Feedback on Grants

During the whole “no R01, no tenure” Twitter/Scientopia storm, I somehow stumbled upon this great post by Holly Witteman:

It’s longish, but please go read it — Holly kicks ass! Also, I learned that yogurt is great for keeping blood sugar in check!

One interesting thing that she wrote is that she always has a full draft of each grant 6-8 weeks before the deadline; she then has people comment on the draft and has enough time to incorporate the feedback.

My question for today is: Who (if anyone) gives you feedback on your grants?

If I write a grant on my own, I could make myself finish a draft 6-8 weeks before the deadline. But, if I am the sole PI, there is really no one who is an experienced grant writer and who can spare the time to read through my grant; people are busy writing their own. These days, if I get feedback from anyone on solo grants, it’s from my own group members (senior grad students and/or postdocs). Some junior faculty I am supporting see my well-scoring/awarded grants, but this is more for their benefit,  so they’d learn how to assemble a grant (I don’t want to ask them to give me feedback  prior to submission mostly because I don’t want them to think they owe me this labor when they, too, are super busy).

When I was a whipper-snapper on the tenure track, a couple of people looked at my CAREER grant, which I thought was very helpful; I got the grant on the first try. This was the first and last time that anyone senior had actually carefully read and commented on a whole grant of mine before submission, unless they were a collaborator. Since that first solo-PI award, my faculty mentors figured I knew what I was doing and were less willing to carve out the time to give me feedback, so I took the hint and stopped asking.

One of the best things about writing collaborative grants is the built-in feedback on the writing. Especially in small collaborations, with 2-3 people total, it’s really possible to assemble a very nice and clear proposal after everyone’s chimed in on every part, so the result is an amalgam of all the voices. Bigger collaborations can get a bit nutty, sadly.

How about you, dear readers? Who gives you feedback on your grants?




  1. Some scattered remarks:

    I’ve sent the (1 page) specific aims of my NIH grant proposals out to a few senior faculty before. But never a whole proposal, that sounds like torture. Plus I’m never done more than a few hours before the deadline, regardless of how well intentioned I am to finish early.

    But TBH, the few comments I did get on my specific aims were underwhelming: some comments on grammar, requests for clarification/details that there wasn’t space for, and a suggestion for an experiment that sounded complicated and is out of my expertise. I got more thorough comments from the actual reviewers.

    A number of times I have sent out 1-2 page summaries to program officers (NSF, DoD, NIH); of the few times I got a nontrivial response most of their comments were also quite helpful (I.e. if you can show a path to XYZ then send me a white paper or no that is not my area talk to ABC).

    I once prepared for an important interview by doing a series of mock interviews with various faculty, and I found the feedback in that case to be extremely useful. Without it, I might have been a total disaster without realizing.

  2. I always get feedback from 1-3 trusted people and my institution actually prefers/supports that. Preferably my own postdoc for feedback from someone with inside knowledge, and 1-2 who are slightly outside my field of expertise. I find that the younger the people, the more detailed the feedback (I used to be a grammar and spelling fanatic but as I get older I notice that my own attention is starting to slip there and moving to bigger picture – quite intriguing actually). We also have a grant office where one dedicated person (who actually also ‘gets’ the science) comments on the less science impact/CV stuff.
    I also find absolutely no correlation between the amount of feedback I get and the chances that the grants are actually awarded. It’s not quite inverse either, so there’s that.

  3. I am on the TT. I get feedback from the grant office at the U. For my CAREER they helped a lot polishing the first 2 pages. I got it on the 1st try and had the proposal ready several weeks before. On colleagues, a couple helped as sounding boards for ideas, but they did not give feedback on the text itself.
    On other proposals, if with collaborators I have less control, so normally there is no time to ask the grant office for feedback.
    For a DOE grant we got a paid external peer review before submitting. It was useful but it was not funded.

  4. Ha ha ha nobody. I’m actually shocked that so many of the commenters above get feedback on their grants. I’m the sort of person that almost always has things done weeks before the deadline, so it would be easy for me to ask for feedback, but I just figure everyone else is busy enough with their own stuff and it’s all on me. Our grants office has no idea about technical stuff — having a science-oriented person in the grants office to provide feedback sounds like one of those invisible advantages of being at an R1.

    On the other hand, I’ve been successful anyway. Maybe it helps that I’m in a field that requires many proposals per year since we have to propose not only for money but for access to research facilities to get *anything* done, so I’ve been writing multiple proposals per year since I was a grad student — grant proposals are longer, but most of the same best practices apply. I feel like I’m a pretty competent proposal-writer at this stage (backed up by a decent success rate including two large grants early on in the tenure track), so I’d feel guilty asking someone else to use up their precious time to give me feedback on a grant.

  5. Feedback has been a waste of time for all involved.

    I have a well-intentioned mentor who insisted on reviewing my first big grant. He told me it still needed a lot of work–but he told me after the deadline (which he must have forgotten). Funding rate was <6%, but my grant was funded anyway with a nearly perfect score.

    After that success, I received endless pressure from the Dean's and Provost's offices to apply for more. I'm in theory and didn't need the cash, but for some dumb reason, I felt obligated to keep trying. The grants people were so condescending. Months before the deadline, they met with me and gave me canned, no-duh advice about writing proposals and insisted we outline a schedule so they could review my drafts. I'm pretty sure that despite our ages, I have an order of magnitude more professional editing and writing experience than they do. Meanwhile, their schedule interfered with some tight research deadlines. I blew off their deadlines, and they soured on me. My proposals were half-a$$ed anyway.

    I know I sound arrogant and my sample sizes are small, but in the future, I will try to keep my proposals on the DL and ask for feedback very selectively.

  6. I haven’t asked for feedback since I was a grad student, partly because I know I’m a good grant writer and partly because who would I ask? My dept is small without anyone in my field who can give useful technical advice, and I don’t need general grant-construction advice. Asking peers at other institutions is problematic. Everyone is busy, and we’re all competing for the same tiny pot of money. I definitely bounce ideas off close colleagues, but that’s way before I start writing.

    Before I had tenure, my chair asked to see one of my proposals before I sent it off. The feedback I got back was 95% condescension and 5% outright bullying. It was funded. This is also probably why I don’t send my drafts out for feedback.

  7. We are not allowed to submit an application without three internal to the university reader reports and for larger grants also an external reader. Oddly enough, this is not increasing the number of applications submitted, which was the intention. It’s really onerous!

  8. That is so paternalistic, JaneB!

    So much imposed “support” is not, and I suspect has self-centered origins.

  9. Come to think of it, in the past I have been contacted and asked (by Big R1 Institution) if I would be a (paid) external reviewer/reader/feedback provider – paid for no doubt by said institution’s huge endowment and/or uberhigh indirect cost rate- to evaluate someone’s proposal before it got submitted. My honest reaction was to be viscerally pissed off, because my institution (Not A Big R1, and having a relatively low indirect cost rate) can’t afford to do that, and it just made me realize it was yet another way that the playing field for grants was not level, with the rich inevitably destined to get richer and the poorer institutions doomed to get poorer.

  10. The key is to only ask the right people for feedback – people you know will provide what you need and not just correct grammar or other irrelevant stuff. All you really need is 1 person with experience who will take the time. Another key is you must ask at a stage when you can make changes based on their advice – not the day before.

    Now that my lab group is more mature (I have people who have worked in my lab for years), I find it is critical to get their input on a planned grant-they’re good at spotting errors and can suggest great novel directions to add. This also helps build the skills of my lab group and now I have some people in my group who are writing their own grants too.

    I’ve written and had many R01’s funded in my 20 year biomedical research career. I also site on NIH grant review groups and I teach the grantwriting curriculum in our PhD program. I’m a last minute person and having a grant done 6-8 wks before the deadline would never happen! I usually submit grants from my lab alone – no co-investigator.

    How I do it: I work out the specific aims and experiments in detail over many months and get abundant feedback on that, including from people who sit on the NIH review groups where my grants will go. At this point I reach out and ask certain people for letters of support that I will need in the grant, so they have time to write and send them to me before submission of my grant. I also figure out the rough budget and contact my accountants and get that process going. Then I spend a huge amount of time making and formatting figures and determining how best to present and use the data to sell my ideas, what order to present the data figures etc. It works great to put the figures into a powerpoint/pretend presentation, and then flip through it in front of people and see if they understand and see if they also spot logical breaks or places where we lack key data. Usually this also shows me that we need a few more experiments to support key concepts and directions, and so the lab gets to work to see if we can get this extra data in time.

    After all that the actual writing of the R01’s text goes quickly and usually takes only around 4-5 days at the very end, most of that time being taken by fiddling with the word processing program to get the figs set into the text correctly with legends, insert the references, and to fit everything into the 13 pages permitted for an R01. Fancy wording is not really a thing I work on, since there is usually no room and its not appropriate anyway in a grant – brevity and clarity of writing, and attractive new ideas that are well supported by preliminary data – these are the key to an effective grant application. The other accompanying documents required for an R01 are mostly written by my lab group in the last week, or I do it myself on the very last day while I’m waiting for our admin officials to sign off on the grant submission – rebuttal, animals, human subjects, biosketches, etc.

  11. I am always working up to the last minute, so am generally pretty bad at getting feedback. I am also arrogant and tend to think that I’m able to revise my own stuff (it’s useful to have another person’s opinion to catch technical problems, but in terms of grantmanship, I like to think I can figure out the parts of my grant that don’t flow or aren’t supported or whatever – usually it’s more an issue of running out of time than anything else). I have a colleague who I work in the same group with who will review anything I give him. He might not spend a ton of time on it, but at least will give highly relevant feedback and is good at digesting the big picture. I have another colleague who is just the kind of guy that would review anything I asked, especially if it’s relevant. He’s busy, but he gets things done, AND attentively. It’s impressive. I also do the same for him (i.e., I’m the only co-author who actually carefully reads the papers we publish with like 12 other co-authors), so maybe that’s part of it.

  12. It’s sad that as I’ve moved up in my career, I feel there are less and less opportunities for feedback. I think part of this is how much more aware I am of how busy people are, compared to when I was an undergrad or early grad student. But also I think it comes from people being less supportive as I move up in my career. People are supportive in “spirit” but less in action. I guess that it’s also true that there should be less mentoring as you move up, so maybe this is the right thing to happen? But I at least try to exchange my materials with other postdocs

  13. When I started out, my department chair gave me feedback on my first few solo grants that was very helpful. Since then, I have a couple of colleagues I am close to (personally and with some research interest overlap) look over my proposals sometimes (just the proposed research part, not the whole thing). I do the same for them too–it is nice to get some outside feedback, especially when writing a proposal in a new area, where the ideas might not be fully formed. I don’t do this with all of my solo proposals, though (that would be way too much work!) just the ones I feel could use another set of eyes.

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