Coastal research grants: before you write

Author: Zofia Knorek

Welcome to the first post in the #CoastalResearchGrants blog series. Over the next 6 weeks, we will walk through the steps of preparing a proposal for a coastal research grant. Though we are using the North Carolina Coastal Research Fellowship application as a specific case study, most of the tips provided are generally applicable to many coastal science funding opportunities.

The topics we will cover are:

  1. Before you write… (this post)
  2. Solicit early feedback
  3. Draft an outline
  4. Write the research statement
  5. Prepare a budget and additional materials
  6. Assemble and polish the application package; intangibles 

Before we dive in, take a deep breath and imagine experiencing this sunrise at Middle Marsh in the Rachel Carson Reserve (photo credit: E. Kenworthy/UNC IMS):

(Don’t forget to exhale.) Even if your project won’t have you working the early morning tides, do yourself a favor and start the application process early--especially this year during the COVID-19 pandemic. With everything else going on, putting together a proposal may seem like a gargantuan task. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help break it down into manageable pieces.

The reality is that “grant writing” is ~80% research/preparation and only ~20% writing. Therefore, we recommend that before you write...

Read the materials the funding agency provided

❏  Coastal Research Fellowship Request For Proposals (RFP). Read it again.
❏  NC Coastal Reserve Management Plans
❏  NC Sea Grant Strategic Plan
❏  NC Sea Grant Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Statement

Consider the following:

  1. Am I eligible to apply?
  2. Broadly, does my area of research address one or more of the coastal management issues listed in the RFP? 
  3. Is it feasible for me to conduct research at one or more of the 10 reserve sites? Realistically, how far will $10,000 of research funds get me? If you don’t have access to the resources you’d need to conduct your research--e.g. boats, lab space, other special equipment, etc.--consider collaborating with groups who do have those resources, like the NC Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve, NC Coastal Federation,  coastal labs at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, Duke University Marine Lab, NCSU Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, UNC Wilmington Center for Marine Science, ECU Coastal Studies Institute, etc.
  4. Where is there overlap amongst these documents? In general, if a concept in the referential documents provided is mentioned multiple times, it’s probably a higher priority for the funding agency.
  5. How does my research area relate to the Management and Strategic Plans, and the DEI Statement?

Read about what has (and hasn’t) been funded recently

❏  Descriptions of past fellows’ research (available under Resources and Research)
❏  2019 application materials from past NCCR Fellow, Sarah Donaher
❏  2019 application materials from the author of this post, Zofia Knorek
❏  Any other recent application packages (and ideally, reviews) to which you have access

Consider the following:

  1. What types of projects have been funded recently? Are there any themes, topics, or habitats that are over- or underrepresented in recent fellowship projects?
  2. How did the applicants structure their proposals? Beyond the guidelines of the RFP, were there any style/formatting choices that you found more effective than others? For example, you may find that some applicants choose to state their objectives/aims, whereas others may choose to present the same information in the form of a question. Applicants may also choose to italicize, bold, or underline words or phrases for emphasis. In general, do so with some consistent pattern, and sparingly; otherwise, it’s hard for reviewers to read.
  3. Though the applicants arranged the content of their proposals differently, they contain the same components. What “nuts and bolts” information did both applicants include? Is there anything that one included and the other didn’t? Note that Zofia’s proposal is pretty explicit about labeling the “nuts and bolts” content, and that’s intentional, because she operates under the assumption that each individual reviewer will read her proposal only once, and therefore doesn’t want them to have to go searching for the information they are looking for. Sarah’s methods section has more of a narrative structure than Zofia’s. Ultimately, Sarah’s project was the one that was funded; clearly her structure worked! That said, Zofia has had other proposals funded using the same organizational structure she used for this application--so there are multiple “correct” routes to the destination of a funded project.
  4. Do you know anyone else who has applied for this fellowship recently, like someone in your lab, or another graduate student in your program? If so, ask them if they’d be willing to share their application and reviewer feedback. It’s always helpful to see how other people have structured their application package and allocated space for each section; it’s even more helpful to see how that package was evaluated. Past fellows in addition to Sarah may be willing to share their successful application with you. Email them and ask--the worst thing anyone will ever say is no. If you have access to old applications, be careful about comparing them directly to this year’s RFP; the management issues and priorities may have been different during that application cycle.

Download a citation manager if you don’t have one already:

❏    Step-by-step instructions with links to downloads available in this citation manager guide.

Citation managers will save you an extraordinary amount of time formatting bibliographies for anything you write, including this application. I recommend Zotero because it’s free, open-source, and has great plugins for Microsoft Word and Google Docs, but Mendeley and EndNote are also popular options.)

Closing thoughts

As a series, these blog posts are meant to be comprehensive but certainly not exhaustive. The wealth of resources regarding grant writing can be overwhelming to navigate, so we are trying to distill down the information as much as possible. If you’re looking for additional resources, we recommend the following as supplementary reading material to this series:

The proposal I shared wasn’t funded--a bummer for sure, but also an astonishingly normal outcome. At the end of the day, you can and will pour hours of your time and emotional energy into an exciting proposal that won’t get funded. It’s an unfortunate truth that there will always be more good ideas than there are dollars to support those good ideas. Don’t be afraid to get creative and scrappy in pursuit of your wonders! I haven’t been able to do all of the work I proposed in my unfunded fellowship application, but I have been able to do some of it with modification. The reality is that you’ll never do exactly what you propose, anyway; adaptations are always necessary to some degree. Even if your proposal isn’t funded and the idea withers (also a normal outcome), at worst you’ve expanded your writing experience, and likely became a better writer in the process. 

Questions? Requests for content to cover in future posts? Have a resource you think everyone should know about? Join the discussion with the #CoastalResearchGrants hashtag.

Zofia Knorek (@zofiaknorek, she/her) is a 3rd-year PhD student in ecology at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and Coastal Training Program grant writing intern with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. 

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