Career Center

Grant writing

With university budgets still tight, professors and researchers are increasingly relying on outside grants to fund their work. So it's no surprise that grants are getting more competitive.

The number of applications for grants with the National Institutes of Health, for example, tripled from 1,029 in 1997 to 3,340 in 2007. And while half of all applicants used to win grants from the institutes, now less than a third do.

That's why it's more important than ever for graduate students to learn how to write a winning grant — and the sooner the better.

"It's easy to neglect — you're thinking about more immediate goals, but it's a terribly important skill to start working on early," says John Borkowski, PhD, a Notre Dame psychology professor who wrote a chapter in "The Psychology Research Handbook" on getting grants as a graduate student.

Here's how to get started:

Get cozy with a proven grant winner

Grant writing isn't something you can learn on your own. The best way to learn is alongside a professor who has a track record of winning grants and a willingness to guide you. "And the mentoring should take place over a considerable period of time," says Eugene Oetting, PhD, a psychology professor at Colorado State University.

While many students get their first exposure to grant writing when they're searching for their own postdocs, you can start earlier in grad school by volunteering to help your professors prepare their grant proposals. "The more active role you play, the more meaningful," says Borkowski. So, no matter how small a duty you're assigned — say, drawing up the grant's materials section or working on revisions — you'll learn from the experience, he says.

If your adviser can't mentor you, search the faculty bios on your department for a professor who's racked up a few grants and also shares some of your research interests. Another great place to see the kind of work your professors are up to is the NIH's RePORTER database. When you've identified a potential mentor, stop by during his or her office hours and look eager to learn. When it comes time to write your own grants, this is the professor who will serve as your mock review committee.

Take a grant-writing course

As important as grant writing is, few doctoral psychology programs offer instruction in it. "Other fields have required courses in this," says Thomas P. Eissenberg, PhD, a psychologist who teaches grant writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Not psychology." So don't be surprised if you have to look outside your department for grant-writing classes.

Many universities offer short grant-writing workshops, either through their writing centers, research departments or continuing-education programs. Some schools also offer online-only interactive grant classes, too. You may not learn as much as you would working for months under a professor, but you'll get a handle on the grant process and have something to put on your resume.

If your school doesn't have a program, course or workshop, check out your local community college. They frequently offer inexpensive grant-writing seminars, often at night. Even if the course doesn't lead to a solid proposal, it's still something you can add to your resume.

Get published

Grant review committees want to know that if they give you funding, it will lead to some sort of publication. To show that you can see an idea through to print, make sure you get your name atop a published paper or two that you can refer to when you write up your first grant. If it's appropriate, work the published research into the proposal itself.

Choose a project you're passionate about

Grant writing can be a long and demanding process, generally punctuated by rejection. So make sure the subject matter holds your interest.

"You have to have that deep commitment," says Borkowski. "Once you develop that, you'll have the persistence to go in the face of failure and obstacles."

Look everywhere for grants

Once you start thinking about your own research projects — usually around your third year of graduate school — start working on your own grant. Check with your department to see the kind of grants your school offers to graduate students. You'll have a better shot with internal grants since the applicant pool will be smaller than the group of people vying for NIH funding.

Also, check with your university's grant office, where you'll often find a grant database and a specialist whose job is to help students find funding. Digging for grants with private foundations is "an educational exercise in itself," says Eissenberg, since you'll learn what kind of funding lies outside the obvious channels such as NIH.

Another good place to look is the APA's scholarship, grant and award database.

When you apply for these grants, work closely with your mentor and consider a project that spins off of research you've helped your mentor with. At this point in your career, your own ideas may not have the necessary structure and depth to win a grant.

If you're looking for significant funding from the NIH, the main type of grant available to graduate students is the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Individual Predoctoral Fellowships, or the F31, which provides up to five years of research funding.

During the dissertation year, consider applying for a grant to fund your postdoctoral work. One such grant, NIH's Kirschstein Postdoctoral Fellowship, or the F32, can launch your career.

If you put together a winning proposal, then no matter where you land, "you can move to an institution already funded," says Eissenberg.

Dave Jamieson is a writer in Washington, D.C.