• September 1, 2015

How to Fail in Grant Writing

Grant prop art 4 Careers

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Looking for the fast path to grant rejection?

We provide a list here of proven techniques. We gathered these in the course of serving on grant panels or as program officers, and, in some cases, through firsthand experimentation. We are biologists, but many of our suggestions will be useful to grant writers in all disciplines.

On content:

  • Don't explicitly state any goals, objectives, or hypotheses in your grant proposal. A good panelist will be able to figure out your questions from the methods.
  • Say that your grant is "transformative"—something the National Science Foundation looks for in particularly outstanding grants; it means that your work will change the approach we take to a particular problem—when it is clearly not. Say that more than once if possible. Heck, go ahead and boldface it! If you claim it is so, it is so.
  • However, if your grant is potentially transformative, make it clear in your proposal that you don't know how good an idea you have.
  • Make it obvious that you have cut and pasted sections from your other grants into this new proposal. Don't worry if the formatting does not match or there are sentences and sections from the old proposals that have no bearing on this one. Reviewers are impressed by people who are too busy to proofread.
  • If your proposal is a resubmission, be snarky about the comments you received from the previous reviewers.
  • Use lots of acronyms. Define them several pages after you first use them, if possible, or at least bury the definitions in long paragraphs.
  • Don't make any predictions. And if you do make predictions, don't put in any experiments that would actually test them.
  • Make sure that the feasibility of your proposal's second and third objectives depends on a particular result from your first objective.
  • Don't bother discussing what you will conclude if your data don't turn out exactly as you expect.
  • Don't give sample sizes or statistical tests.
  • Remember the old axiom: The longer the equation, the better. Panelists will be afraid to acknowledge in front of others that they don't understand it, so they will be more likely to recommend you receive a grant. And remember not to define the parameters of any equations you use. Panelists feel smug when they succeed in figuring it out themselves.
  • Be sure to use different symbols for the same parameters in different places in the proposal. Remember to use the same symbols for different parameters in other parts of the proposal.
  • When discussing your pilot data in disciplines where "Pn Propose to use a difficult technique (e.g., microarrays, recording from neurons) that you have never done before, but don't offer any assurance that you will have a collaborator. Alternately, propose to use a difficult technique that you have done before, but don't mention your experience or pilot data because, after all, you've done it already.
  • Focus your grant entirely on your own study species and/or area of focus. Knowledge for knowledge's sake, right? Dealing with problems of general interest is a waste of time. A good panelist will be able to discern the global impacts of your research without being led by the hand.

On format and style:

  • Use weird subheadings that do not map onto one another. For example, begin your proposal by listing Goals 1, 2, and 3, and then label your experiments A through J, with no clear relation to the goals. Reviewers love a challenge.
  • Use very few subheadings. Grant reviewers are smart enough to figure out where the subheadings should be. A single multipage paragraph is fine.
  • Reviewers love 10-point, Arial-font, single-spaced type. Preferably there should be no spaces between paragraphs, headings, or subheadings, either. Your goal is to leave no white space on the page.
  • Use a myriad of type styles. Within a paragraph, try to use BOLD-FACED, ALL-CAPITALIZED TYPE for some sentences, then italicize others, and underline still others. Alternatively, use the same plain style throughout the entire proposal—for headings, subheadings, and paragraphs—for a nice, calming homogeneous appearance.
  • Don't use spell-check.
  • Don't bother worrying if illustrations or graphs are on different pages than the legends that explain the meaning. Relax, the reviewers can work that out with just a little bit of flipping pages.
  • Rely on color alone to distinguish lines from one another in a particular graph. After all, no reviewers will be old-fashioned enough to prefer to read a print copy of your proposal, and then not have a color printer. Program officers don't choose colorblind panelists, either.
  • Impress reviewers by using complex illustrations with many panels, arrows, boxes, drawings, and photos. The more stuff you can squeeze in, the smarter you'll look. Condense labels into tiny boxes, so that key parts are unreadable. Also assume that the illustrations are self-explanatory—no need for a pesky extended caption.
  • If you are allotted 15 pages for your proposal, use only 12. This is especially effective if you leave out any detail whatsoever about your methods.
  • Replace simple, meaningful words with polysyllabic behemoths whenever possible. Don't write "use" when you can say "utilize." Why "use a method" if you can "utilize a methodological technique"? There is no reason to "increase" when you can "exacerbate." Bonus points for using polysyllabic words incorrectly, as in "the elevation in glucose concentration was exasperated during exercise."

On the literature:

  • Cite literature willy-nilly. Throw it all in! If possible, give a general statement and then cite a series of people who say conflicting things on the topic. The reviewers will never catch on. They don't care if you understand the literature, just that you know of its existence. It is particularly good if your proposal emphasizes aspects of the literature that are unimportant in justifying your objectives. The reviewers will be impressed that you are so broadly read.
  • Alternately, don't cite many papers at all, especially recent ones. The reviewers will assume you know the literature.
  • If, in places, your grant says something like "Koala noses are known to be adorable (REF)," be assured the reviewers will understand that you were just too strapped for time to fill in the actual research reference.
  • Cite literature that isn't included in the "References" section of your proposal.

On the "impacts" statement:

  • If you're applying for an NSF grant, make sure that in your "broader impacts" statement you say that your research on frog metamorphosis will help cure cancer and/or help us understand the function of the human brain.
  • Confine your statement about the impacts of your research to things that every scholar would do normally. For example, say you will publish your research and leave it at that.

On your grant-program director and you:

If the grant guidelines ask for names of suggested reviewers, be sure to do the following.

  • Suggest only two or three names. After all, the program director should have in mind the very best reviewers for your proposal no matter how obscure your area of research.
  • Be sure to suggest names of your closest friends, collaborators, your Ph.D. adviser, or even your spouse. They are the people most familiar with your work, right?
  • Never provide university affiliations or e-mail addresses of the names you list. Isn't that what Google is for?

Always keep in close communication with the program director managing your proposal, especially in those critical few days right after the panel meets to review the proposals. Multiple e-mails during that period are OK, but telephone calls really get their attention.

This is also an excellent time to schedule a personal interview with the program director to talk about your grant proposal.

Finally, and perhaps the most important tip of all: Always assume that the panel and the program director will give you the benefit of every doubt.

Elizabeth Jakob is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where Adam Porter is an associate professor of plant, soil, and insect sciences; Jeffrey Podos is a professor of biology; Barry Braun is an associate professor of kinesiology; and Norman Johnson is an adjunct assistant research professor of plant, soil, and insect sciences. Stephen Vessey is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Bowling Green State University.


1. shawnpowers - December 06, 2010 at 07:39 am

This article is obnoxious. Worse, it isn't helpful. The Chronicle needs better quality control if this passes for publishable material.

2. edutech09 - December 06, 2010 at 08:12 am

I think this is quite helpful. I think I'd print this out and hang it from my bulletin board and when my grant proposal gets rejected, I can look over the list and see what I did *right* to make it so. Thanks for sharing.

First thing I'm going to do if I want to win is remove "transformative" from my typical copy and paste routine. Should I replace it with "bleeding edge"?

3. alcommission - December 06, 2010 at 10:00 am

On format, add "Don't follow instructions in the Request for Proposal, especially regarding organization of the proposal narrative. The panel will enjoy determining how sections of your content matches the organization requested." And on page length, "If you are allowed 15 pages, be sure to write 20. The panel will surely want to read everything you know (or don't know) about your proposed research."

4. 11121641 - December 06, 2010 at 10:01 am

Since most funders are an extension of fopr-profit corporate concerns, why not just openly offer to do research they are already paying their own reseachers to do, and at higher rates of pay?

5. hanks - December 06, 2010 at 10:03 am

I found this article helpful AND humorous. Thank you!

6. scott_niles - December 06, 2010 at 10:21 am

I didn't find it obnoxious - it was a snarky, tongue-in-cheek look at a "written about to death" topic. I appreciated the refreshing angle.

7. krisd - December 06, 2010 at 10:29 am

Hilarious and painfully true! As a (successful) grant writer, I struggle with grant seekers who want to cram in information--repetitive, irrelevant information--by writing one huge paragraph, using crazy abbreviations, and spouting jargon (e.g., "unpack" instead of "explain").

But you forgot the most important rules: Don't answer the questions they ask you (in specific language, corresponding exacly to the parts of the questions); just tell them whatever YOU feel like and why they should fund it.
Above all, apply for every grant you have no shot at getting, because your institution doesn't qualify, or your project is irrelevant to the purpose of the grant.
That's how the bigshots at one college were rejected by the NSF, with comments confirming what I'd been saying.

8. mstripling - December 06, 2010 at 10:38 am

The most helpful advice was to leave "white space." That says a lot about managing the narrative. This article is timely!!

9. cengique - December 06, 2010 at 11:00 am

I also agree that the article is *very* helpful. I would not have read it if it was the other way around giving examples to succeed in grant writing. Negative information is always more useful in finding the right direction!

10. cwinton - December 06, 2010 at 11:33 am

I concur this is a useful article. The grants I was awarded pretty much avoided the kind of miscues alluded to in this article and the ones rejected typically included one or more of them. It would have been nice to have read this before submitting my first proposals and so have avoided some of the hard knocks of seeing a good idea go by the wayside because I made bad assumptions about how it would be viewed by those reviewing it.

11. paulines - December 06, 2010 at 12:36 pm

As a grant writer and reviewer I intend to share this article with others. It is funny, timely, and right on target. Thank you. ps

12. msydlik - December 06, 2010 at 12:37 pm

This article is right on point. I spent three years in a university grants assistance offfice, and faculty often had no clue how to write their proposals. Oh - and they thought deadlines were 'targets' that could be extended.

13. amarieh - December 06, 2010 at 02:49 pm

This is pretty funny! I have not had the chance to write any grants yet, but I will have to write a few scientific papers soon. I think the points that the authors brought up in this article can apply to all scientific writing. Especially the part about polysyllabic words, why must scientists write like that? Simpler is better, imo.

14. n2n_0131 - December 06, 2010 at 05:00 pm

One more point to add: don't start your proposal any sooner than two weeks ahead of deadline - pressure produces a better product, right? - and don't bother to check in with your chair, the research office, and/or others who need to review and approve your proposal ahead of submission, and could help you improve it with enough lead time!

15. jthelin - December 06, 2010 at 06:02 pm

Is it necessarily a mistake to write a proposal 12 in length pages even if 15 pages are allowed?

16. gahnett - December 06, 2010 at 06:23 pm

I appreciate this article but just for clarity,

"Don't not use a double negative when you don't have to".

yes, my point, exactly...

17. a1broom - December 06, 2010 at 06:51 pm

As one who wrote dozens and reviewed hundreds of proposals during my 40+ year career, I'd like to add one recommendation. Should you be invited to serve a three or four year term on a review panel, be sure to decline, citing the press of critically important demands upon your time. After all, you already know how to write the perfect proposal - why take the time to discover that all or some of the recommendations cited in this excellent article do, indeed, apppear in those proposals that will never, ever, make the pay-line.

jthelin,writing 12 pages when 15 are allowed will endear you greatly to the reviewers, but only if your 12 pages contain none of the pitfalls described in this article.

Art Broom

18. nacrandell - December 06, 2010 at 06:55 pm

nice article - but don't forget to ignore the margin requirements

19. raymond_j_ritchie - December 07, 2010 at 03:23 am

A lot of what's said in the article is very true. The mechanics of grant submission are sometimes true Epic-Journeys-to-Enlightenment. You can only laugh at times.
One of the worst problems I routinely encounter are Mac/PC problems with various incarnations of Microsoft Orifice. Those tasteful red crosses through figures that you have taken hours to prepare or the figure with a diagonal grey hatch through it that you cannot get rid of. Your proposal looks fine on your Mac but does not fit the margin, spacing or page guidlines if opened on a PC and vice versa. Official templates that work on PCs but not on Macs or clam up if you switch computers. Referees who can your proposal because Fig. 2 was too pixellated on whatever computer and software version they were using at the time.
One curious experience I have had about grants is that I have seen very few successful grant proposals except my own and ones sent to me to referee. Very few academics will show you one of their successful proposals. Why not? If they are getting money from the public purse why can't I contact NSF and ask them for downloads of all the grants they funded in 2009? Why not if everyone in the world can read the State Department's mail?
*Someone should write a parody of the guidelines put out by some granting bodies. Some demands are actually illegal, for example they tell you they want studies of transgenic plants but want "the community" and "school children" to be involved in your project. No - that is not legal. Try and fulfil "community engagement" guidelines for your project if you have a "Radioactivity in Use" label on your lab door. Some force you to say the same thing at least six times in a sort of hymn & chorus format. The boss wants 20 questions but the poor admin assistant can only think of 12 so why not repeatedly ask the same questions in slightly different ways to make it up to 20. Some demand an illustrated Latin manuscript on velum. Some behave like the proverbial odious landlord who is obviously so suspicious of you that they want everything short of a note from your mother. You just walk away.

20. brattlestreetbandit - December 08, 2010 at 07:52 am

The instant China starts offering English-speaking scientists good pay and "instant grants" to do research in well capitalized Chinese facilities, American scientists are going to bolt the U.S. en masse, if only to get away from smug technocrats like the assholes who authored this peice. And good riddance. Not hard to see why the American sciences are stagnating, when the folks running the show are allocating funds based on who used what font.

21. a_voice - December 08, 2010 at 09:54 am

brattlestreetbandit, I'm with you. Any bright person would have to dumb down to meet stu..d bureaucratic requirements, but we would do anything for the $. That's the game we play.

22. sgayk - December 08, 2010 at 10:02 am

As a grant writer, I am going to give this article to all faculty who apply for grants. It is a great article and the humor makes it fun to read, yet the lessons in it are so true. Yes, font size does matter. You need to be able to make your argument in the same amount of space as other applicants, in order to be fair. If you are fortunate to receive funding, there will be more rules and regulations to follow. That is just how it works when you apply for and accept public funding.

23. 11178264 - December 08, 2010 at 10:38 am

As a former federal program officer (but not NSF), a few more useful hints:
-if you are a senior scholar, remind reviewers of that fact and then realize that your prior track record will substitute for an adequate research plan, project statement, etc.;
-remember that it is the plan and project that count--careful writing, grammar, spelling and all that nonsense are irrelevant;
-if you are resubmitting a previously rejected grant, send the same one, unrevised, for a second try realizing that a new set of reviewers are likely to get it right;
-and if you are resubmitting, just copy all those letters of support and commitment and resend them with the application. What your team wrote two or three years ago is still true today. There's no need to bother folks with updating their statements of engagement or support;
-never consult with program officers before you send your application--those poor folks are way too busy planning the next grant cycle to have time to discuss your grant plans with you and anyway, you already know what you are planning to ask for, so why bother them unnecessarily.

Oh my, this is certainly fun. I could go on and on.

One serious note, for jthelin: page limits are set very seriously. If the application calls for 15 pages, the expectation on the part of the funder is that it will take that long to get your point across. Using less space will usually mean that your application is missing critical details that other applications in the review cycle contain. Look very carefully at your 12 page draft, and better yet ask a colleague to look very carefully at your 12 page draft, to make certain that all necessary information is present and presented in full detail. And on the flip side, never ever exceed the stated limit for the basic narrative. Assuming the granting agency permits them (and most do) use appendices to include information that doesn't fit within the stated page limit.

24. 12071647 - December 08, 2010 at 11:12 am

For biology: "include an equation"

25. lethalfang - December 08, 2010 at 04:00 pm

"For biology: 'include an equation'"

Yes. That's why instead of simple integration, you should use the... ugh... Tai's Model:

26. davi2665 - December 08, 2010 at 04:34 pm

A few other points a grant submitter certainly will not want to overlook. Never submit the grant to your grants & contracts earlier than the day before the grant needs to reach the agency. That way, they won't make pesky and obnoxious suggestions or revisions, and will just sign it anyway. And always provide a budget that exceeds the stated limit of support so you can impress the reviewers AND the grants & contracts officials with how ambitious you are. Do not waste your time with an updated CV- if you have something from 2004 or 2005, just use it, especially when it has citations for those years that state "in press." When pressed for time, just submit your own signature in the space for the "institutional official"; that way, you won't bother an important administrator with a function as mundane as just signing his/her name. And sneak into the grant request a statement that the institution has committed to a "cost share" that is at LEAST as large as the direct cost budget, and throw in a statement that all of the indirects will be returned to the PI to assist in carrying out the research.

27. jeff1 - December 08, 2010 at 05:03 pm

I appreciate the tough love guys! I have had earned a few federal grants and your advice is spot on. We need to be a bit less sensitive to such directness . . . it will not kill us . . . only make us better. Thanks!

28. jthelin - December 09, 2010 at 04:52 am

I accept and appreciate the good humor and thoughtful suggestions made by the author articles. I do have one concern that may negate their sound advice: read some of the SUCCESSFUL and FUNDED grant proposals states submitted for the recent Race to the Top federal funding competition. The winning grant applications, usually a bout 250 pages, violate each and all the advice the article gives. The proposals are an affront to clear prose and analysis. Yet they prevailed. How explain? How reconcile with the article?

29. jthelin - December 09, 2010 at 04:58 am

For the responding readers who suggested I extend my grant proposal from 12 pages to the RFP stated max of 15 pages, consider the following situation in which a college admissions office asked an applicant to write an essay that describes the applicants strength and weakness (three page max). One astute applicant submitted the following response:


I would offer admission on that basis alone -- and she/he said it all in less than the 3 page max. Say what you mean, mean what you say. If you can say it in 12 pages even if 15 is allowed, why pad the prose? Besides, regardless of funding agency reviews, journal editors and book publishers will appreciate the shorter version since they have to deal with printing and publishing costs of paper, ink, and so on.

30. drdfc01 - December 09, 2010 at 03:51 pm

I agree with substantially everything the authors had to say on this topic. I would also offer that what they are describing is really just an example of poor communication skills. The inability to work within the guidelines set by the funding agency, whether they pertain to budgets, calendars or page limits, is nothing more than an inability to listen - a component of communication they we all fail to appreciate far too often. Why don't people listen? Usually it's because they feel, whether they articulate this to themselves or not, that what they have to say is so important everybody else should just shut and listen. We may not agree with grant guidelines, but we have to play by the Big Guy's rules, including the Golden one - he who has the Gold rules. As the authors point out effectively, ignore this rule at your own peril.

31. tee_bee - December 09, 2010 at 06:16 pm

@shawnpowers: as a former NSF program officer, current researcher, and active reviewer, I found this amusing, humorous, and dead-on. I intend to share this with my graduate students and junior faculty. I assume that shawnpowers is one of those who have (1) never written a proposal; (2) never reviewed a bad one; and/or (3) has never been successfully funded.

32. mikecarpenter - December 09, 2010 at 10:57 pm

As one who has the misfortune, as so many of us have, of reading proposals that follow the Jakob, Podos, Braun and Johnson instructions, all I can say to a grant seeker is: READ the the RFP and make sure you understand it before writing anything, then FOLLOW the RFP's instructions. It is truly amazing how many people cannot be responsive to an RFP.

33. hrotic - December 10, 2010 at 08:01 am

If you enjoyed this,
Cf. Lang, A. (1890). How to Fail in Literature.
Still depressingly relevent!

34. northcountryny - December 10, 2010 at 11:32 am

On content:
Ignore the requirement that your vertebrate research protocol must be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and that your human subjects research must be approved by the Institutional Review Board. Reviewers and Program Directors don't really care about those bureaucratic hoops.

35. sickofgrantwriting - December 10, 2010 at 02:20 pm

Here's one that hasn't been mentioned. Ignore all these obvious recommendations for failure and submit your proposal to a grant program with a funding rate of less than 10%. Afterall, only the top 5-10% are worthy of ANY funding. Furthermore, for the system to work, the program still needs that 90% to contribute to the pool of external reviewers (while at least few of those who are fortunate enough to be funded turn down requests for proposal review or panel service because they're just too busy). Apparently, the unfunded 90+% can recognize good work. They just can't do it themselves.

36. topnotch312 - December 12, 2010 at 01:50 am

I'd be amazed if more than a few pieces of advice that could be gleaned from this column could actually be useful to anybody applying for a grant in today's climate. It all seems pretty obvious to me, although that hasn't helped my funding success.

Perhaps I'll find this funny when I'm on my third or fourth NSF and I've climbed the tenure and promotion ladder, but as a tenure-track faculty in search of funding, I find the superior attitude of this column really alienating. I'm additionally troubled that it was published on The Chronicle, which I tend to see as a place for encouragement and insight, not the mockery and derision shown by the authors of this column. Is that how I will act after I have been a grant reviewer a few times?

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