A Tale of Two Colleagues… and what their proposal strategies reveal about funded grants

Colleague A was diligent. He subscribed to the conventional wisdom that you just keep submitting until you hit the jackpot. When you play the lottery, more tickets mean better chances, so like a good Boy Scout he kept trying, again and again. After a year he had amassed an impressive track record: he could claim 40 submissions. He could show how hard he’d worked by pointing to the pile of proposals he’d produced. He was on the right path, doing what was expected to bring him success.

There was only one flaw in his plan: a proposal written does not equal a proposal funded. A proposal written does not pay for graduate student stipends, nor does it pay for supplies or salaries. When you get beyond ego-stroking and down to research realities, one proposal funded is a more impressive yearly output than 40 proposals submitted. Colleague A had a story of herculean effort he could share at dinner parties. But labs don’t run on such vapors, they run on money.

Colleague B exhibited a different kind of diligence. Colleague B was a fresh young tenure-track faculty who’d never had NIH funding before. According to the lottery mindset that governs so many research careers, she would never achieve the submissions volume that leads to a funding win, and she would never manage to finance her ambitious research plans. However, she’d made a risky promise to herself: she would not treat her career — or life — as a lottery based on a certain quantity of tickets to be bought. Instead, she’d focus her efforts and stake all her chances on writing a small number of high-quality proposals.

She spent seven months working on a single NIH R01 proposal, producing iteration after iteration. At each review her mentor critiqued her that it wasn’t there yet. She grew weary, and at times she lost confidence in her ability to learn this skill. Yet about a month before the deadline, on the n-th iteration of her proposal, something finally clicked for both Colleague B and her mentor. Suddenly, the proposal made sense and had a clarity that was lacking in all the previous versions. Using this hard-won, compellingly clear framework, she wrote the rest of the proposal and submitted it. It was her very first R01 submission, and her first NIH submission as a faculty member.

When she checked her review results, she was shocked.

She had a top-3 percentile score, meaning her proposal was very likely to get funding — which it did. Her risky plan had worked!

Now, either Colleague B has amazing beginner’s luck — and Colleague A is a victim of random reviewing and bad luck — or we must consider an alternative hypothesis that there was something more than just probability at play in these very disparate results. What differentiated the two experiences and, more importantly, the proposals?

The difference can be summed up as quality and clarity.

If you’ve ever reviewed grant proposals and come across that rare gem that is compelling and interesting from the first words, whose argument just makes sense, you know what I’m talking about. All those iterations produced by Colleague B — while difficult and frustrating to write — were aimed at getting to a point where the proposal had an almost ineffable quality and clarity that felt inevitable to every reader. 

Colleague B’s success was not by grace of luck or even a stunningly original research topic; she got her funding because she persisted, over many months, in learning a new core skill: becoming efficient and persuasive in her writing. 

But who has time for that?

When was the last time you dedicated considerable time and energy to learning a new skill that has nothing to do with your lab work? “I don’t have time for that”, you’ve probably told yourself as you churn along on the treadmill of your busy work and home life. Most of us define efficiency for ourselves in terms of the ratio between time, effort, and money expended versus whatever kind of output we’re looking for — and keeping an eye on that ratio helps us stay focused on the important, essential tasks. 

But what if we told you that the “I don’t have time for that” approach to writing proposals is actually creating and perpetuating the treadmill? Most people would agree that funding the lab is one of the most critical pieces of work in running a successful lab (if not THE most important). Yet most researchers have spent relatively little time honing the important skill of writing persuasive grants.

If you step back, you might have to admit that a big part of the problem is a lack of true efficiency in writing grant proposals and getting the career results that hang on such writing. Becoming a more skillful, persuasive writer is, in fact, a powerful way to escape the overwhelm trap and shut down that treadmill feeling. 

While both Colleague A and Colleague B are admirably diligent, only one of them got off the proposal treadmill and got on to doing her research.  If you find yourself wanting to emulate Colleague B — and her results — how do you go about forging your skills? Where do you find a mentor to help you temper your steel? 

Grant Foundry is a small group, mentored course designed to help researchers like you master the science and art of writing and framing persuasive proposals.

You’ll spend four months in an intense, process-oriented apprenticeship that will help you develop the techniques, confidence, and clarity you need to write compelling, powerfully framed proposals that make undeniable sense. We won’t write your grant for you — we’ll teach you how to do it for yourself, and how to enjoy the process along the way. Grant Foundry includes original training modules, but the emphasis is hands-on iteration and feedback. 

In the program you’ll work on crafting your own proposal, in a small group of dedicated researchers like yourself, with feedback and coaching. There will be weekly writing assignments to keep you on track, biweekly training and feedback from your writing coach, and monthly group mentoring calls to keep you writing and iterating. Peer review through writing partnerships and weekly feedback calls will reinforce your iteration process, sharpen your critical skills, and broaden your learning horizons. We bring it all together during an intense three-day live workshop in Boise, ID, near the end of the course.

Who is Grant Foundry for?

Part of what makes this program such a powerful place to craft your proposal and refine your skills is our commitment to keeping group size small. We work with no more than10–15 people at a time to create an active and engaged group of participants who will give and receive deep feedback. We’re careful to select participants who are going to thrive in this environment. 

Is that you? Grant Foundry is for you if you are:

  • Actively working on a funding proposal. NIH is our primary focus.
  • Familiar with and engaged in your field and what topics are currently of most interest there.
  • Ready to work hard at forging new skills. You are deeply committed to improving your approach for more efficiency and better results. You will apply yourself in learning and trying new approaches, some of which may counter what you already know.
  • Can handle deep, constructive criticism without becoming defensive. 
  • Are willing to participate in the group, including giving thoughtful feedback to others. By giving feedback you solidify your own skills.

Who is Grant Foundry not for?

If you are looking for a magic bullet to make your proposal fail-proof, or if you are looking for someone to tell you exactly what to write, this program is not for you.

If you are of the mind that your proposal is already “pretty good” and only needs minor tweaks, you won’t make the most of the refiner’s fire.

If you are not ready to truly engage with the Grant Foundry process, due to other priorities and engagements, consider us when you are ready to commit to this learning process.

Next Steps

The next Grant Foundry runs mid-January through May 2020, including a hands-on workshop in Boise, Idaho May 4–6.

We are only able to work with a small group of researchers in this program, so use an application process to give us a window into whether Grant Foundry is a good fit for you. This helps us ensure a fully engaged group dynamic that will benefit everyone involved.

If you’re ready to make a career-changing investment in your proposal writing skills, you’ll find our application form here:

The application lets us know what you are working on and why this is of interest to you, and should take about 10 minutes to fill out. After filling out the application, you’ll get additional detailed information about the program and have an opportunity for a short confirmation call with one of our coaches before finalizing your decision.

Tuition for Grant Foundry is $6800 for four and a half months of deep, personalized work to help you master the proposals you’ll write over the course of your career. Before you swallow your gum, ask yourself about the hidden costs of not receiving the grants you need to move forward. Just one additional R01 grant over the next 5 years due to this investment could yield > $1million in funding for your research. Not to mention the toll taken by the stress, frustration, and overwhelm of the treadmill. 

This program is not for everyone. It is based on our own experiences of what it takes to write a successful proposal now AND be able to repeat this experience in the future. We have taught these skills to others who have used them to receive many millions in funded proposals. But it takes work on your part to learn and apply the skills.

If you are ready to get off the treadmill and learn the art of persuasive proposal writing, fill out the Application Here to get started.

About the Instructors

Stefanie Robel, PhD is the head coach at Marketing Your Science, LLC and an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. She trained in grant writing with Morgan Giddings since 2012.  When she started her tenure-track position in 2016 she hit the ground running bringing in over $6M in funding in her first two years as faculty member. In late 2017, Stefanie joined Morgan’s team of coaches to help other academics hone their grant writing and leadership skills. She is, in fact, Colleague B in this story.

Morgan Giddings, PhD is the president of Marketing Your Science, LLC. She developed her chops in grant writing as a Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill in the Departments of Microbiology & Immunology, Biomedical Engineering, and Computer Science. She went from six grant rejections in a row when starting out, to subsequently getting four R01’s funded in a row without any rejection or revision over a span of five years. She did this by completely revamping her approach to a reviewer-centric model. She began consulting with outside faculty in 2009, and based on overwhelming demand, started creating grant writing trainings in 2010. In 2013, she decided to focus on the training and mentoring to help other researchers as a full-time endeavor, leaving her faculty position.