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Author discusses her new book on grant-writing


Landing a grant is essential for many faculty members—grants support their work and likely signal to their superiors that this is a faculty member to nurture. But securing a grant may be difficult for many, especially those who haven’t applied for grants before.

Enter The Grant Writing Guide: A Road Map to Success (Princeton University Press) by Betty S. Lai, an associate professor at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development of Boston College.

Lai goes through the grant-writing process, from shaping one’s research agenda to learning about potential funders (public and private) and shares her own experiences. She also includes a submission checklist and a glossary of terms.

She responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: You note that many people assume there are only one or two types of grants. What leads researchers to limit their options? Are there really so many options?

A: Researchers often focus on limited types of grants because they don’t realize that there are many options for grants. And there truly are many options. Around the world, more than 16 million grants have been awarded since 2003. Not all of these grants are a good fit for any individual researcher. But a key grant-writing skill is learning how to find grant opportunities that could be a good fit. When you know how to look for grant options, you gain more chances to secure support for your ideas.

Q: What is ikigai? How can knowing your ikigai help you land grants?

A: Ikigai is a Japanese concept that translates roughly to your reason for being. In my book, I use ikigai as a framework for generating grant ideas. As scholars, our work is about ideas. But we often aren’t taught how to generate exciting ideas. This is a problem in grant writing, because to get funded today, you need to develop ideas that reviewers find exciting. By focusing on different aspects of ikigai, I show readers how to develop ideas that they care about and that reviewers will also care about.

Q: You mention that an administrator told you during your first weeks as an assistant professor that a federal grant would be more valuable to you than a foundation grant. Why?

A: I didn’t understand this comment when I was first learning to write grants. Over time, I learned that my administrator cared about federal grants because they often bring in higher “indirect costs” than foundation grants. Indirect costs refers to additional money that funders pay to an institution to cover overhead costs for the grant. For example, my institution’s current indirect-cost rate is 56.5 percent. That means that if I secure a federal grant for $100,000, my institution will receive an additional $56,500 in indirect costs. That extra money was very important to my administrator. But different administrators and scholars hold varying values about what matters in grant writing. You need to understand those values, because they influence how people see your work and evaluate you for promotion. That’s why I focus in the book on how to discern these values.

Q: What are some tips you have for people applying for their first grant?

A: In addition to the skills mentioned above, learn how to talk to program officers, obtain sample grants and don’t give up. Program officers manage scholarships for a funder. They can be a key source of information and insight to you as you are writing grants. Program officers can help you learn how to understand the fit of your work with the mission of the funder, reviewer mind-sets and how to be competitive at the funder. The best time to email a program officer is usually after you’ve developed a one-page abstract of the grant you hope to write.

Regarding grant samples, it’s hard to write a great grant if you’ve never seen one before. I keep a list of openly available grants on my website, but you can also ask mentors and colleagues if they would be willing to share their funded grants with you. Reading samples helps you understand how to write in a way that’s compelling to reviewers and funders.

Finally, don’t give up. Most scholars are not funded on their first grant submission. At the National Science Foundation, scholars submit an average of 2.3 proposals for every grant funded. A rejection is evidence that you are developing your grant-writing skills. It means you put your ideas out into the world and got top scholars to ponder your ideas. The only way to succeed in grant writing is to try.

Q: Humanities professors tend to say that there are fewer grant opportunities for them. Any advice for those in the humanities?

A: Yes! Learn how to find grant opportunities. Start by identifying peers and mentors whose work you admire. Study their CVs to learn who has funded them in the past. Follow humanities scholars on social media. Pay attention to when people announce their grant awards. Bookmark those awards and study those grant opportunities to see if they could be a good fit for you. Start networking with program officers at conferences to learn about potential opportunities. Talk to your institutional grants office or foundation office. Ask them for their advice for potential grants for you. This has multiple benefits: you develop a relationship with people whose goals align with yours (i.e., helping you secure funding), you lean on their knowledge of the grant-writing landscape and they will keep an eye out for opportunities for you when new grant opportunities appear.



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Author discusses her new book on grant-writing
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