5 Steps to Writing Grant Proposals for Grad Students

By Margo R. Monroe

Research at universities typically requires funding from a variety of government and academic institutions. New graduate students may assume that their advisor alone applies for these competitive grant applications; however, in some cases, your advisor may choose to allot some if not all grant duties to trusted students. For example, if the proposal call aligns with your work, your advisor may want to mentor you during the grant application process. When my PhD advisor first asked me to write a grant application due the following week, I felt overwhelmed. Jumbled thoughts such as “I have no idea how to write a grant!”, “I don’t have time for this if he wants data by next week!”, and “This is his job!” filled my naive mind. Moving forward from that first experience, I learned the details of grant writing, volunteered to take the lead on various applications throughout my graduate career, and helped receive funding towards my PhD project.Grant writing cycle PhD Comics

Grant writing offers various skill building opportunities that graduate students and postdocs should actively pursue.

Proposal writing:

  • Improves technical writing and communication skills,

  • Elucidates the big picture and future directions of the project,

  • Outlines a detailed scope of specific aims, milestones, possible setbacks, and potential alternative routes,

  • Provides opportunities to convince others why a project is the best approach to a given problem,

  • Empowers the writer,
  • And offers insight into a career as a Professor.

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Step 1: Your PI forwards you a Request For Applications (RFA), what next?

First, check the submission deadline and try not to panic if it's due in a few days, weeks, or months. It is always helpful to remember that if a PI asks for assistance in the grant application process, she has faith in you! Additionally, keep in mind that universities require application submission in-house approximately 2 weeks before the RFA due date in order for the administrative side of the grant to be established.

Take time to read and fully understand the RFA. The RFA contains all of the important information required for a successful grant application. It typically includes overview information, key dates, funding description, research plan, award information, eligibility information, submission information, selection criteria, and award administration information. Carefully read over all parts until all aspects are understood. While reading the funding description, pay attention to the keywords used and think of ways to relate the proposal and deliverables to the aims requested in the call.

Step 2: Develop a research plan

Most grant applications restrict the space available to describe the proposed work. Thus, every single sentence and figure must be clear, concise, meaningful, and supportive of the mission of the application and the funding institution. Moreover, avoidance of ‘to be’ verbs creates strong, well-directed meaning and delivers strength to the sentence. Below are the typical sections in a NIH RFA, for example, and tips to consider while writing each section.

Research challenge

The Research Challenge motivates the request for application and offers an opportunity to summarize the limitations of current state of the art technologies. Therefore, take time to review the literature and offer educated insight into what the desirable features of future technologies should offer in order to build upon and address some, if not all, of the limitations of current methodologies. This section sets the stage for why your funded proposal will address these limitations and lead to new milestones in the field.

Research strategy

The Research Strategy highlights i) the significance and innovation of the project and ii) how you, the expert, will address the research challenge. Now is the time to make bold statements. While some of the statements may be slightly far reaching, remember that you are writing a proposal to test hypotheses and develop novel technologies! If data from a publication or preliminary data suggests the feasibility of the statement, use it to confirm that your solution is the best approach to the research challenge. Demonstrating expertise in the field and past successes boost chances in receiving funding. Convince the readers why and how your innovation will address a variety of challenges and impact the field - its encouraged to dream big!

It is crucial that the goal and the impact of the project are clearly stated and align with the description of the RFA and funding institution. Emphasizing how your solution fits into the mission of the agency and benefits the field reminds the reviewer why your project is the project to fund. Using bold, italic, or underline font formats helps these statements stand out from the rest of the text.

Specific aims

The Specific Aims section highlights each milestone that must be met in order to deem your proposal successful. Typical proposals consist of 3 to 5 aims, with secondary milestones to meet along the way to achieving each aim. A funded proposal typically lists the deliverables, explains 1-2 potential pitfalls of the intended protocol, and offers alternative solutions to demonstrate thorough thought planning on the matter. The more detail (within the page limits) provided in this section will convince the reviewers that the proposal is strong, well-thought out, and will be successful when funded.


The Budget gives the writer a chance to delegate funds to supplies, personnel, equipment, travel, etc. As a first time budget writer, you may find this section challenging because it’s hard to determine the exact value of costs. It is important to be aware of supply costs per year, how many graduate students and postdocs will be hired, direct and indirect costs, etc. It may be helpful to ask your advisor to supply a budget form used in a previously funded grant application to see how funds were allocated.

Step 3: Get feedback from your peers and advisors

Once a rough draft is in presentable form, set up a meeting with your advisor to go over format, syntax, and delivery. Grant applications have a standard “Our work will empower the world” tone that differs from publication writing and may be challenging to master at first. Additionally, reach out to peers and collaborators who have succeeded at grant writing to see what tips they found useful.

Step 4: Read and learn from the reviewers

Reviewers may take 6-12 months to give feedback on the application. Make sure to invest time and consider the reviewer's comments. Whether the proposal is funded or not, the comments help gauge room for improvement, deliver outsider opinions, and reveal items to include for the next application. Although some comments may make it clear that the reviewer misunderstood the point that was being made, take it as an opportunity to make clearer statements on the next round of applications.

Step 5: Keep writing!

Each written grant application builds upon the last submission. Thus, continuing to apply for funding improves the associated skill sets. Increased experience in communicating and motivating research will help you understand the process and continue to improve your grant writing skills. Good luck!

Further advice on grant writing

Since successful grant writing comes with continual practice and exposure, here are some additional links that offer more advice on writing a grant proposal.

Still want more information on the application process? What types of writing feedback do you find most helpful? Have a great grant writing tip? Share it with us!

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Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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