Be as longwinded as you like, just don’t expect funding

Faculty meetings can be a fun crucible in which to observe people’s attitudes about almost anything. Today, let’s look at the attitude that some people have about grant writing (and how that attitude may thwart them from accomplishing what they want).

Some time ago at a faculty meeting, the subject of having students do an exercise in grant writing came up.

One group of faculty proposed that the student should begin by writing a “specific aims” limited to one page, which would be reviewed by the faculty before further work on a proposal was to be done.

Another faculty member piped up, “But sometimes you can’t fit everything into one page! I’m working on a proposal right now where the aims are longer, and I need the extra space to explain things adequately.  We shouldn’t force the students into only one page.” (Not an exact quote, but it paraphrases the spirit of the remark closely).

Having thought a lot about grant writing, and occasionally even taught a person or two how to do it much better, I couldn’t help myself but to respond.  Unfortunately, my response was lame, something along the lines of, “Hey, my colleagues and I who teach grant writing to both our students and people all over the world think that a compact and concise aims IS vital.” In essence I was trying to prove authority by saying we know more than the person who made the original statement. That almost never works in an argument! Some other faculty member responded, “There are many different styles of grant writing and people in this department have had success using various approaches.”

I shut up at the time since it was a distraction from the topic of what the students should be doing. (Did I say that I hate long meetings?) However, it opens up a topic that bears further examination: how longwinded can you be in your aims?

My colleagues are right in that there is no “right” pre-defined length. But do you need more than one page? Everyone has “complicated science” to explain!  Some people can explain it in one page. They set a standard that everyone else has to live up to (if they want maximal chances of funding).

Think about being a reviewer of two proposals: one explains a complicated subject concisely in a one page overview. The other goes into a lot of extra detail that makes it harder to see the big picture.  If the science is approximately equal, which one will you be more enthusiastic about?  Probably the one that explained things to you clearly and concisely.

There is also the mistaken notion that the purpose of the aims is to explain things in detail. Rather, they should explain the structure of your proposal, most importantly defining:

  • Why the work is important
  • Who is doing the work
  • What is the theory behind the work
  • How the work will be approached

Anything additional that obscures those things or relationships between them will only be detrimental to the purpose of the aims.

Finally, The Times, They Are A Changin’. Briefly, universities have performed unprecedented expansions over the past twenty years. They recruit faculty knowing full well that the only way they can support us is if we get a lot of grants. But the problem the pool of grant money is now shrinking. In such a competitive environment*, the approaches that used to work become marginal. More than once, recently, has a colleague expressed to me exasperation at once being able to get funding with no problem, and now having great difficulty.

In an ever-tighter funding environment, just using what worked in the past isn’t good enough anymore. You have to go one better.

To that end, I’ve put together a set of resources including a specific aims template and a set of videos, along with a free report on the critical approach to funding that improves your odds in today’s environment. Grab yours here (


*I believe that it would be far better for scientists to band together to improve this situation than to proceed with a dog-eat-dog mentality.  That will only serve to weaken the whole scientific endeavor, making us subject to even further cuts from the anti-science forces.


Morgan Giddings is the Author of Four Steps To Funding and creator of the Grant Dynamo.  She is presently an Associate Prof at UNC Chapel Hill running a systems biology lab.

Tags: , , .

Filed under Careers.