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Make It Crystal Clear

Posted on July 27, 2009

Meticulously check your grant for clarity, then have your colleagues do the same, advises Neal Ryan (bio).


How do you write your grant so it has the best chance of funding? And part of understanding that is thinking through who's going to review it and a little about the review process. But the main thing on the review process that at least I concentrate on is it'll be three or four people who are scientists who may well have a great deal of familiarity with your line of work, with that whole area, or may have pretty good familiarity but not be expert in it. They may know every reference you cite stone cold or may not know many of them. You have to be convincing to – you have to be pretty darn convincing to all of the people that read it or perhaps all but one, and the other one can be influenced. But you've got to really sell all of them. So you're selling people across a range of expertise. They're all smart, they're scientists, they're interested in grants being funded, and so you obviously have to make a compelling case for why your grant's important because if it's not important, the rest doesn't really matter.

Then, much of the rest is being meticulous on providing the details and on just having everything else really spiffy, and the reason for that is that assuming that you have a good idea, and someone else has a good idea, and you're both pretty darn compelling, you've got to have that. Then, since they may fund the grant at the 8th percentile and not at the 12th or the 14th percentile, small differences in terms of just how well you explain every last detail, how well you get the ideas across, how clear you make it, and, not surprisingly, how easy you make it for the reviewer to understand it all really seem to be the difference between the great ones that get funded and the great ones that don't get funded.

So for a lot of times that means clarity in the writing, it means diagrams as well as words because some people do diagrams better. It almost certainly means flow sheets that you can understand the subject flow through your grant. It frequently means conceptual diagrams that show the interrelationship between different projects or different tests. It frequently means a discussion of the mechanism that you think you're working by. It just means a whole bunch of things like that so it's just crystal clear and that you've really sort of just nailed on the head or whatever that metaphor is that I'm looking for, you've nailed all the points that somebody is going to say as they're thinking it through.

One of the best things that people can do is have a couple of their colleagues at their home institution read it through extremely carefully and give them a full, and frank, and clear discussion, not just the one that makes you feel good, but the one that's sort of picky and says that this may be a brilliant idea, but I didn't understand what in the world you were talking about there and then you just have to go back and fix it.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2009 CHIPS Summer Research Institute in Tempe, AZ.


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