with the team at the HRRC. We focused on paring down the idea to something doable, with clear data that could be collected and would answer the question. I used sample grants to understand formatting and how to wrestle the idea into a grant.
How did you feel as you were learning grant writing?
Excited! I still feel that way. Writing a grant to me is a bit like casting out this optimistic intention/wish/dream. It is fun to think through all that could be done and then shape that down into a final proposal of what will be done (if awarded funding).
What changed for you after submitting your first grant?
My confidence grew. I still use that same basic format/structure for every grant. Getting that first win gave me a template that made it easier to keep submitting. I've noticed through collaborations that everyone seems to have a "format" or template they follow. Each is different, but having a template makes proposals less daunting because you have an outline and can start filling in the sections.
I am a bit of a strange case, because my first NSF grant was successful. That success, though, was due to the team environment we have here at HRRC. We spent time working through the details of the research question, sharing materials, and providing feedback (as mentioned above). Good colleagues and collaborators who are more advanced than you are such a great investment of your social capital. If you find them, hold onto them! I try to repay that now as I'm in the more advanced category.
How have grants influenced your work or career?
Dramatically. They are the main reason I have my job. Grants were not required in my field for getting tenure. They were liked, but not a necessity like some fields. Grants definitely increased my profile quickly. I have become quite good at grant writing and figuring out how to fit questions to requests for applications. After a few successes, I started getting asked regularly to be a collaborator on more and more grants, and on larger grants. My interdisciplinary collaborations have grown from these opportunities. I'm not sure I would have been noticed in the field if not for having had grant funding.
What advice would you give scholars who are new to grant writing?
Two main things that I've noticed affect scholars starting out.
1) Grant writing isn't all that different from the proposal writing you did for your dissertation. A unique research question, with a strong literature review, and solid methods to answer that question are most important. If you wrote a proposal in your program for a dissertation or class - then you know what pieces are needed. Adapt that general model and add additional material to fit the grant requirements.
2) SUBMIT THE PROPOSAL! It can feel huge and important and personal, and you really want your grant to be funded. But it most likely won't be. All amazing scholars you look up to get rejected 5 times out of 6 or 9 out of 10. The proposal will not get better the longer you hold it. Give yourself a set deadline and stick to it. Do not waste time trying to make it perfectly fundable. Instead, get a version that is good enough under review and get the reviewer feedback so you know what to change. Otherwise you may be wasting time on something that the reviewers don't notice. That is especially important in the hazards field because we are so interdisciplinary. You will not know what the reviewers will or will not understand, until you’ve heard from them.
Thank you to Dr. Meyer for her wise words. You can find Dr. Meyer on Twitter, where she regularly shares tips and opportunities.
If you know someone who could benefit from today’s newsletter, would you mind sharing it with them? Sharing strategies is one way we create joy-filled collaborative environments like the one Dr. Meyer describes at the HRRC. As always, thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.
P.S. Credit for the structure of these questions goes to Donald Miller’s book, Building a Storybrand. Donald’s book is about storytelling and marketing, but he has a lot of insight for grant writers. As a grant writer, you need to convince others that they should invest in your work. You must communicate why you solve a problem that matters. That’s storytelling!
P.P.S. If you’re strapped for time but need to bring a treat to a party, I have a solution for you. Saltine toffee. It takes fifteen minutes to make and tastes amazing.