Note. I drafted this right after submitting the proposal but didn’t get around to finishing it until now - almost two months later! I kept the language (around the timing) the same, as, there is still no better time than now to share–though, earlier would have likely been better as the process was more fresh on my mind.
This past week, I submitted a proposal for a grant independently. I thought that there would be no better time than now to just down some thoughts, reflections, and perhaps a few lessons learned from the process of submitting a grant independently, as follows.
Learn about the process
In the past year, I submitted proposals as a ‘co’-submitter/investigator, first, through being involved in a very small capacity (constructing a measure), and, later, in a proposal with skilled ‘principle’ investigators in a more integral way. This was a great way to learn from colleagues about how to craft an argument for a project through a grant proposal. Less about the conceptual and more on a practical level, it was also a chance to get down some of the logistical elements of a grant proposal (i.e., how to craft a budget, format a narrative, and work within a timeline).
Get a one-pager/a blurb as early as possible
For the proposal, I developed (and received feedback about) the idea for the project over a few months. Having a one-pager (or a blurb, as my friend and colleague Teya Rutherford describes here) was invaluable to this process.
This blurb started over with a not-so-well articulated idea about studying changes in learning over time (how is that for vague?). That idea developed out of two AERA presentations (2018 and 2019) in which I presented the results from trying to figure out how to study how moment-to-moment learning experiences relate to sustained interest (or future goals and plans) in the context of STEM education.
After meeting with the director of external funding for the college, I decided to pursue studying the different experiences of students who, through a lottery, enrolled in and attended a magnet school here in town (and those who were not enrolled in the magnet school and instead another high school, probably one near where they live). I wrote this down in a one-page project summary, received some feedback (through sharing it and talking about it), and revised.
After beginning to reach out to administrators in the school district in which I planned to work, I realized the timing was tight - too tight - and, so, I started to think about other settings and collaborations. I had been working with a faculty (who then became the department chair) of the computer science department here as a result of a collaboration with my science education colleague (and mentor), and, I took elements from the one-page project summary and adapted (and developed) it based on what seemed possible to do. I received feedback on the blurb, again, and started to tighten up the proposal. This provided a basis for officially starting the proposal process at my institution (as I needed a short summary to obtain approval to write the proposal) and to think about and begin to reach out to potential advisory board members (and mentors, as this proposal involved; more on this at the end of the post).
If I had started to write an entire project narrative before getting all of my ducks in a row, it would have had to change a lot; if I had not written a one-pager/a blurb, then I wouldn’t have had enough of a concrete plan to receive feedback and to realize that the project - as initially planned - would not have worked.
Work on supplementary documents along the way
There were a lot of documents in addition to the project narrative; I may be missing one or more, but, for my proposal, I know the following were required:
- Project Summary (similar to the one-pager)
- Narrative references
- Budget justification
- Collaborators and co-authors
- Current and pending support
- Data management plan
- Post-doc mentoring plan
- Facilities and other resources
- Letter of support template
These can take a lot of time - but, they’re also relatively less demanding (in terms of time as well as effort) to write, and so can be worked on along the way. I worked on these when I was not able to work any longer on the narrative or when I had limited time. Also, I had worked on some of these (particularly the biosketch, current and pending support, and collaborators and co-authors forms) as a part of earlier proposals, and so could spend a little time updating them to feel like I had made progress, even if for a part of the proposal that is ancillary to the primary task of justifying and describing a project.
Make it good, but not perfect
There were a number of times throughout the process when I wanted to stop because it was challenging to come up with a product I was proud of. I would not have submitted the proposal if it had to be perfect - or as polished as work that I had poured over more (such as my dissertation). Especially for a solo project, having the goal of a good, but not perfect, proposal, made the process seem more manageable.
Work closely with your grants officer
There were (and still are) so many things I don’t know about submitting a proposal, but being able to ask questions of the grants officer was valuable, especially in the days ahead of the deadline. I’ll mention that how things work in my college is that we have an office of external funding to help to prepare the proposal for submission to the sponsored programs office, within which a grants officer reviews the entire proposal and then submits the grant. The director of external funding for my college was particularly helpful to be able to turn to with big-picture questions, like those about what is allowed in the grant and whether (or how) to ask for letters of support from advisors or collaborators.
Ask early but don’t worry (too much) about the advisory board
I worried so much about whether potential advisory board members would agree to be an advisory board member - and whether they would write a letter of support for me to include in the proposal. I think that while it is important to ask as early as possible, in most cases, those you ask want to help you - including suggesting someone else who may be able to be involved if and when they are unable to.
Use figures, tables, and formatting creatively
Using figures (including ‘models’ and conceptual frameworks) and tables take up space in the narrative but can provide a helpful focal point for readers’ attention. In particular, I found it beneficial to include a logic model (with research questions) and a table for the study timeline. If I were writing the narrative again, I would consider adding an image that made a distinctive aspect of the data collection more apparent to readers.
I also found it useful to format the document in a different way than I would format a manuscript to submit for publication: I used all caps for section headers and included numbers in them, too. More generally, what order the sections are in (and, apart from required sections, which are included) is less structured (and requires more creativity) than I first thought.
These were some thoughts from submitting an independent grant proposal for the first time. In sum, having the opportunity to submit proposals as a ‘co’-investigator made it seem more feasible to submit. Having good support from others, receiving feedback multiple times, and making sure that I submitted something complete (but not something that was perfect) made it possible for me to finish it (right in the nick of time - a story not in this post!).