Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘proposal writing’


2015-06-23 12.31.18I have served on a lot of grant panels. In the last year, I served on a grant review panel – a small one for a small foundation that you probably didn’t personally qualify for. I was the only woman of three reviewers on the panel, and each grant had a number of ad hoc reviews provided by experts. For each grant, I submitted made a review, and it took a couple weeks to get them all done. Before I submitted my reviews, I re-evaluated all the proposals to make sure I wasn’t systematically biased against anyone. Because we are all gender biased and racist, I paid particular attention to checking myself on this. And, I ended up changing some of the scores based on the re-evaluations to level them out. Of course there are many reasons with scores could have been different, including if I was tired or hungry when I read the proposal, so I didn’t want those dumb reasons to affect the scores. This final step is one that most people don’t do because of time, but I wanted to do a good job. I did end up raising the scores of more women and of more people with foreign names. I felt like I did a good job, and was proud of my work.

And you know what? I am glad I did the re-evaluations. Here are the reasons:

  1. More women were in the upper half of proposals than would have been if I hadn’t re-evaluated them. Thus, we spoke about more women’s proposals in more detail.
  2. The two very nice gentlemen with whom I was serving were so unconsciously biased against women, it was effing ridiculous. Let me give you an example (the information has been changed to protect the innocent):

Grant 12345, a man:

Scores: Man1: 3, Man2: 3, WOS: 3.

 Comments from the dudes included things like, “Not exactly sure how this will be carried out. Needs more details on the experiments. I cannot tell if this will work.”

Grant 98765, a woman:

Scores: Man1: 3, Man2: 3, WOS: 5.

Comments from the dudes included things like, “Well-described methods, clear proposal, looks like PI will be able to secure federal funding.”

I was shocked. These two proposals had vastly different comments from the two dudes, yet, they gave them the exact same RANKING numbers! On two separate occasions, I convinced one or both of them to change their scores during the discussion. For this example, I actually flat out said, “Please look at the written comments for this person. What exactly is wrong with their proposal? You have nothing negative. So, why is your score the same as the last person who you did have negative comments about?” They could not deny that their rankings were illegitimate, and they changed them.

At another point in the discussion, I pointed out that the ad hoc reviews for a particular woman were biased. For them, this statement went too far. They did not respond well to that. They pointed to a woman ad hoc reviewer to prove to me that the ad hoc reviews were not biased. RED FLAG! If you cannot justify something, pointing to another biased review to justify yourself is not a scientifically good way to prove your point. I told them that it didn’t matter if the reviewer was a woman. Women are just as biased against other women as men. Being a woman does not protect or shield you from sexism. They were not convinced. In the end, I had to write the panel summary, and I had a very hard time. Why? Because they could not point to one thing that they came up with as a panel that was wrong with the proposal. This, to me, stinks of bias. You don’t think anything is wrong, but you just go along with what other people say? That is not the scientific way. All their issues were direct echoes of the ad hoc reviews, which I thought were biased. In fact, they only said positive things in their own personal opinions. Luckily, I did get that person to the funded category, because writing a, “Sorry you didn’t get $$, but we can’t figure out what is wrong,” panel summary is difficult and stupid. At least the letter, which doesn’t say anything is wrong, also doesn’t say, “And you don’t get money for not being wrong.”

There were several other times, I was looking at the comments and thinking, this rating doesn’t jive. More than once, dudes with many negatives were given the same score as women with only positives or far fewer negatives. Dudes just got a leg up. One woman was working with her former advisor still, and that got the old chestnut, “Is this person independent?” but the next dude who was working with their former advisor got, “This is a positive because they will be more likely to be successful working with this bigger group.” These were too far apart in the discussion to successfully combat with logic and reason as I did above, and it wouldn’t have made a difference, but that kind of stuff burns me up.

All in all, the women had to be way better than the men to be ranked equally by these guys, so my re-evaluating of the women only counteracted the lunacy. Also, I was the easy grader for most proposals. I was already seen as the person who gave the highest score (about 1 point higher out of 5 than the guy who gave the lowest scores) on all the proposals, so they didn’t suspect or know that I had re-evaluated and subsequently upgraded a lot of the women.

Based on this experience, I am going to call to all my WomenOfScience friends and male allies: Consider re-evaluating and seeking out your own biases against women and minorities when you review their manuscripts, proposals, or whatever. If you were already going to be nice, act like they walk on water. If you were going to be mean, be 20% nicer. It probably won’t move someone from the unfunded pile to the funded (it didn’t in my case), but it could move someone from the edge into funded, or give someone just a slightly nicer review – you can still be critical without being a total douche.

I will continue to re-evaluate at the end whenever I can, because I think it is the right thing to do. I wish more people would at least be mindful of their biases. To get funded today, you need a champion in the room. Each funded proposal has one. I vow to be the champion in the room for women and under-represented groups. That is what I did. I could have chosen to preferentially fund proposals about beavers (there were no beaver proposals) or a particular school, let’s say Ole’ Miss (there were no Ole’ Miss proposals in the panel), but I chose women. I will continue to choose women. Until there is actual equality.

What do you think? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Frustrations of writing: don’t be too smart or too clear…

TypingSo, you are writing a proposal, huh? Yeah, you are. Maybe you just submitted your CAREER proposal, or maybe you are writing to Uncle Howie for that big whopper of a carrot on a string. Either way, you are trying to convince someone that the thing you do is the bees knees. Here is one on proposal writing. Just some thoughts. I’d love to hear what you have to say – post or comment here.

I was recently having drinks with a couple WomenOfScience. We were discussing writing – mostly grant proposal writing – as it is the life blood of the academic research scientist. We were discussing how, when you write a proposal, you need to skirt the line between writing for a general audience and being technical enough to prove that you can do what you say. The women I was talking with often fall onto the “too technical” side. Oppositely, I often fall on the “too colloquial” side in my writing. Unfortunately, both of these can be deadly to a proposal.

Too Technical: It can be insulting – you make others feel stupid because they cannot understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating to a reviewer. Reviewers are all smart people with PhDs or MDs. Further, many reviewers have egos. Egos need to be stroked, and making them feel stupid is the opposite of what you want to do. Reviewers might think you are trying to make yourself seem smart by putting others down. Also, it can look like you are hiding behind jargon. People can and do assume you don’t really know what you are talking about because you are using technical terms instead of explaining it simply.  This can be difficult to control, especially is you are naturally detail oriented and really do think about your subject in this technical way.

My suggestion: Spend a lot of time on the first couple pages trying to tone it down. If you capture your audience’s attention and get them on your side, you can ramp up the technical speak over the course of the proposal. This way, the technical stuff can sneak up on them, or even seem gradual. You should always spend a lot of time at the beginning, but if you are a technophile, you got to write it for your granny. I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that most people’s grannies are not PhDs directly in your subfield of science.

Too Colloquial: When I write a proposal, a paper, or give a talk, I automatically go into pedagogical/educational mode. Oddly, writing too colloquially can have similar issues as writing too technically: it can be insulting. You look like you think others are stupid, and that is why you are dumbing everything down. Another issue with writing or speaking too colloquially is that you can make what you are doing sound simple or easy. I am doubtful that any science being proposed is “easy” or else you wouldn’t need the bureaucracy of the university behind you.  Yet, writing in an easily accessible way can make what you do seem unimportant, easy, or obvious.

My suggestion: Sell up the innovation, importance, and significance. If you discuss significance in a clear way, people love it. Use your gift for laymen’s terms to explain the significance of your work and really sell it. Later in the proposal, you might want to explain the experimental or theoretical methods, which are bound to be technical. Thus, you will give your work a technical expertise that will ground it.

Unfortunately, I think both of these offenses are less acceptable if you are a woman. Let me explain.

If you are too technical, you might be incompetent. You are hiding behind jargon you don’t really understand. Or, you are a bitch who is purposely making others feel stupid with your fancy words.

If you are too colloquial, you are probably stupid and don’t know the technical terms.

So, either way, you are incompetent. This is the typical issue for women in the academy – you have to be more competent than the men. People assume you are less competent if you don’t perform perfectly. So, you must walk the line – strike that perfect balance. You are won’t succeed overtime. But, you know what? That’s OK, as long as you practice, and try and try again, and listen to your reviewers. At some point, you will figure out how you are screwing up, and probably go to far the other way. If you practice enough, you should be able to strike the right tone eventually.

So, anything to add? Comment or post here! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Writing a Grant

Power of WordsWe had a nice post previously from Robin about the importance of grant writing. This post had some very good suggestions, and you can find it here. This post is more on the mechanics of writing  grant. Most importantly, you are staring at a blank screen, and you need to get some stuff out because the deadline in maybe a month away. Where do you start? What do you write? What needs to be in there and be included?

Apparently, there is big money to be made in answering these questions, because I get science spam at least once a day trying to sell me books, seminars, and webinars to address these questions. I actually do have one of these books – my university gave them out to us all at some point. I have to say that it was fairly useful because it listed all the parts of the grant that needs to be included. Obviously, if you don’t include a particular part of the grant, it is far less likely to get funded. But, so many people have these books now that the particular style described in these books has become a bit of a joke during review panels. Even so, it is better to follow one of those books and their format than to have no idea and do entirely the wrong thing.

When starting to write a grant, the first step is two fold: (1) read the call for proposals. Many calls, especially special calls, have specific required sections. ALSO, simultaneously (2) get some example proposals.  The last post on requesting proposals from others is a good guide on how to do this. It is best to get examples from the exact agency, division, and panel where you are going to submit.  Use these together to check come up with an outline for the components of the proposal.

Outline. Yes, outline. I know, it is boring and old fashioned to outline, and I am not suggesting anything too detailed. I am suggestions coming up with the headers for different sections of your proposal. To get you started, I am pasting in an outline I use (you can probably tell this is for proposals to the National Science Foundation):


1. SIGNIFICANCE: Why is this important? You need to have the why before the what.

2. HYPOTHESIS: Not all divisions expect hypothesis-driven research. Get an example to see it this section is typical.



4.1 Experimental Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our experimental approach and present preliminary results.

Experiment Type 1:

Experiment Type 2:

Experiment Type 3:

4.2 Simulation Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our simulations/analytical approach and present preliminary results.


Objective 1: State it here.

Rationale:  Why do we want to study this? Why is this objective important? Everyone needs a reminder.

Proposed Experiments for Objective 1: No methods. That is all described above. This is just the “what” experiments – not the “how” experiments.

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 1: You must have something about controls and alternatives. They will look for it!

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 1: This is where you drive it home why these experiments and results are important. Again.

Objective 2:


Proposed Experiments for Objective 2:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 2: 

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 2:

Objective 3: This is the objective that can be a little more out there with less preliminary data.


Proposed Experiments for Objective 3:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 3:


6.1 Interdisciplinarity.

6.2 Collaboration Work Plan. I will do this. Collaborator will do that. I like to include a ven diagram figure that cartoons the roles of each person.

6.3 Timeline. You must have a timeline. I like to make a chart. Funding agencies requests it.


8. BROADER IMPACTS: Here is where I put grad student training, undergraduate student training, and any other outreach plans.

9. RESULTS FROM PRIOR SUPPORT: This has a specific format. Make sure you use it. If you don’t have prior support, you can remove this section.

10. SUMMARY. Reiterate the significance again.

Another secret to getting a grant done is to take advantage of the time you have. There will always be a time when you have time to work on the proposal, but not the drive to write. If that happens, use the time to work on the myriad of other things that need to be apart of the grant such as the Budget, Budget Justification, Your Biosketch (you the correct format!), your Current and Pending, your Facilities and Resources, your Postdoc Mentoring Plan, and other documents. These documents are pretty boiler plate with tweaks, so they don’t require a ton of thought, but you still need to do them. Or, just get your proposal started on the online submission system and input all the data.

So, this is my method. And, as far as grant writing goes, I have done a lot of it – almost a dozen per year. I might even be good at it. I am batting 1000 on my last 4 proposals. What do you do to actually write a proposal? Post or comment here. Click +Follow to get email updates when I write new posts.

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