Coastal research grants: solicit early feedback

Author: Zofia Knorek

This blog is the second of six posts in the #CoastalResearchGrants blog series, in which we walk through the steps of preparing a proposal for a coastal research grant using the Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship 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 the last post 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
❏    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 your advisor has written a letter previously, they should just need to update it for this specific opportunity. Regardless, do both yourself and your advisor a favor and tell them in writing exactly what information you need the letter to include based on what is requested in the request for proposals (RFP). There may also be information you would want to include in your application package but doesn’t fit stylistically, content-wise, or space-wise. If it’s information that your graduate advisor can speak to, consider asking them to mention it. (General graduate school tip: if you make the requests 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 Davidson, it’s 2 pages), take the time to update your own CV now so it’s easier to cut to length later. Moreover, get copies of all undergraduate and graduate transcripts--they can be unofficial! You’ll need to include them in your application.

In the same email where you ask for their letter of support, ask your advisor to set up a time to meet 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. 

One final note on letters of recommendation: for this application, letters of recommendation are perhaps different from what you’re used to, in which the recommendation is submitted blindly, i.e., you don’t read what it says. For the Davidson and other fellowships that are submitted via (like the Nancy Foster Scholarship), the letters are included in the package that you submit, which means that you’ll be able to see what your recommenders wrote about you.

From the business officer and office of sponsored research at your university:

❏ Comments on your preliminary budget ideas
❏ Support in navigating the minutiae of budget development for a federal grant

Though we won’t be discussing the details of budget development until later in this series, it’s good to get plugged in early with the business officer(s) and office of sponsored research at your university who will oversee the accounting of the grant should you earn the award. They will be able to help you navigate what can often be a complex system of the financing of federal grants. The point is that it can be a confusing process, so don’t go it alone.

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 at least two weeks before the application deadline (i.e., December 10, 2021) 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. 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 the point of contact listed for the management needs your project covers (often the Reserve Research Coordinator) to ask any questions you have about the application. 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 fellowships like the Davidson Fellowship, if you are chosen as a recipient for any given opportunity, you’ll be working closely with the program coordinator(s). Getting to know them ahead of time is almost always to your benefit, and indeed encouraged by the Davidson program. Don’t be shy! If you are applying to the North Carolina management needs, you can contact Research Coordinator, Brandon Puckett, after you watch the NC fellowship webinar to sign up for office hours discuss your proposal with Reserve staff. Program coordinators often want to help and are rooting for your success.

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 project description
  5. Prepare a budget and additional materials
  6. Assemble and polish the application package

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. 

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