5 grant proposal tips you can take from “Shark Week”

Hooray for Shark Week!

What is Shark Week? Well, if you have been living under a rock, let me tell you: Shark Week is an awesome week-long event that takes place on the Discovery Channel. It has been going strong since 1988, amidst some controversies over “fake” documentaries, bad science, and shark fear-mongering. As one ecologist has said: “I don’t necessarily think that it’s their [The Discovery Channel’s] job to inform people about sharks in a scientific matter.”

So maybe Shark Week won’t actually teach you a lot about sharks. But can it teach us something about…grant proposals?


Okay, okay you got me – this post is a little ridiculous! I just really like Shark Week! But I will take this opportunity to point out some proposals tips to keep in mind as you continue your quest for research excellence – and these tips may include some loose connections to Shark Week-related topics. 😀

An-encounter-with-a-Great-0011. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. In other words – don’t propose something that you cannot actually implement. After submitting a proposal, I have literally heard PIs and grant administrators collapse in weariness and say the words: “Wow, I really hope that doesn’t get funded.” Yikes! Can’t provide the cost-share? Don’t submit the proposal! Can’t pull together the personnel? Don’t submit the proposal! Already working 80 hours per week, your sanity hanging by a thread? Take a lesson from this shark and go find some smaller grants. There are plenty of fish in the sea! (FYI, that will be the last shark-related pun. Probably.)

2013-08-06-shark-thumb2. Stand out from the crowd. With the impacts of government cutbacks being felt across agencies, it is more important than ever to be different from the hundreds of other proposals being submitted to federal agencies, state governments, and private foundations. How can you pump up your proposal? Work across disciplines. Insert a plan to disseminate research results to the community. Get in touch with your program officer ahead of time and make sure your project is a good fit. And be sure to write a well-written, error-free proposal. Make yourself a shark among the minnows!

279522-shark-week3. Be aware of your surroundings. Who has been securing funding from the agency you are proposing to? What do their proposals look like? Where is your field moving in terms of research trends? Do your homework before submitting a proposal – read successful narratives and study funded projects. Oftentimes, agencies will provided funded proposals, which usually are part of the public domain. You could also contact funded institutions directly and see if they are willing to discuss their success. When you submit the proposal, show how much you know about the field by providing detailed, complete references in your narrative (NSF infamously will return proposals that use “et al”, and this is also a no-no for NIFA).

fcevjnezhc9gvv78ppsl4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Apparently, sharks like to hunt together in packs from time-to-time (although I heard that on “Shark Week” so who knows if that’s true). And researchers should also play with others! One impact of less government funding is a new appreciation from reviewers for cross-discipline collaborations. Some agencies even provide special grants for those who are collaborating across departments, institutions, and borders (here is an example from NEH). Yes, collaborating can be like herding cats (or sharks), but it substantially increases chances of funding – and enhances your project in the process!

George Mombiot blog on sharks : German submarine and shark5. Never, EVER fabricate information in your proposal. Most academics never set out intending to engage in research misconduct – but it happens, so be careful! Usually, funders want to know what progress has been made on the project thus far, which is sometimes…nada. After all, you don’t have funding yet, right? That’s why you’re asking! Some PIs feel panicked at such requests for information, and exaggerate efforts thus far. Avoid inflating the work that has taken place – it will come back to hurt you if the proposal is funded and you are expected to have reached a certain point.

What do you think? Any more proposal tips or shark puns? Please share below!


5 Things PIs Should Ask Sponsors Before Doing…though many don’t

I am all for pithy, concise titles – but I seriously wanted this post to be called: “5 Things PIs Should Ask Sponsors Before Doing…though many don’t until it’s too late.” Those ominous words have spelled disaster – mostly in the form of bureaucratic stress – for many a PI.

As a Sponsored Program Officer, I see this happen on a nearly weekly basis. A PI will make a reasonable decision for the health and success of their projects, only to find that a term in their agreement required a sponsor approval to make such a decision. Here are the five approvals I find that PIs most often overlook, leading to last-minute amendments, disallowed costs, and testy sponsors who suddenly are not as enthusiastic about providing a PI with next year’s funding:


  • Rebudgeting. Anyone in academic has heard or experienced a similar story: A co-PI spontaneously leaves a project halfway through its duration. A piece of critical equipment has a meltdown. Your results are extremely different from what you thought they would be, leading to a new need for different supplies, different personnel, different subawardees. But while the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and many other federal grant-making organizations may allow you some “rebudgeting authority”, state and private sponsors may not. Others will have a term in the agreement that allows you to rebudget only within a certain percentage of the budget line or total funds awarded. And regardless of the sponsor, most will want to be informed if your scope of work is changing, or if you are adding or removing a subcontract.
  • Removing a PI. Yes, you thought that assistant professor would be with you forever, helping you with your project. But as soon as Dr. Jones decides to head for greener pastures, it is the lead PI’s responsibility to inform the sponsor, in almost all cases – if the co-PI in question was named on the proposal or award document. Not sure if the sponsor even knew Dr. Jones existed? Talk to your sponsored programs officer, and see what your agreement with the sponsor says. If you specifically agreed to sponsor approval for all key personnel changes, you may still be on the hook.
  • No cost extensions. So, you are nearing the end of your project, and you still have lots of funds left. Sweet! That means you get to keep all that money, right? In almost all cases, that is incorrect. To keep using the money for your project, will need to extend your project’s end date – which requires a no cost extension. The NSF allows one grantee-approved no cost extension, but most sponsors want you to ask, and provide a justification. And no, “I have money left, so I want to keep this going” is not a good justification. You originally told the sponsor you could have the work finished by the end date – if it’s not done, tell them why.
  • Change in scope. Across the board, this is the one change every sponsor will want to know about. Even if that weird result in your lab is even more exciting than what you originally proposed, you must send a request to change the goals and outcomes of your research. Until you have that approval in hand, you should keep fulfilling the scope of work you gave the sponsor.


  •  Adding a subawardee. Almost without exception, federal, state, and foundation sponsors want to know when you are partitioning some of your work off to another university or organization. After all, you originally said in your proposal that you could get the work done, so what changed? As a side-note, this emphasizes the importance of identifying subawardees in proposal time – some federal sponsors take up to six months to give approval for new subawardees. If you must ask, ask early, and provide the sponsor with a subawardee scope of work, budget, and commitment letter up front. Waiting for them to ask for these materials only drags out the process.

I get it – sometimes asking for approvals can seem like a drag. But trust me, it is nothing compared to the cleanup work that has to be done when you go behind a sponsor’s proverbial back. And remember – “he who has the gold makes the rules.” You want the sponsor’s gold? Follow the rules. And remember, if you work at a university – your Sponsored Program Officer is always ready to assist!

5 Things PIs Need to Know About Uniform Guidance

In case you haven’t heard, the federal government is implementing new Uniform Guidance standards for grants on December 26th.

Merry Christmas! 😀


All sorts of myths and misconceptions about the “UG” is now floating around as the day looms near. (And yes, I have been referring to the new guidance as “UG,” followed by a heavy sigh!) So, what can we really expect from these new regulations?

Well, despite my sarcastic parenthetical above, I am pleased to report that these standards will actually make research administration easier! (I think) With the exception of a new rule, taking effect July 2016, mandating bids for purchases above $3,000, the changes will probably make your job a LOT easier. The UG seeks to clarify and standardize regulations across agencies.


So, what are the five hottest topics related to the upcoming UG? Take some time to review this list, and then check with your friendly research administrator to see how your university will be implementing them. (Just as a disclaimer: I am not going to broach the subject of the new bidding requirements – it’s too far off, too much might change – and, okay, okay, you got me – it’s WAY too scary a topic!! 😀 )

  • The cost of child care can now be added to travel expenses! But…the cost is only allowable if your university includes child care in their travel guidelines. If your institution does not typically allow child care costs, sorry, you are out of luck!
  • You can now purchase computers as part of your project costs – even if they are not 100% allocable to the project! But…the computer in question still needs to be “integral” to the project. What does “integral” mean? We probably won’t know for sure until the UG has been implemented. But, safe to say, the computer should be important to the project and the price tag should be reasonable.


  • Cost-sharing is now not allowed across the board. But…some projects may still require it. Still, the UG will (in theory) forever remove the consternating sentence: “Cost share is recommended” from RFPs. So, cost-sharing will either be “not required” (typical) and “required” (rare).
  • Subaward monitoring will now be standardized. But…that doesn’t necessarily mean it will get easier! Currently, a PI can usually keep track of PIs at other institutions simply by approving invoices and asking for more information on a request-by-request basis. Now, technical reports will be required for invoice approval. While this might be more time-consuming for PIs, it will also mitigate subawardee problems before they start…in theory, anyway
  • Administrative staff can now be added to projects. But…they must be “integral” to the work being done for the project (there’s that word again!). Also, the administrative personnel cannot be paid for with recovered F&A costs. In other words, no double-dipping!

Inaugural Post: 5 Reasons Your Proposal Won’t Even Get Read

Welcome to my blog! I am excited to share and discuss my grant writing/researching/administering experience with you. I hope this advice, which comes from years of wanderings, informs and encourages you.

For my inaugural post, I wanted to tackle some of the reasons why proposals aren’t even read. In this day and age, funding agencies are receiving more and more proposals, even as their funding shrinks. I have literally heard reviewers say that they look for any reason to weed out proposals without spending a lot of time on them. If a proposal is out of compliance – well, that makes it easy to “chuck” – after all, should a reviewer or program officer entrust funds to someone who can’t even follow basic directions?

Don’t let your worthy project go totally unread! Avoid these (non-comprehensive) reasons why your proposal may get thrown out without even being read, and then leave any questions or comments below!


  • Your proposal was late.

I know you meant well, when you were revising right up to the deadline. But often, this strategy can backfire, especially if your proposal has to go though a lengthy internal process to be submitted (for instance, if you are working at a university). Also, some agencies (such as the National Institutes of Health), will spit back your proposal if their system detects errors in compliance. By the time you push it back, it might be too late.

A tip from me to you – some agencies, such as the NIH, might still review your proposal, if it is a tad bit late. But they are within their rights to reject your application if it comes in even a minute after the deadline. NSF, NEH, and other agencies will not even consider your proposal if it is late.


  • Your proposal was too long.

I know it’s tempting to get every bit of your research on paper for reviewers to experience, but that will not be worth it if they decide to throw out your proposal because you exceeded the page/character limits. Some agencies also put a cap on how many of your publications you can include. Better that you skimp on some of the details than never have your proposal read.


  • Your narrative did not meet the stated requirements.

Writing your narrative seems intuitive enough – you describe your project and what you want to accomplish. But read – re-read – and re-read again – the exact questions the application is asking. Unfortunately, I have seen many seasoned academics skim over the funding agency’s questions and write their agenda without consulting them ever again. Here’s a tip: Be explicit when you are answering the specific questions required by the funder. Put these sections in bold. Use the same language as the question. Use bullet points. If the reviewer cannot easily find the answers to the RFP’s first question, they will probably toss your proposal without a second glance.

The same goes for your budget narrative. I cannot over-emphasize this. Do not put something in your budget without connecting it to the overall proposal.


  • Your budget was off.

Your proposal might never see a reviewer if your budget does not add up, is on the wrong form, or has unallowable costs on it. The program officer might be kind enough to give you a call and ask for a revision. But they are under no obligation to do so. Check and double-check your numbers, and make sure someone else checks them for you.

If you are working at a university with an Office of Research or a Grants Manager, work with them on the budget beginning months before the due date. If you pass along the basic information on what you want to ask for, they can usually take it from there. Who has time to calculate fringes, indirect costs, and tuition increases when you have so much to write, anyway?



  • Your proposal’s format was non-compliant.

The details matter here. Font type, font size, pagination, and margins can become your worst enemy. Before submitting, check to make sure you are meeting the agency’s formatting requirements. Keep in mind that these may be found in the agency’s broad guidelines, and not necessarily the RFP.