No series on funding your undergraduate research program is complete without this essential wisdom from the grant-writing veteran and superstar Dr. Roger Rowlett, past-president of CUR and a proud member of CUR Chem.
Research Grants and Grantsmanship
It is generally recognized that undergraduate research provides an unparalleled environment for learning and engagement. However, meaningful research is a resource-intensive enterprise. Research grants are essential to maintaining an environment that can foster and sustain faculty-student scholarly activity.
Why write and submit research grant proposals?
There is never time to write a research proposal. Get over it. Everyone has time for the things that are important to them.
There is never time to write a research proposal. Get over it. Everyone has time for the things that are important to them. Research proposals should be important to you. A moment of reflection will reveal that writing a research proposal has one of the highest hourly rates of compensation of almost anything a faculty member could do. If you are an efficient writer, you could effectively earn $12,000 an hour. Sound better now? Many research grants have time-limited eligibility, e.g. new faculty, pre-tenure faculty, mid-career faculty, etc. The best time to write a research grant proposal is now.
…someone is going to be funded. Why not you? Only one thing is certain: the success rate for proposals not submitted is…zero.
An oft-heard complaint about research funding is that success rates are too low. Perhaps, but you need to get over that, too. Success rates for most programs in the sciences vary from 15-30%. While you may not like these odds, someone is going to be funded. Why not you? Only one thing is certain: the success rate for proposals not submitted is…zero. Success rates for excellent proposals are much higher than the success rates for all proposals, and re-submitted proposals generally fare better than first submissions. At my institution, funding rates for research grant proposals is between 33-67%, depending on the program. You can stack the deck in your favor by not submitting bad proposals. Let somebody else submit those. To stack the deck in your favor, use your professional network to hone your proposals. You can call upon institutional or CUR colleagues for advice, or enroll in a CUR proposal writing institute.
Success rates for excellent proposals are much higher than the success rates for all proposals, and re-submitted proposals generally fare better than first submissions.
It’s not just about the money. Writing proposals will help you focus and prioritize your research objectives. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life in academics, it’s all too easy to just find stuff to keep students busy for the next week or month. Productive researchers ensure that students are always focused on tasks that advance clear research goals worthy of peer-reviewed publication. A well-written research proposal, even if not funded, can provide the strategic planning and focus your research needs.
Bask in the limelight. (Such as it is.) Research proposals are a form of scholarship, and if funded are a form of validation of the quality of your research questions, approach, and competence. Also consider that “Your success is my success.” When you or your colleagues are successful at attracting funding, you elevate the visibility of your program and institution, and potentially make it easier for others to be similarly recognized.
Some thoughts about grantsmanship
One could write pages and pages about how to write competitive research grant proposals. However, there are some central themes that are vitally important to crafting competitive grant proposals.
Hypothesis-based research is de rigueur.
Successful research proposals have clearly identifiable goals, and an experimental plan that is appropriate to achieve those goals. One way to construct a clear and compelling proposal is to (1) identify one or more important unresolved questions in the scientific literature; (2) describe one or more hypotheses that might address or explain these questions; (3) and conceive an experimental plan that critically differentiates alternative hypotheses. Anticipating possible results and explaining what those results would mean in terms of answering the posed questions is desirable.
Parallel is better than serial.
A better approach is to have multiple experimental paths toward the same end.
It is vitally important to avoid single-point failure modes in experimental plans. For example, if a research plan depends upon the successful cloning, expression, and purification of a protein before the rest of the experimental plan can be accomplished, and the plan relies exclusively on that particular protein to address the stated goals, the proposal is at a high risk for being declined for low probability of success. A better approach is to have multiple experimental paths toward the same end. (In this case, cloning a suite of homologous proteins would enhance the probability of at least one of them being amenable to study.) Anticipate failure modes, and have backup plans or workarounds for them.
Request what you need.
A common misconception is that proposing a smaller budget will enhance the probability of your proposal being funded. I can say with confidence that reviewers and review panels rarely consider your budget in this context. Rather, research proposal budgets are considered in terms of whether or not they are commensurate with the scope of work proposed. Modest proposals should have modest budgets; expansive proposals should have appropriately larger budgets.
It is generally expected that the principal investigator at a predominantly undergraduate institution will request support for two or more summer undergraduate student research assistants. Exceptionally productive groups may be able to justify support for additional personnel such as a laboratory technician or a postdoctoral fellow. Some grant programs will even mandate a percentage of your budget be dedicated to the support of undergraduate researchers.
Read the friendly manual (RTFM).
All research grant programs provide extensive information about personal and institutional eligibility, types of research supported, budget limitations, proposal format, and deadlines. Failure to read and heed these guidelines is a sure route to rejection.
Contact your program officer.
Not everything you want to know will be spelled out in the grant proposal guidelines. Think about your basic pitch, save up your questions about those gray areas, and speak to your program officer. Program officers are very busy, but generally love to talk about science. A good way to initiate a conversation is to email to arrange a time to have a short telephone chat. A direct conversation will be more informative than a disconnected email exchange.
Don’t go it alone.
OK, when you make it big, by all means do it yourself. If you are not in this category, partner with a successful mentor or trusted individual. Find a colleague (or two) who are experienced in writing and obtaining research grants and have them read your proposal prior to submission.
Find a colleague (or two) who are experienced in writing and obtaining research grants and have them read your proposal prior to submission.
If you don’t have colleagues on campus that can fulfill this role, consider using your CUR network or enrolling in one of CUR’s proposal writing institutes. Your mentors do not have to be in the same field of study to be helpful. It is beneficial to have at least one reviewer who is not familiar with your research area. If your organic chemistry colleague can understand your biochemistry proposal, you may have written a clear and concise proposal.
A former program officer at a well-known research foundation remarked, “A research grant proposal finished at the last minute…isn’t. And I can tell.”
A former program officer at a well-known research foundation remarked, “A research grant proposal finished at the last minute…isn’t. And I can tell.” A successful proposal will normally require time to read and absorb byzantine guidelines, conceive of research questions and experimental plans, talk to the program officer, write a draft, obtain critiques from colleagues, and to revise one or more times. It is not unreasonable to plan up to a year ahead of the submission date. Remember this: Good research proposals are not funded; Excellent proposals are usually necessary to make the grade. Take the time to make your proposal excellent.
Dealing with rejection
Even if you submit and excellent proposal, you may not get funded. Really. Resist the impulse to lash out at the program officer or reviewers. Most research proposals are actually pretty good, but there is not enough funding to support every deserving proposal. Program officers, external reviewers, and/or the review panel have some hard choices to make. In general, you will receive constructive criticism and comments. Read them, allow yourself to be angry, disappointed, and irritated for a little while. Then reflect on what you need to do to make your resubmission better. Schedule a chat with the program officer to get a better read on the criticisms. Perhaps your proposal had a single-point failure mode; maybe you had neglected a useful but important control experiment; perhaps you are not as clear as you could have been in describing the significance of your project, or the experimental plan. Whatever you do, ensure that you address the reviewers’ criticisms in a re-submission. This will increase your chances for funding success. I was once advised by my ski instructor that “if you are not falling, you are not learning.” Some of us “learn” more than others, but we eventually succeed.
I’ve been funded—Now what?
..it is vitally important that tangible scholarly productivity follow successful research grant funding.
Be productive! Successful undergraduate research is a continuous enterprise in which funding, investigative work, and peer-reviewed dissemination form a cycle of scholarship that is highly interdependent. It is challenging to sustain a modern, productive undergraduate research program without external funding, and if research does not lead to peer-reviewed publications, it is difficult or impossible to make another trip around the circle. Therefore, it is vitally important that tangible scholarly productivity follow successful research grant funding.
For additional information about research grants and much more, see CUR’s How-to publication “How to Get Started in STEM Research with Undergraduates.”
Excerpted with permission from “How to Get Started in STEM Research with Undergraduates,” Merle Schuh, ed., Council on Undergraduate Research, Washington DC, 2013. ISBN 0-941933-28-8
Roger S. Rowlett, PhD is the Gordon & Dorothy Kline Professor of Chemistry at Colgate University. Research in his laboratory is focused on the elucidation of the structure and catalytic mechanism of enzymes.