Tips for Authoring Grant Proposals

Mark D. Hill

Computer Sciences Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison

July 2009

Writing grant proposals is hard. They are harder than papers because they are part fiction. Fiction tends to come unnaturally to scientists and engineers who may be more comfortable dealing with known facts. Ph.D. students encounter a similar challenge when proposing their Ph.D. work. Below I present:

Both are based on over twenty years of writing and evaluating grant proposals. They offer a starting point for developing your thoughts. Most successful grant proposals do not answer the questions explicitly, but rather weave a convincing story.

Take-away point: Focus first on the problem you seek to solve and why it is interesting. Only when properly prepared, will readers and evaluators be motivated to care about your potential solutions.

Seven Criteria

I find the above criteria valuable for both writing and evaluating grant proposals.

Generic Outline

Most NSF grants ask for the research to be described in a 1-page summary, followed by a 15-page description, not counting references. A rough outline is as follows, but feel free to expand and contract sections to fit your circumstances.

Especially when authoring your first grant proposals, ask colleagues to privately share with you examples of successful proposals. Read and initially emulate their successful style; later develop your own approach. Also, liberally use figures, diagrams, and graphs to promote understanding even from those who only skim your proposal.

Get Feedback

It is valuable have your proposal read by researchers who are representative of the review panel that will evaluate your proposal. (This step has the added benefit of forcing you to do more work early.) One can classify panelists as:

In my experience, getting comments from the last type of panelist is most important, because we naturally tend to bias too far toward our narrow specialties. One might consider the last group infinitely wise, yet perhaps not too familiar with your area.

Heilmeier Catechism

See also the earlier and more famous Heilmeier Catechism.

Acknowledges and Disclaimer

Thank you to Heidi Arbisi-Kelm, Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau, and Milo Martin for feedback and suggestions regarding this page. Thanks to José Martínez for suggesting and contributing to the "Get Feedback" section. Thanks to David Wood with whom I have written many proposals.

The views represented above are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the views of those who have funded me, principally the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

Please let me know what you think of this advice, as it is sometime hard to know what is and is not obvious.