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Writing for Success: Applying for Funding

Sven Leyffer (Argonne National Laboratory) writes: 

The following are some personal observations on how to write successful proposals. These thoughts are the fruit of half a career’s worth of (mostly unsuccessful!) proposals, observations from funding agency panels, and, most important, lessons learned from the panelists at SIAM’s professional development evening at the 2014 annual meeting in Chicago.

After describing the basic ingredients of a good proposal, I elaborate on the nuts and bolts of a proposal, including formatting and deadline aspects. Then I’ve attempted to include social aspects of proposal writing, offering suggestions on writing proposals with others; finally, I list lessons I learned from the SIAM professional development session.

Ingredients of a Good Proposal

Successful proposal writing starts long before you apply for funding. You might begin by writing white papers for program managers, describing new and challenging areas of research; by participating in special workshops organized by funding agencies that help draft the eventual call for proposals; by participating in forward-looking sessions at conferences; and by simply talking to program managers. Program managers have a wealth of experience and are usually happy to share their views, as long as it is not about one of their active calls for proposals. These activities often help shape calls for proposals, and being involved from the start with your ideas means that you already have a good story when it’s time to respond to the call.

Even if you are not “grandfathered” into the call by helping to write it yourself, you can learn a lot about different agencies by finding out what sorts of proposals they funded in the past. NSF posts abstracts of all funded proposals at http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch.

The second ingredient of a good proposal is a good story. This is often more important than intricate mathematical developments, which will be appreciated by only a few of the reviewers. A good story starts with an introduction of the problem, including a statement of its challenges and importance to all mankind. Next, you describe the approach you will take, making a compelling scientific case for it. Finally, you need to state clearly why you are the right person to meet the challenges of this problem.

One important point to bear in mind is that the panel of reviewers who read your proposal typically come from a diverse set of backgrounds, so you should be sure to avoid any jargon and write for a general audience.

Add pictures or graphics to describe your idea or approach (no reviewer likes to read 15-20 pages of dry mathematical formulas). Remember: a picture is worth 1E3 words and often helps to bring complex ideas across.

Any preliminary results you can provide will strengthen your proposal.

Nuts and Bolts of a Proposal

Money Graph by 401kcalculator.org on Flickr via Creative Commons
Paying attention to the little details in the call for proposals can be as important as good mathematical ideas.

Be sure to read the call for proposals carefully, and keep in mind the difference between NSF and DOE proposal requirements. (Quiz: Which agency asks for a section on “Relevance to XXX,” and which agency asks for a “Broader Impact” statement? Proposals that confuse these two sections are unlikely to fare well in reviews.) Don’t ever undersell outreach activities and educational impact in NSF proposals.

Create a checklist before you start writing the proposal. Enter deadlines for the proposal and all supplementary material, such as budgets and CVs. Remember that your grants office creates the budget, so allow additional time for that. Check ahead of time on the procedure for submitting a proposal (it is usually through your grants office) and the lead time the office needs to make a submission. You don’t want to show up with a perfect proposal two hours before the submission deadline, only to find that the grants office needs two days to generate a budget or that you need the signature of your dean who is on vacation on Hawaii.

Stick to the proposal template, and pay attention to all required parts. The call often lists the review criteria, which you should make sure to address explicitly in your proposal. This helps reviewers write their evaluations (which you may in fact write for them).

Make sure to use all the space allowed, and no more: proposals that run over the allotted length are rejected without review, and proposals that are shorter will seem “light” in content to reviewers. LaTeX commands like \baselineskip and \wrapfigure are your friends.

Always use a spell-checker, and keep using it as you revise. Badly written proposals do not review well. Proofread your proposal multiple times, and ask a colleague to read it too.

Never write a math proposal in MS Word; always use LaTeX. Contrary to popular belief, badly formatted formulas are not quaint, but rather annoying.

Avoid tiny print, including in graphs and pictures (your reviewers are likely to be senior mathematicians with fading eyesight who will get mad when they can’t decipher your scribbles).

Social Aspects of Proposals

Proposal writing does not have to be a solitary chore and can be a lot of fun if you involve others. You can learn a lot by writing proposals (even unsuccessful ones) with colleagues (including junior colleagues).

If you write a proposal in a large group, use a version control system, such as Apache Subversion (https://subversion.apache.org/), and make sure you and your collaborators understand the basic workflow (svn up; edit the file; svn ci; … and never use the “(mc) mine-conflict” option unless you do want to overwrite someone else’s work).

Ask your mentor and some colleagues to read your proposal and provide feedback before you submit it. This means that you will need to have a readable version ready a week or so before the deadline, so that you have time to respond to their suggestions. If your university or lab does not have a mentoring program for junior faculty, tell your dean to set one up (and leave if he refuses to do it!).

Learn from reviews, even if they are negative and depressing. This is probably the first time that someone other than you or your mentors or friendly colleagues has read your work. Even if the reviews are completely wrong and misleading in your eyes, think about improving your presentation: How could you explain yourself better to this reviewer?

Finally, try and try again. Remember, sometimes only 10-20% of the proposals submitted for a call are eventually successful. A failed proposal is likely to put you in the very good company of several distinguished SIAM Fellows whose proposals were also unsuccessful. However, never submit the same proposal twice.

Never submit the same proposal simultaneously to different agencies. The program managers talk to each other and often invite similar panelists. Not only is it probably a federal crime to be paid twice for the same services, it also comes close to academic fraud (like submitting the same paper to multiple journals simultaneously).

Lessons from SIAM’s Professional Development Evening

Look for small pockets of funding available at your university or lab that you can leverage to do exploratory work for larger grants. Small grants also allow you to establish a track record of successful funding. Examples of small grants include AWM funding to establish collaborations, travel grants from NSF math institutes (they also pay for workshops and short stays), LDRD (laboratory-directed research and development) grants at the national labs, support for young researchers for attending SIAM (or other society) conferences, and regional funding from your state.

Learn about early-career awards from NSF and DOE. These are prestigious awards, but competition is limited to your peers. Typically, a scientist is considered early career for up to 10 years after receiving a PhD. A good strategy is to submit a regular proposal in the first two years of your tenure-track position (postdocs cannot submit early-career proposals) to get some feedback, and then prepare an early-career proposal in later years.

As you work for your PhD, consider applying for graduate research fellowships at DOE or NSF. You can apply as late as your second year of graduate study. Consider doing an internship while working on your PhD. If you are interested in DOE funding, an internship at one of the national labs (some are open to foreign students) will expose you to applications that are relevant to DOE, and can provide you with collaborators.

Look for BAAs (broad agency announcements) from smaller agencies, such as the Army, Air Force, or Navy research offices, which welcome high-risk, high-reward research that will eventually benefit the military. A good way to start a proposal is to submit a two-page white paper to the program manager describing the problem, approach, uniqueness of the idea, and possible impact to DOD. The DOD agencies also fund conferences and workshops.

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