In the vein of writing, writing, writing, which is the quote on my office door for the past 4 weeks, I thought I would post a piece from another woman of science. This one is about the true first step in any writing process – getting examples. For writing manuscripts, getting examples is easy. You just read a lot of published papers and try to emulate their style (especially clear and nice papers). For other types of writing, getting examples can be more difficult, or downright hard. Perhaps one of the most important types of writing we do in academic science is grant writing. My advice is always to get examples. Today’s guest post is about how to go about getting examples… and how not… Enjoy!
You’re a brand-new assistant professor, or you’re applying to agency to which you’ve never applied for funding. Where to start? Examples of successful applications are some of the best ways to figure out how to structure your application and to tailor your application to a particular agency or foundation. Where to get them?
Start with your formal and informal mentors. Ask them if they have examples of recent successful applications, or unsuccessful applications if they are willing to share them and to discuss why they think they were unsuccessful. Ask your collaborators and departmental colleagues if they have been funded by the organization you are targeting. Ask them if they know anyone else who has. If that fails, or in addition to those opportunities, most organizations post the names of those they have funded. I recommend looking at that list and finding anyone with whom you have a connection—you were both once at the same institution, you have friends or collaborators in common, anything. Then, contact those people one by one, pointing out your common links to help establish a connection. In addition to really recently funded projects, you might also want to target people who were funded a few years ago, especially if you don’t know them well. With such “older” projects, the work is likely to be well underway and the PI is less likely to feel vulnerable sharing their nascent work. When you send that cold email, state clearly and at the beginning why you are writing, point out your connection, and assure them that you understand that you are requesting a confidential document and you will not share it.
If you can’t find anyone with whom you have a connection, just try asking. You can say something like, “I am planning to apply to X organization. I am looking for examples of successful proposals to this organization and noticed that you are funded by them. Congratulations! Would you mind sharing a copy of your funded proposal or even just some sections of it with me? I understand that this is a confidential document and I will not share it with anyone else.” Sometimes what you really want is an example of a specific type of required abstract or section of the proposal, so just ask for that. Most people remember what it is like starting out in their academic careers or applying to a new agency and are willing to help. Most people are also flattered that you’ve noticed their funding success, which will likely make them more willing to respond to your request. However, everyone is busy and inundated with requests, so allow plenty of time and if you don’t hear anything, ask again in a week or two.
Proposals that have been funded by the federal government are available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This should be the last resort for obtaining a copy of a proposal. Exhaust your other options first, including cold-calling (emailing) multiple people. Just asking people for what you want will almost certainly yield results, and probably much faster than a FOIA request. When you submit a FOIA request, that request along with your name is sent to the PI. Science is a small world and like other professions, much of your professional success will depend on relationships you build with others. If you receive a FOIA request for one of your funded proposals, this will likely bring to mind several questions, like: why didn’t this person just ask me for the proposal? The proposal probably would have been shared and the requester would have received it faster than waiting for the FOIA request to be processed. The proposer might have removed some sections with personal information or work that is still preliminary, but they might at least attempt to do that anyway in responding to the FOIA request. Some personal information is removed automatically by the agency, too. Then one wonders, what is this person’s agenda? If the requester is another faculty member, are they intending to pursue research that I proposed? If the requester were a private individual, corporation, or certain type of foundation, those suspicions about an underlying agenda would have been even deeper. In general, if someone asks me directly for a copy of my proposals, I send the requested information and offer to read a draft of the requester’s own proposal to try to offer feedback. By submitting a request through a third-party, the requester likely misses an opportunity to build his/her professional network.
Good advice! What do you think? Share in a post or comment. You can follow this blog by pushing the +Follow button and typing your email address. I will try to get back on the blog-writing wagon as I come down from the manuscript/grant writing one.