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Proposal Review Silliness

Lately, I have been reviewing proposals and playing a game with myself  called “Guess how many grants the PI already has based solely on flipping through the proposal to see the formatting.” The correlation is quite pronounced: people who have a reader-friendly layout are universally better funded than those who don’t. When you start reading, you also see that their text flows better (even if the ideas are not necessarily earth-shattering and they end up not funded). Successful grant writers definitely take care of readability, and readability includes thinking about the layout.  Good, reader-friendly layout helps your reviewer think happy thoughts and not dread reading on, as opposed to start hating you with a passion 2 pages in because the gray walls of text gave him/her a claustrophobia attack.

These tips have been mentioned online many times, I am sure, but they never get old: for goodness’ sake, put some space between paragraphs,  go with spacing that’s greater than single (1.1 to 1.2), and break up the text. Ideally, each page will have a figure, a table, or at the very least one or two displayed (as opposed to inline) equations. Look at these three samples — the text from my earlier post, “Musings on Networking” — which format seems the least stifling and the most inviting?

MusPDF1_Page_1

Version 1: single spacing, no break between paragraphs

MusPDF2_Page_1

Version 2: 1.1 spacing, 6 pt break between paragraphs.

MusPDF4_Page_1

Version 3: 1.1 spacing, 6 pt break between paragraphs, plus a figure

All the text is in 11 pt Times New Roman. I am a Times New Roman fan, it’s a classic font and you will never go wrong with it. There are people who like sans serif fonts like Helvetica or Arial, which are just not my cup of tea. But if a funding agency says a font is fine, then it’s fine; have fun with it. Also, I know people will say “But I am constrained to 15 (or however many) pages, I can’t waste space on silly tricks.” Yes, you can and you should. You can purge the fluff and become even more clear and succinct than before, and the reviewer will be happier for it in more ways than one.

— Do give your proposal a title that is short and catchy, but please also be accurate. I got several proposals roughly entitled “Pie in the Sky Is High But I Can Fly” and then one is about the aeronautical engineering of taking off, another is about optimizing sugar-to-flour ratio in pie recipes, and the third is about why the sky is blue and if we can manipulate its color. 

—   There are always fads, hot areas. Once a topic is established as hot, money gets thrown at it, and many people move into the field. However, big groups move faster, and if there are low-hanging fruits, they will be picked by the most nimble. If you are a junior faculty who is just starting with 2 students, you will not be beating a big-named guy who has invented the field, has multimillion-dollar centers funding him to do the work already, and has an army of minions going after the easy pickings. At best, you’ll be just another “me too.” At worst, you will never get any money to do what you are proposing, because groups much bigger and much farther along than you proposed and got funded to do that same exact thing last year and the year before.

When you are just starting up, be mindful of what your strengths are and how fast you can conceivably do something. If you are phenomenally successful at getting money and able to grow much faster than an average new prof, then sure, go ahead, toe to toe with the big guys. But if you are not, then you need to find a niche, something you can do better than others, because of your expertise or how you approach the problems or because no one figured out that some specific aspect may be both important and doable, something that is uniquely yours, not just an obvious question within the latest flavor-of-the-week topic. Be realistic about what you can pull off with the money and personnel you have. And when you identify your niche, then jump on it with all you’ve got.

—  I laughed out loud in my office at a sentence that said something like “In year n of the project, the results will be published in a journal of impact factor at least 10.”

AHAHAHAHAHA! Only 10? Why so low? The stuff is guaranteed to get into Nature! Seriously, people. That’s just amateurish. I can forgive when a graduate student lists 10 papers “in preparation” or “to be submitted to Nature Progeny” on their CV, but a grownup scientist should know better. You can tell me you expect high-impact stuff, but better yet write your proposal in such a compelling fashion that it is crystal clear to me this will be high-impact stuff, in which case I will strongly advocate for funding you. In contrast, the silly silliness of “We’ll totally publish in a Super Duper Glam Mag” is just silly.