Tips for Writing Grant Proposals in Statistics and Data Science Education Research

Getting to Write the First Grant Proposal

for professors

August 11, 2023

I have been fortunate enough to be funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health for my projects. When I finished graduate school, I had almost no training in grant writing and was not aware that non-methodological projects would also be funded. Now I enjoy the grant writing process very much as it helps me plan my future goals and structure my specific research interests. I had simply started by Googling about writing grants. In this blog post, I want to share a few tips that I did not see mentioned enough. I hope this post will supplement the resources out there.

If you like me need examples, here are the federally funded projects that I am part of. I am the lead PI on the NSF-funded project Advancing Bayesian Thinking in STEM, a co-PI on the NSF-funded SoCal Data Science project, and one of the PIs on the NIH funded project Irvine Summer Institute in Biostatistics and Undergraduate Data Science. The proposal the Bayesian project is publicly available.

For me what changed my trajectory was working with my colleague Babak Shahbaba. I have learned so much from Babak from writing the proposal to actually running the project once it is funded. I thank him on a regular basis. Needless to say, my first recommendation is to work with a more senior grant writer to learn the process. Grant writing is primarily a collaborative task other than a few solicitations that require solo work. Even if you have the best scientific ideas, knowing the expectations and adhering to norms will take time to get used to. However, there are many PIs out there who also started on their own so working with a senior colleague is not the only path to securing funding for projects.

My second recommendation would be to start with a small grant. Securing millions of dollars on your first try may be possible but probably difficult. However, if you can show the reviewers that you have previously managed a grant with a smaller budget and scale then securing larger grants will be easier. The smaller grant will teach you the process and allow room for small mistakes that you would not repeat in your bigger project.

MEET YOUR program officer (PO). All my senior colleagues used to give me this advice and honestly, I was not sure why I should meet the program officers as online guidelines are written extensively in federal agencies. When I met two different POs for two different solicitations, I understood what my colleagues meant. POs have a wealth of information that is not on the website. Though a small sample size, I also found the POs I interacted with to be highly approachable. You can meet the PO before proposal submission or after the project is funded to ask any of your questions.

Get to know your financial analyst and grants office contacts. Technically, you will not be the one submitting the proposal, it will be submitted by the grants office on behalf of the university. Your financial analyst (or equivalent) will support you in writing the budget and budget justification and will keep the budget on track once the project is funded. Meeting people who are involved in the grant writing process early on is very important. Also, admitting you don’t know the process is not a weakness. I had to sit down with my financial analyst to understand all the different accounts I have, what is coming in, and what is coming out of these accounts. Even though it might sound just like an addition and subtraction problem, there is a reason people have a whole degree in accounting. It can be a complicated process. Asking for help is okay. The staff members know so much about the regulations in the grant writing process that they are one of your best resources. I learned more from my financial analyst about grant writing than I learned from anyone during my Ph.D. I am always thankful to have a supportive financial analyst.

Familiarize yourself with the required documents. There is so much paperwork involved in the grant writing process and it may be challenging to locate the latest versions of the requirements. Googling grant proposals in your area would give you a general idea about how to generate research aims etc. but you would also need to learn the logistics. If you plan to apply for federal grants, then sign up for a account and get a PI status from your institution. Once you have a PI status you will be able to start proposals. By starting a proposal, you will be able to see all the required documents which you can read about in the general guidelines.

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