Coastal research grants: solicit early feedback

Author: Zofia Knorek

This blog is the second of six weekly posts in the #CoastalResearchGrants blog series, in which we walk through the steps of preparing a proposal for a coastal research grant using the North Carolina Coastal Research Fellowship (NC CRF) application as a specific case study. Last week, we discussed how “grant writing” is really ~80% preparation and only ~20% writing. Most of the suggestions from last week centered around reading. This week, we are still firmly in the preparation department, but will focus our attention on the early discussions you should be having as you construct your application. 

Especially because of potential pandemic-related delays, we recommend you give everyone, including yourself, a longer runway and solicit early feedback in the following ways:

From your major advisor:

❏ Letter of support for your proposal
❏ Their updated Curriculum Vitae (CV) 
❏ Comments on your preliminary research ideas, especially regarding those needing potential collaborators

Asking for your advisor’s letter of support now will give them ample time to prepare. If you are a new student of theirs, they may be writing one from scratch if this is your first fellowship application. This needle can sometimes be tricky to thread because your advisor may not know you as well as, say, your chemistry professor from undergrad who you took multiple classes with or the work manager you had for years--but the application specifically requires a letter from your major advisor. If your advisor has written a letter previously, they should just need to update it for this specific opportunity. Regardless of whether or not they have written a letter for you before, do both yourself and your advisor a favor and tell them in writing exactly what information you need the letter to include. (General graduate school tip: if you make the favors you ask your advisor or committee members for as easy as possible, they will notice and be appreciative!) 

Even if an application has a limit on CV length (for the NC CRF, it’s 2 pages each), ask for an unabridged and updated CV from your advisor now; you can always pare it back later once you have a better idea as to what your project will entail and what experiences of your advisor’s are most relevant to it. Similarly, take the time to update your own CV now so it’s easier to cut to length later. 

In the same email where you ask for their CV and letter of support, ask your advisor to set up a time to meet and chat about your preliminary research ideas. It may even be helpful for you to include your ideas as research questions in the email body for quick reference during that eventual meeting. 

From potential end-users or collaborators:

❏ Comments on your preliminary research ideas
     • End-users: Does your research actually help them make decisions or accomplish their goals?
     • Collaborators: How will their participation enhance the project? What can they gain from participating? 
❏ Letter of support for your proposal

Think about potential project end-users (i.e., professionals who can take your findings and apply them in management decisions) or collaborators, and whether a letter of support would enhance your application. If those connections don’t already exist, you’ll want to get the ball rolling on establishing them as soon as possible. Requesting a letter of support is never the first step, but you should aim to request it two weeks before the application deadline (i.e., November 23rd) at the latest. 

Okay then, what is the first step? It depends. Ask your advisor if they have any recommendations of relevant groups, including both collaborators and end-users, who may be interested in your project. The coastal science community is relatively small- chances are your advisor has some ideas on who to contact, and would be willing to introduce you to those folks via email or teleconference. But even if your advisor doesn’t have a connection to a group who you think would have an interest in your project idea, there’s nothing stopping you from cold-emailing them. Lean into existing connections, but don’t shy away from new ones that you establish yourself. 

From the program coordinator(s):

❏ Answers to any outstanding questions you have about the application process
❏ Comments on your preliminary research ideas

Now is also a good time to email North Carolina Sea Grant Deputy Director Dr. John Fear to ask any questions you have about the application. Dr. Fear will be leading the review of the applications. It is often encouraged for applicants to discuss their prospective proposal with the program coordinator of a funding opportunity (though the level of contact varies by discipline, funding agency, or even opportunity within an agency). Regardless of the level of contact, any amount of feedback on your preliminary ideas can guide the development of your proposal. But especially for state-level funding pools like the NC CRF, chances are if you are chosen as a recipient for any given opportunity, you’ll be working pretty closely with the program coordinator(s). Getting to know them ahead of time is almost always to your benefit.

Closing thoughts: 

Much has been written about how to write cold emails and develop collaborative working relationships. This week, we recommend the following as supplementary reading:

Thanks for following along! For reference, the topics for this series are:

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

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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