It's never too soon for students to learn how grants work, especially those from the largest source of research funds-the federal government. And learning, in particular, how to write a strong grant can make you more competitive when seeking a job in academe.

"That's because many departments operate primarily on soft [grants and donations] money," says Wally Schaffer, PhD, the senior scientific adviser for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Gaining early exposure to grant-writing is also important because competition is increasingly keen. The average success rate of proposals put before the National Institute of Mental Health within NIH in 2006 was just under 20 percent. This percentage has shrunk, says Schaffer, due to three years of a flat NIH budget and ever-mounting applications.

Students generally do not apply directly for federal grants. Rather, they are selected or supervised by the Principal Investigators (PIs) who "own" grants, or they are supported by traineeships and assigned to grant-funded studies.

During the years of indirect exposure, it's important to apprentice, experts say. For example, Schaffer advises students to gain experience by volunteering to help an adviser draft a proposal or by attending grant-writing workshops. To help you get started, here's a primer on the "who, how, where and when" of federal grants.

Who offers federal grants?

The U.S. government is the largest funder of research scientists. In Fiscal Year 2005, for example, NIH-part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)-awarded more than $20 billion in research grants and $644 million in traineeships.

NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other agencies such as the Education and Defense departments and an increasingly well-funded Department of Homeland Security, publicize their research priorities, program goals and specific awards through Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs). The government's primary Web portal for grants, www.grants.gov, posts FOAs from 26 federal agencies.

Apart from NIH, NSF funds one-fifth of all federally supported basic research in non-medical science and engineering. For example, the Cognitive Neurosciences unit expects to award between 15 and 40 interdisciplinary grants per year, pending fund availability. NSF also offers highly competitive Graduate Research Fellowships for research-based graduate study in mathematics, engineering and the physical, behavioral and social sciences. And don't forget newer funders such as Homeland Security, whose 2007 grant program expects to award more than $1.6 billion.

How does the grant process work?

Grants are a transaction between the grantor and the grantee, with a third set of folks involved: peer reviewers. These independent experts form panels that give proposals thumbs up or down. For new investigators, reviewers adjust their expectations of proposals and credentials, says Schaffer.

To succeed in the grant world, it's important to understand grant-makers' priorities. Steven Breckler, PhD, APA executive director for science, notes that NIH, a sponsor of much basic, exploratory research in the past, has come under increasing pressure to find cures for specific diseases. Students should bear this in mind as they develop their interests, perhaps rounding out theoretical research with potential applications, he says.

Federal funding agencies also are encouraging interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

"That's good news for junior psychologists," says Breckler. "You can start by going in on a bigger project with experienced grant-writers and work your way up."

Where can I hone my grant-writing skills?

At NIH, Schaffer says student-written grant applications are often too jargony. He recommends defining all technical terms, explaining the theoretical viewpoint and having third parties-especially if they've served on review panels-read and critique the application in advance.

"An application can go down in flames in the first paragraph these days," he cautions. "[It] better be close to perfect when you send it in."

Breckler agrees: "A grant application must be an extremely well-written document, prepared with all the care and attention to detail that one would put into a dissertation."

No matter what an author's experience, every proposal must be clear, complete, persuasive and address important goals, he says.

When does everything happen?

Allow plenty of time to develop a grant proposal. According to Breckler: "A regular, or simple, proposal might require a month or so of concentrated preparation time. A complex proposal, such as a program project, might require two to three months of multiple people working on it."

Simple proposals include one-time studies, stemming from within one department and supervised by a single PI. A complex proposal might involve more than one PI, many departments and longitudinal research.

Stay on top of the deadlines provided by the granting agency, experts stress. Agencies often have deadlines throughout the year so you can map out which entry points work for you.

Finally, sit tight: Peer review takes time.

"Generally, it takes about six months from the published submission deadline date to hear back," notes Breckler.

Rachel Adelson is a Raleigh, N.C.-based science writer.

Further Reading

Read an extended version of this article with links to funding resources at gradPSYCH online.