More advice to junior faculty (grant writing edition)

Sep 27 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

How many times do I need to say this??

You can argue about font (Ariel gives you the most bang for your buck, but what the heck, you like Georgia, I don't care). You can argue about which citation method (I prefer Author, date, but will tolerate numbers. I understand you want to save space, but remember, it is easier for me, the reviewer to read author, number. Ask yourself, what is more important: the space you save, or my comprehension of what you say?) to use. You can argue about justification (although justified on the right *will* add weird spaces in the middle, your choice, gospodin).


You need to leave some white space. If you push the spacing to the limit (i.e.lines vertically crammed together), and minimize the margins to 0.167 inch, and leave no extra space between paragraphs (an extra 6pts looks nice), you will have massive, Soviet blocks of text. My eyes will glaze over and I will not appreciate the gorgeousness of your ideas, your logic and your prose.

I want to fund you, young junior faculty, young untenured padawan. Really I do. I want to give you a score so that you can go forth and prosper. But, dammit, sometimes I feel that I am fighting an uphill battle.


21 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    I'm going to throw in another peeve. I'm reviewing applications now. Sweeping statements like this: "nothing is known about bunny hopping." You might as well say "DNA" in place of bunny hopping. For fuckssakes, read the articles that you actually cite. Some of them may have even been written by your reviewer, you dumb shit. Other people do their homework and nicely highlight a genuine gap in knowledge that has challenged a particular field. They briefly summarize what has been discovered as a way to define the remaining challenge (that the proposal addresses), rather than a sweeping dismissal of the past 60 years or so of intense research.

    • potnia theron says:


      But... I try not think of the applicants as "dumbshits", as all hope is lost at that point. (although I understand the temptation...)

      • eeke says:

        It's tempting to write the review as I've written it above. Thanks for giving the opportunity to vent.

        • iGrrrl says:

          Oh, eek, vent away. I make this point in seminars all the time. The other thing I tell them is that just because something isn't already in the literature, that does not constitute an argument to do that thing. With some frequency someone will argue, "But if we don't know it, it's not in the literature, so why not say it's not in the literature?"

          Frame a problem, a real problem, not a "little research has been done" problem.

    • wally says:

      God, I am really hoping you are not reviewing my F32 right now!!! 🙂

  • Ola says:

    Yes, this, a thousand times over.

    My biggest peeve is a specific aims page with no figure. FFS put a schematic or something on the first page! If I'm bored by a sea of text on page 1, how do you think I'm gonna feel by page 4?

    Another problem I see a lot, is over use of bold/italic/underline... FFS use it sparingly for only the stuff that really matters! If I see every... other... fucking... sentence... in bold, I'm gonna ignore the bold stuff.

    • wally says:

      This is interesting - I have read a ton of SA pages, and have been to multiple trainings on how to do SA pages - and never have I seen a figure on an SA page, nor have I ever heard it recommended!

      • MF says:

        In my last R01 submission, I decided to create a model for the SA page that would schematically outline both the overall idea and the specific topic/experiment done in each of the Aims (basically it was something like a flow chart with schematic depiction of each Aim). I don't know if it was comprehensible but I got a great score so I guess it might have worked.

        Overall, I find that if I cannot represent something pictorially, that means the idea/model has not fully crystallized in my mind. As I force myself to work through the schematic, I can identify gaps and inconsistencies and streamline/clarify the model.

        • potnia theron says:

          Some people think in pictures, others don't. I find that graphs & schematics are great for me working through things, often to find the necessary words.
          Putting such schematics into SA's can help, it can also piss off reviewers (if poorly done). Kudos on getting a great score.

    • potnia theron says:

      Sometimes a figure can work, but usually words are better. Figures are good for demonstrating data, and often the SA page is not about data, or results, but ideas.

    • iGrrrl says:

      We've just been talking about the schematic/model question on Twitter with Drugmonkey and Joe Mcclernon and a few others. My take on the model on the aims page is that most of the ones I see are comprehensible to the person who made them. Sometimes the same model that doesn't help on the Aims can work well in the Research Strategy, either in the Scientific Premise under Significance, or at the beginning of the Approach. By that point the reader has context. But most of us are not good enough at information design to be able to create a figure that is comprehensible on a cold glance. Most require some context from the words.

      And I'm with you on the overuse of emphasis. Someone sent me a proposal with an average of 6 words in bold per page. My eye immediately went from bold to bold, and instead of prose I had word salad.

  • Yes! Yes! Who can concentrate on 10 pages of all text? Worse when on a panel and reading many proposals in a row.

    Also define your acronyms! Not everyone evaluating your proposal uses your techniques regularly.

    • David says:

      Once had a tech editor give me a great piece of advice on acronyms - don't be afraid to redefine them. If I haven't seen it in 6 pages, refresh my memory.

    • drugmonkey says:

      I've always believed you were supposed to redefine acronyms at least once per major section. I have it so clearly in mind that I suspect some English teacher drilled this into me long ago.

      • iGrrrl says:

        Or don't define the abbreviation/acronym at all the first time you use the longer words. Define it when you will use it every few sentences. I try to get people to not use any self-made abbreviations on the Aims page at all.

  • Luminiferous Aether says:

    "You need to leave some white space........... My eyes will glaze over and I will not appreciate the gorgeousness of your ideas, your logic and your prose."

    No way! You are saying that my grant proposal isn't so god damn exciting that you can't put it down, space or no space??!!1?!1!!

  • xykademiqz says:

    Every page of the proposal narrative should have some "eye candy" -- ideally a figure, or at the very least a table or some other visual hook (like a bulleted list). And definitely some space between lines.

    I am partaking in the writing of a renewal proposal for a large center. It's killing me how verbose the writing of my subgroup's lead PI is. The text is cramped to bursting and he could cut, I kid you not, 30%, if he were merciless with his editing (so our figures wouldn't have to be microscopic). Right now, there are too many hedge words and fillers; I have suggested edits several times but they don't seem to "take." Anyway, the moral of the story is to cut all words that do not serve a useful purpose, cut all sentences that are generic or fluffy. Proposals should feature the most crisp and effective writing one can muster.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    I shake my cane in solidarity!

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Leave no lines with one or two words at the end of a paragraph. Simple rewording always takes care of this. It is amazing how much space this can save.

    Do not indent the first line of paragraphs.

    Do not right justify.

    Adjust the space between paragraphs but never less than .3 of a line.

    And like xyz said don't hedge. Showing the text to your non-scientist partner for editing is a great anti-hedge device

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