Writing Grants for Federal Funding

New Connections scholar Dr. Adrian Aguilera said, “The desire to address [the] difficult problems [of underserved communities] is not enough. Instead, the desire must be combined with innovation to make true, lasting, and positive change.” 

Many New Connections network members share Dr. Aguilera’s belief in combining desire for change with the innovation to make it happen, and they know that research requires resources. New Connections has provided scholars from diverse backgrounds with those resources, including a network of other scholars with whom to collaborate on writing grants.

Dr. Margarita Alegría and Dr. Ben Cook have been avid supporters of the New Connections program, sharing their expertise as mentors and as speakers at the Symposium, Research and Coaching Clinic, on webinars, and more. As accomplished researchers themselves, they can provide guidance to early career scholars on the often challenging task of writing grants for federal funding.  

Getting Started

  • Do your homework. Dr. Alegría and Dr. Cook both said that it is imperative to understand the literature in the field and what studies have already been done. If you have a question and study method in mind, determine whether the question has been asked before, and if your study improves on previous methods. Dr. Alegría also said that since studies are usually multidisciplinary, it’s essential to review literature from all of the disciplines that will be relevant – not just your own area of study.
  • Write to win. For a private sector grant, you need to understand the priorities of the institution and how they might influence the grant process, especially to be certain the organization would have an interest in your specific question. You could look at previous grants they have funded to see the language used and how those grants addressed the organization’s goals.
  • Aim for success. The specific aims of your grant are essential to identify and hone early in the process. Dr. Alegría said you should write your specific aim, share an outline of your research plan with colleagues with knowledge in that area, and write a concept paper based on their feedback. Dr. Cook suggested that once you have a strong draft, you should send it to a program officer early (three months before the deadline if possible) for feedback. If you identify a program announcement that will match your research, make sure your specific aims align with the announcement, then adjust as necessary. Dr. Alegría noted that this process can take a lot of time, as you will likely revise multiple times to ensure your specific aims match your plan for analysis.
  • Assemble your team. You need team members who are invested in the project, as well as someone who can be the “champion” of the group to schedule meetings, keep people on deadlines, and engage those who are lagging on their assignments. Your team will need a research analyst and assistant, and if you’re a junior faculty member, you should have a senior team member as a collaborator as well. Dr. Alegría said you should involve statisticians and methodologists early in the process, so they can be sure your study design will answer your question.

Developing Your Grant Application

  • Writing your grant application requires keeping several balls in the air at once. As Dr. Cook explained, you’ll need to tackle different tasks at the same time. While you are focused on the science of your grant, don’t forget about the administrative tasks. You’ll need to get grant administrators on board, and you may need consultant agreements if collaborating across institutions. Keep your budget in mind, so you know whether you have adequate funding to answer the research question, or to provide stipends for participants in focus groups. Dr. Alegría noted that your project may require more resources than you anticipate, so prepare to rethink your goals. There’s also a lot of paperwork involved, such as information about human subjects, so someone needs to organize the smaller details. Later in the process, you’ll need to refer to these documents to ensure you’ve met the administrative requirements.
  • Dr. Cook suggested using your literature review to develop an outline for your application and explain the significance of your research. He also said to demonstrate why you have the perfect team and how they are a great fit for this project. Make sure to include your research design and explain why it’s the right design to answer your question. Dr. Cook emphasized that your goal should be to make sure the science carries through all of the sections — background, literature review, team members, research design, and so on. He also said to spend the bulk of your time talking about your research methods; the motivations section and discussion of team can be brief.
  • Make sure your grant is written in one voice, even if multiple people have written different sections. This may mean having one person revising the sections to have the same voice. The writing should also reflect different disciplines and perspectives; for example, anthropological and economic perspectives on an issue will differ, and the writing should reflect the unique interests of each discipline.

Keys to Success

  • Unique ideas. Dr. Cook noted that the uniqueness of your idea and whether it has an obvious impact can engage reviewers as they read your application. One example he gave was if your research will address a population that’s difficult to reach. For instance, studying mental health care for incarcerated individuals might be an appealing study for the National Institute of Mental Health, since much mental health care takes place in prisons. In a similar vein, Dr. Alegría said that if you have an intriguing question that people have tried answering without finding a good answer, people in your field will be eager to try it again—if you have a convincing case for why your proposed method will work. However, she noted that the project shouldn’t just be innovative; it needs to have substance and include real implications for the field of study.
  • Rigorous methods. Make sure your statistical or qualitative analysis is vetted by a statistician or qualitative expert, and don’t rush this part of the process. Dr. Cook said it will be clear to reviewers if you haven’t spent enough time on this aspect or engaged the appropriate experts to assess it.
  • Thorough reviews. Having tough, knowledgeable reviewers on board is essential. Dr. Alegría suggested engaging between three and five reviewers who can cover different topic areas and commit enough time to conduct a thorough review. However, since they are giving you their time, she said to make sure you send them a strong draft, or they might be discouraged about your project’s potential for success. Dr. Cook’s suggestion: Have the courage and stamina to find reviewers who will critically analyze your grant and find issues you need to address — that’s the best way to ensure a high-quality application. Once you’ve had a final reviewer do a thorough read of your grant, go through your application in excruciating detail to make sure it is concise, consistent, clear, and error-free, and that you’ve addressed all of your reviewers’ feedback.

Earning a grant isn’t an easy process, and you may not succeed every time. However, Dr. Alegría notes that it’s like the lottery: You can’t win unless you play! She said there is always something you can learn from writing a grant, even if you don’t get it, and noted that even if you don’t get funded, it doesn’t mean your idea was a bad one. Her final advice? Don’t give up!