Successful UNC Grant Writers Panel Presentation

During a panel discussion hosted by OSP on April 24th, three UNC faculty members who have been successful grant writers presented their thoughts and suggestions on securing and managing externally funded grants.

Tony Schountz, Biological Sciences; Jodie Novak, Mathematical Sciences; and Christiane Olivo, Political Science and International Affiars, spoke to an audience of faculty members, staff members, and graduate students. In addition to representing diverse disiplines, the panelists were able to share experiences working with a variety of granting agencies and project types.

Schountz addressed research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health; Novak discussed instruction projects funded by the National Science Foundation and the Colorado Department of Education as well as working with a project team and through school districts; and Olivo described summer seminar projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and her work with foundations.

The panelists provided the attendees with many tips for successful proposal writing and project management:

Tony Schountz -

  • Of the 20 institutes in NIH, select the right one – submit to the institute that is a fit for your project.
  • The R15 (or AREA) grant is a good option for UNC.
  • Consult with a program officer.
  • Follow the application guidelines to the letter.
  • Well developed and related specific aims must be hypothesis driven and should be limited to two or three. Don’t be overly ambitious.
  • Provide a thorough background.
  • The Innovation section is sometimes the toughest part of the proposal to write. How does your proposed work extend what is already known?
  • Don’t just tell the reviewers, but show them that you can do most of what you are proposing. Use preliminary data and demonstrate your competency.
  • Your approach should parallel the specific aims and should be crystal clear. Sell your “story.”
    • What do you intend to do?
    • Why is it worth doing? How is it innovative?
    • What has already been done in general, and what have other researchers done in the field?
    • What will this new work add to the field of knowledge?
    • What have you (and your collaborators) done to establish the feasibility of what you are proposing to do?
    • How will the research be accomplished? Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • If applicable, justify the use of animals.

Jodie Novak -

  • Do everything in your power to write a great, strong grant proposal; because once it leaves your hands you have no control.
  • Study the request for proposals – if it is not the right grant program for your project, don’t do it.
  • Do something you care about!
  • Keep it focused.
  • Have the appropriate expertise.
  • Make it easy for the reader to understand what you are doing and that you’ve addressed the request for proposals.
  • My working assumption is that the funding agency program officers and the Office of Sponsored Programs staff are there to help me even when they tell me things I don’t like.
  • Create a strong team of diverse thinkers to work with and challenge you – you want people who think differently, and you need balance.
  • Get a good external evaluator, one who gathers important information you can’t and is both your ally and your accountability person.
  • Rejection is part of the game. You learn a lot by every grant proposal you write.
  • Managing a grant:
    • As PI, do the stuff that only you can do – if someone else can do it, delegate. This means writing the support staff you will need into the grant.
    • Pan ahead – way ahead; it always takes longer than you expect.
    • Ask! There are too many rules (UNC rules and sponsor rules) for you to know everything you will need to know.
    • Always assume your grant could be audited and play it safe. If you have any question about whether an expense is a legitimate expense, ask.
    • Educate others on your team about the grant process – grad students, post docs, etc.
    • Value the people who work for you and the work they do, and let them know.
    • As PI, clear obstacles out of your team’s way so that they can do good work.
  • Have fun and enjoy the process. Writing and managing grants is a ton of work, and it can often be stressful; but the teachers I get to work with and the chance to watch them grow professionally is absolutely worth it.

Christiane Olivo -

  • Follow the format of the grant proposal exactly.
  • Emphasize the significance of your project.
  • Make your thesis clear.
  • Research and know the relevant literature.
  • To capture the reader’s attention, start with an interesting “sell” in the first sentence.
  • Have a clear and logical work plan.
  • Give yourself time to develop the proposal.
  • Allow time to work with the Office of Sponsored Programs prior to the submission deadline.
  • If possible, mention your past successes somewhere in the proposal