Coastal Research Grants: Before you write...

Author: Zofia Knorek

Welcome to the first post in the second iteration of the #CoastalResearchGrants blog series. Over the next 6 weeks, we will walk through the steps of preparing a proposal for a coastal research grant. This time, we will use the NOAA Margaret A. Davidson Graduate 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 project description
  5. Prepare a budget and additional materials
  6. Assemble and polish the application package; intangibles

Even if your project won’t have you working the early morning tides, do yourself a favor and start the application process early--especially 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

Resources from NOAA: 
❏    Davidson Fellowship Request for Proposals (RFP). Read it again.  
❏    Davidson Fellowship FAQs 
❏    NERRS 2017-2022 Strategic Plan 
❏    NOAA Webinar -Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship: A Collaborative Graduate Fellowship to Address Coastal Challenges 

Resources from the host reserve:
❏    NC NERR Davidson Fellowship Handout 
❏    NC NERR Management Plan
❏    NC NERR webinar - The NOAA Davidson Fellowship at the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve

Learn about collaborative science:
❏    NERRS Science Collaborative resources 
❏    NERR Association Collaboration toolkit 

Consider the following:

  1. Am I eligible to apply?
  2. Broadly, does my area of research address one or more of the research needs listed in the RFP?
  3. Is it feasible for me to conduct research at one or more of the 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves? 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.) be sure to review the research assets listed in the NC NERR Davidson handout. You may also consider collaborating with groups who do have those resources, like local university field stations, Reserve partners, etc. 
  4. Where is there overlap among 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 relate to the Davidson Fellowship research needs as well as the NC NERR's management plan and NERRS strategic plan?
  6. What end users will be impacted by my work? Who will I collaborate with?

Note that one unique aspect of the Davidson Fellowship is that you are allowed to apply for multiple NERR sites (but only one per site). The applications are reviewed by individual NERRs, not as a national pool.

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

Note that the letters of recommendation and transcripts were omitted from the applications for privacy.

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. Realistically, what can you accomplish with the quantity of funding? Do you just need funds to cover the research project or your salary as well? Is it enough funding to cover your research project?
  3. How did the applicants structure their project narratives and statements of interest? 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.
  4. What “nuts and bolts” information did both applicants include? Is there anything that one included and the other didn’t? Though the applicants arranged the content in their proposals differently, they contain the same components. Note that Zofia’s project summary explicitly labeled the “nuts and bolts” content listed in the RFP, to ensure that reviewers find the information they are looking quickly. Marae’s project summary section is organized more like the project narrative. This example is just one difference between the applications. 
  5. Do you know anyone else who has applied for this fellowship recently? If so, ask them if they’d 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. Current fellows in addition to Marae 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 needs and application package requirements can change from year to year.
  6. After carefully reading through these applications, what can you learn from the reviewers’ comments? The reviewers’ comments can help you understand how the application was evaluated and what the package did well and what may have been missing. You may also see some comments which reflect that the reviewer did not read the application as carefully as one would hope. 

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 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 PhD candidate in ecology at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and the 2020 Coastal Training Program grant writing intern with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Related Topics: