Money Matters

Woman smiling and holding a dollar bill

Grant-writing is an essential skill for researchers, but grad students often don't acquire the ability until well into graduate school or later. The sooner you learn this vital craft, however, the better off you'll be: Grant money can help finance your education and, indeed, all of your future research. Applying the effort now will pay handsomely as you continue on your career path.

Probably the most comprehensive grants available for psychology graduate students are the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Research Service Awards, otherwise known as F31s. These training grants provide most of the money for your education and help link you to your mentor's funding stream, but many students don't know about them or fail to apply for them, says Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) psychologist Thomas Eissenberg, PhD, whose grant-writing course at VCU has helped many of his graduate students secure F31s.

"These F31s are great opportunities for students; they really need to find a way to apply for one," Eissenberg maintains. "It's an item that's going to sit on their CVs for the rest of their lives." Plus, grant monies can provide prestige: "It's no trivial item to say in your first job interview, 'I already have experience bringing in research dollars,'" he notes.

Apart from F31s, there's a wide range of smaller grants, fellowships and dissertation awards available through NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), government departments such as the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice, and private foundations. Minority students and students with disabilities likewise have special grant opportunities (see Grant Resources).

Here's how to tap into these funding streams.

  • Start early
    Begin planning your research goals early in grad school with the aim of developing a grant application, advises Barbara McCrady, PhD, director of clinical training at Rutgers University's department of psychology. Grad school goes by fast, and grant applications take a long time to process—up to nine months from start to finish.

"By the end of the second year of grad school, you should be seriously working on a research plan that you can turn into a grant application," McCrady says. "Starting your process by then may give you two or more years of funding."

  • Get educated
    Good grant-writing guidance can be invaluable, says Alison Breland, a VCU grad student who won three years of F31 funding by taking Eissenberg's class.

"Grant-writing is integral to graduate students who plan to go into academia when they finish school," says Breland, "but no one teaches you how to do it. Before I took Tom's class, I didn't know anything about where you get grants, how you learn which ones are available, how difficult or easy they are to get, and what they'll pay for."

If your institution or department doesn't offer such a class, ask it to develop one, she advises. Barring that, excellent grant-writing resources exist on the Web and elsewhere; NIH, for instance, devotes an entire section of its Web site to writing a topnotch grant (see Grant Resources).

  • Involve others
    Find professors in your area who have written successful grants and garner their advice. Get mentors, related experts and fellow students to read drafts as you proceed.

And don't hesitate to go outside your department, says John Grabowski, PhD, an NIH reviewer and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center. "It would be unfortunate to have a Nobel Prize winner in the next building whose work is related to yours and not get their input," he explains.

On a practical note, give people sections of your application to read rather than the whole thing—they're more likely to pay attention to the details. Use those comments, Grabowski adds, as you draft additional sections. Also, read your manuscript aloud to peers or have them read it to you, says Eissenberg—it's amazing what errors you'll catch.

  • Follow your interests
    While you might be tempted to seek research dollars in a trendy funding area, stick with your most basic loves, advises Grabowski.

"You shouldn't chase dollars just because there are bioterrorism worries out there," he says. The topics that are of genuine interest to you will be around a lot longer than the research fads of the moment. That said, NIH and NSF require that your research be consonant with national interests and their missions, and ask you to include information on how your research will fit those agendas, he notes.

  • Don't be shy
    It can be daunting dealing with a big governmental entity for the first time (well, even the tenth). But the federal government is nothing if not organized into discrete, specialized units: Specific project officers are tasked with handling the grants in your area of study. These staffers are eager to help, and they have a particular interest in nurturing the careers of young scientists.

Get advice from your mentor and others on the best people and institutes to contact, says Grabowski, and don't hesitate to ask them for information and advice. The one exception is that you can't contact reviewers when your application is under review, he notes.

  • Follow the rules
    This cannot be emphasized enough, say seasoned grant-writers. "The NIH rules are very clear," Grabowski explains, "and if you don't follow them, you'll get your package back by slow mail."

For instance, NIH prefers that proposals be written either in 12-point Arial or Helvetica fonts, though it does accept other fonts and sizes within a narrow range, notes Eissenberg, who's also an NIH reviewer. The bottom line? "You're in competition with a lot of other people," he says, "and every little bit counts."

  • Take the advice
    If your application is returned with suggestions to revise it, follow reviewers' advice—they're experts who know good science, and you won't get a grant without heeding their suggestions, Eissenberg notes.

"Your reviewers will highlight strengths and areas for improvement," he says, "so when you resubmit your grant, make sure the areas for improvement have become strengths." That doesn't mean you have to agree with everything they say, he adds, but you must clearly articulate in your revision why you disagree.

  • Market your plan
    "There's some salesmanship in the grant-writing process," says Eissenberg. "Make your message very clear in a way that helps them learn why your project is so important." At the same time, he says, don't brag or otherwise sell yourself too aggressively: You want to present yourself as a thoughtful, serious fellow scientist.

  • Be realistic
    Reviewers frequently critique young researchers' proposals for being overly ambitious. "Your research plan should be conceptually tight, be well-linked to the literature, have clearly articulated hypotheses, and allow you to answer the questions the research hypotheses raise," McCrady says. In addition, your proposal should be airtight, anticipating any questions the reviewer might have about decisions you made in designing your study, she says.

"Reviewers are looking not just for the quality of research," McCrady notes, "but also at the quality of the applicant—the way you think and the way you work."

  • Fudge not
    Students know they shouldn't falsify data, but in the rush to assemble an application, they can be tempted to gloss over small points. It is never worth it, Grabowski emphasizes.

"If you find yourself saying, 'Gee, if I just had this one little bit of data,'" don't indulge your thought, he says. Including erroneous information can seriously—and even fatally, if the fabrication is big enough—damage your image in the eyes of reviewers. Although reviewers are increasingly aware of the shortcuts some applicants take, Grabowski notes, they assume the integrity of applicants.

  • Persist
    The advice in the 1999 sci-fi spoof "Galaxy Quest"—"Never give up; never surrender!"—applies to every phase of the grant application process, whether it's enlisting others' help, crafting your grant or revising your proposal.

And do not—repeat do not—be discouraged if your application is sent back for a rewrite: It is extremely common for grants to get accepted on the second or third round. Indeed, says Eissenberg, many applicants who apply for F31s and have to revise them end up securing them.

Plus, it's part of the territory: If you plan to garner research funds as your career goes on, you'll likely be doing plenty of rewriting and resubmitting, he says. 

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, NY