Coastal research grants: Assemble and polish the application package

Phew, we made it! This is the sixth and final blog post in the #CoastalResearchGrants series, in which we’re walking 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. Hopefully, by the time you’re reading this you have at least a complete first draft of most of the components of your application, because this week we are discussing how to assemble and polish your application, as well as some of the intangible qualities of a successful grant writer.

Assembling and polishing your application

There are a few minor sections of the Davidson application that we haven’t discussed yet, including the Title Page, Table of Contents, Literature Cited, Match Waiver, and Negotiated Indirect Cost Rate Agreement (the lattermost two of which were simply “not applicable” for my application). Do not forget these components! Also don’t forget to include your letters of recommendation and transcripts, which we’ve omitted from the example applications included in this series for privacy.

Once you have all the components, hopefully the assembly part should be straightforward. Carefully follow the directions--especially about page limits and formatting. Double check before you press submit that your PDF(s) converted properly so your application doesn’t get tossed without review. Once assembled, see if someone will read the entire thing cover to cover. (Depending on the length of the application, this task may be a bigger favor, but it’s important.)


Though we may not have explicitly called them “intangibles”, we’ve been discussing the intangible qualities of a successful grant writer all along, so some of this information will probably sound familiar. We harp on some of these topics because avoiding common pitfalls at the outset will prevent your proposal from sinking.

Generally speaking, to be a successful grant writer you should:

  1. Know the funding agency. Relationships matter. Build relationships with funders before you apply for their grants. Understand the mission of their organization and familiarize yourself with the types of projects they want to fund/have recently funded. (Learn more in the second post of this series.) Don’t waste your time developing a proposal that isn’t relevant or appropriate.
  2. Know the field. Demonstrate that you are up to date about what types of projects or methods have been successful, as well as local policies. Funding agencies usually are looking to choose projects that will contribute to and/or advance the community, so be able to articulate exactly how your project does that for each grant you write. 
  3. Stay organized. It seems obvious, but we cannot belabor the point enough. Successful grant writing will involve meeting with multiple parties, fulfilling deadlines, and, eventually, juggling multiple projects at once. Find an organization system that works for you. It might be writing everything down in a journal. Or using an online calendar to plan everything. For writing, make outlines. If a system or tool isn’t serving you, drop it. Sometimes less is more. But be open to experimentation and adapting your strategies as appropriate.
  4. Be technologically savvy. If you haven’t already, you need to familiarize yourself with cloud coworking tools like Google Sheets and Documents, or Office 365--especially in the age of widespread work from home practices. Beyond word processing and spreadsheets, you should learn how to search for information on the internet. Librarians at your academic institution or local library are trained experts available to support your search, so use them as a resource! 
  5. Make your proposal easy to read. Your application is likely to be one of many read by a reviewer, and potentially one of multiple they are reading in the same session. Imagine how frustrating it would be to read proposals that are disjointed, incoherent, or have little pertinence to the funding opportunity or agency. Don’t be the applicant to submit one of those proposals! Review clear writing tips in the fourth post of this series.
  6. Watch your language. Be mindful of how you describe everything, from your target population to your collaborators. One example relevant to coastal research is using the gender-neutral and therefore more inclusive term “fishers” as opposed to “fishermen”. 
  7. Keep up with the news. Have an understanding of what’s going on in your local, state, and national communities: politically, economically, culturally, environmentally, etc. Context matters, and you’re never writing grants in a vacuum. The way you weave this understanding into your application can (and generally, should) be subtle. 
  8. Demonstrate passion. Writing clearly is (usually) not enough. Your writing also needs to be engaging. It’s challenging to fake engagement in writing--reviewers have read enough proposals to be able to discern between genuine and forced enthusiasm. Whenever possible, focus on submitting proposals that you are excited to pursue.
  9. Show potential for sustainability. This intangible is a bit more broad or long-term, and may seem daunting when you’re an early career researcher. But the point is that funders see themselves as investors, and therefore are looking for their dollar to stretch both in terms of quantity/quality and longevity. As a graduate student, sustainability might look like this fellowship project spurring the study or experiment for another chapter of your thesis or dissertation.
  10. Demonstrate collaborative efforts. Everyone likes a team player, and the fact of the matter is that grant writing and project implementation/management is challenging, so make it easier on yourself and don’t go it alone. 

Thanks so much for following along with us as we broke down the Coastal Research Fellowship application. Don’t forget the application is due December 10, 2021 at 5:00PM!

If you have questions, requests for content to cover in future posts and/or the handbook, or if you have a resource you think everyone should know about, join the discussion with the #CoastalResearchGrants hashtag. 

For reference, the topics for this series are:

  1. Before you write…
  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 (this post)

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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