How to Write Successful Collaborative Grant Applications

Multidisciplinary collaborative research grant applications are becoming the norm for early and seasoned investigators. But navigating through these applications is different from writing an application as a single investigator. For one thing, scientists from different fields need to share the writing. While there is literature on general strategies for writing a multidisciplinary grant application, this endeavor is still new enough that we continue to figure out the specifics.

This article identifies four key strategies to writing a successful collaborative grant application.

(Excerpted from an article by Barbara St. Pierre Schneider, a research professor of nursing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the Grant Training Center blog, April 4, 2016)

My recent experience in writing an interdisciplinary collaborative research grant differed from my previous ones in that there were three rather than two of us involved in the process. In addition, my two collaborators were from a discipline far from my health science expertise: electrical and computer engineering.

There were parts of the methods that I just couldn’t write because they were beyond my expertise. I had mixed feelings about this inability to write. While I had confidence in my collaborators, I felt totally dependent upon them. On the other hand, this feeling of dependence meant to me that we had formed a true interdisciplinary collaboration.

Through this experience, I have identified four key strategies that worked for us to complete and submit the grant application and feel a sense of accomplishment during the process.

  1. Be clear about collaborators’ expertise and contributions.

Successful grant writing requires that collaborators are clear on what everyone’s expertise is and how this expertise fits with the project’s specific aims. Prior to this grant submission, we were asked to write a white paper. It wasn’t long into the writing process that I realized our good fortune of having written this paper: our research question and approach were solidified, our contributions and expertise were transparent, and our current effort was pure writing instead of conceptualizing as we were writing. But you and your collaborators don’t need to wait for an opportunity to write a white paper. Consider writing one as the collaboration is forming.

  1. Communicate frequently with your collaborators.

During a four-week period, we were in constant communication about the grant. Initially, the three of us had one in-person meeting to review our scientific approach. Then we communicated almost on a daily basis via email. One week before the application, I had another in-person meeting with one collaborator. This meeting was helpful as the collaborator had specific questions about the context of this proposed work within the state of the science. Not only did these questions enhance the collaborator’s understanding of the scientific field, but these questions also helped me to identify areas that I needed to strengthen or clarify within the proposal.

It’s common sense that constant communication is critical to the success of writing a collaborative grant application; however, we are not always intentional about our communication plan, and we all have different approaches to checking and responding to email. So it doesn’t hurt to discuss communication approaches at the start of writing the grant. For example, try to schedule at least two in-person meetings in advance—one at the start and one near the deadline. If you don’t need the second or subsequent meetings, then you can always cancel. It’s easier to schedule in advance than later. Also, to prevent any communication breakdowns, ensure all collaborators are included in email traffic. It’s a simple way to keep everyone in the loop and to create a record of reference for you and your collaborators.

  1. Outsource tasks when possible.

Because we only had four weeks to draft the grant, as the lead co-principal investigator (co-PI), I decided to seek assistance from others so I could focus on the science for the proposal. For example, in my department, we have one staff person who can create a budget table and prepare a budget justification and another staff person who provides guidance in creating National Institutes of Health (NIH) biographical sketches. In addition, I enlisted the assistance of an outside editor to do editing/proofing. This editor helped with ascertaining the strengths of our case, ensuring the grant application read as one voice and met the formatting and content guidelines, and writing mechanics were correct.

These support individuals made a huge difference in completing and submitting a polished grant application, so I highly recommend outsourcing these tasks to these experts. At a research university, staff who can advise about grant budgets are usually available. Also, for specific grant requirements (e.g., the NIH biographical sketch), reach out to colleagues who have completed a similar grant proposal or visit the institution’s website for guidance and/or samples.

In terms of editing support, check with your institution’s research or sponsored programs office to learn if editorial assistance is available. Another viable—and valuable—option is to hire a graduate student as an hourly worker to help with these tasks. A graduate student with a particular expertise can be just as effective at creating budgets, drafting biosketches, and editing your proposal as a full-time employee.

  1. Develop a strategic plan for writing the grant.

Finally, as the lead co-PI, I was strategic about the order in which the different application sections were completed. For our specific project, there were five required sections: the project narrative, the one-page summary for the future external grant application, the budget, the curriculum vitae (the NIH biographical sketch), and the description of current and pending support.

I chose to complete the project narrative first because I wanted to ensure that I had the creative energy and time for multiple revisions, especially since this application involved three writers. Plus, I needed to complete the project narrative before starting the one-page summary since this would describe the subsequent project to be submitted to an external funding agency. The budget table and justification were also completed early because the budget affected the project timeline, which was part of the project narrative. I was intentional in waiting until the project narrative was almost done to complete the curriculum vitae and support sections because I knew I would be outsourcing this task and could complete these even after much of my creative energy had been used up.

So when writing this type of grant, develop a strategic plan. This plan needs to account for the high and low points of your creative energy, the order in which multiple writers will need to contribute, the order in which sections need to be written, and the availability of support individuals. Even as a collaborator who is not the lead co-PI, you can develop a strategic plan so that your creative energy is highest when you need to contribute to sections, such as the project narrative. Finally, don’t forget to set deadlines as part of this plan. If you are the lead co-PI, you may propose these. If you are a collaborator, you may offer counter deadlines. When you can’t meet these, give new ones to ensure that the work will get done in a timely manner.

Although writing an interdisciplinary research collaborative grant application can be intimidating, implementing these four strategies will likely reduce this feeling, allowing you to be more confident and composed throughout the entire writing process.