Professional Development

Grant-Writing for Graduate Students: A Recap of the FFLC’s Fall Event

Grant-Writing for Graduate Students: A Recap of the FFLC’s Fall Event

By Abraham Hmiel
On Thursday, October 25th, the FFLC at UAlbany hosted a grant writing panel for graduate students. The panelists included some faculty who had earned substantial funding through grants in their careers and others that have sat on grant review committees. Several questions were asked of the panelists and their responses are summarized below. The panelists included: Allison Houston, a PhD Candidate in Sociology and a GSO Grant Reviewer; Beth Large, a representative of from the Research Foundation; Dr. Marlene Belfort, a distinguished professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Sciences; Dr. Melinda Larsen, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences; and Dr. Mark Muraven, an associate professor in the Psychology Department.
What did you do your first time you wrote a grant?
Probably the best way to learn how to write a good grant is to use a well-structured, successfully-funded grant as a template. The project’s aims and details could be different, and the agency funding the grant that you seek may be as well, but you can use it emulate the style and flow of the document and make all the changes that are necessary. It is possible to request funded grants from the federal govt under FOIA through the sponsored programs office, although there could be a small charge for document.
What do you wish you knew in advance when writing your first grant?
Knowing what the grant reviewers are looking for in advance is very helpful – you can contact contact the programs officer at the funding agency and talk to them about what they’re seeking. Keep in mind that to them, It’s not aboutjust the grant, it’s the whole package, including training opportunities and career-building for the person seeking the grant as well. Additionally, it is very important to read the application carefully and do what is asked. Grant reviewers are exhausted; make their jobs easier any way you can because in all likelihood, they will be reading your application at 2:00 AM. Understand that reviewers may not be fluent in your field. In fact, they may know nothing, so translate it into applied research. The whole process is different than peer-review, so treat it as such.
What kinds of strategies are helpful?
The application should be proofread by many colleagues who have different subfields and who might be looking for different facets to improve. Send your application to friends or family who don’t have any training in your field whatsoever, since grant reviewers may not either. Keep in mind that they need time to review it and make corrections and comments. Time constraint could be an ally, not an enemy. If you take your time and let ideas come to you, the grant application will be more comprehensive. Time management is a good skill to use, as it’s best not to write the whole document the month before it’s due. Aim for 6 months as a timeline to make a grant renewal.
What are some red flags that might cause a review committee to reject a grant outright?
Everything needs to be done with care and good organization. Format the CV properly and proofread all the materials that you’re going to submit. Have a cover letter that grabs attention. Don’t be careless and follow directions. If you can’t get it together on paper, how can you get it together in a lab? Hand-written grant applications are a red flag, even for small ones. Writing a grant at the last minute may show itself to reviewers. For travel grants at UAlbany, redact information that is not required on copies by blotting it out.
What are some common mistakes people make when writing grants?
The question, ”why is this grant important?”, if not addressed, could be very problematic. Be clear on this- write specific aims in bold, and don’t bury them. Make sure there’s whitespace, figures, diagrams, and the overall style of the printed pages should be easy on the eyes. Readable fonts are also very important, serifs should not be used.
How can a grant be used by the recipient?
The solicitation guidelines outline the uses for the grant money. Sometimes, a project is awarded a grant over a multiple-year period, but the submission of a yearly progress report is required. Some grants are only 1-year- it depends what you’re doing or what money is available. Being late on these renewal deadlines could be problematic for continuing your funds. Generally, your work needs to stay within the dates allotted within the terms of the grant. An extension of time may be requested, but it is always a good idea to stay close to your contact at the funding agency and notify them of any difficulties you may have meeting deadlines, for example, in a family emergency or things of that nature.
What do you, as a grant reviewer, look for most when deciding which grants to fund?
Saying why you are worthy of this grant, in clear terms is important. Having deliverable goals that are creative and will make significant progress on your research career, but not too lofty as to not be attainable is crucial as well. Eligibility restrictions may disqualify graduate students and post-docs from large-valued grants. There is typically a hierarchical system of earning grants at different points of one’s career through NIH, NSF and others. The question may turn to, “how many publications will this grant ultimately be responsible for? Could the deliverables funded by this grant make the nightly news? Will this grant spur a new experimental technique or shed light on a mechanism of fundamental science?”
When should you, on your long-term career horizon, be looking for larger grants?
Be mindful of your own track record. Reviewers need to know that you’ll be able to conduct small projects, to trust you with a lot of money. Agencies tend to have a progression of increasing grant awards. Early career academics or investigators have special grants for them. When progress is made and deliverables achieved, other larger projects can be funded, provided that they have produced fruit like publications and funded students attaining degrees. Substantial grants, especially currently-funded ones, have a very positive effect on your ability to be hired as a faculty member.

How much preliminary data do you need to apply in the first place?

This depends on the study; in truth, one can never have enough data. It is not true that your thesis needs to be in a nearly-complete state, but you should be able to convince others that you can do the work required to complete the project.
What is the process like for graduate students to seek external grants at SUNY Albany?
To seek external grants, your advisor needs to work with the sponsored programs office. The faculty member needs to act as a liaison between the researchers (graduate students), the sponsored programs personnel, and the funding agency. A lengthy, but not comprehensive, list of funding opportunities for graduate students at UAlbany can be found at:

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