On deciding what to write for grants


Spring is the major grant season in Sweden. This year as I’m sitting down to write, I noticed that the grant cycle follows seasonal emotions fairly closely. As we write our grants, we start out hopeful. It is the time when the sun and light and warmth finally begins to reach us here in the north. It is a time for beginnings and a good time to decide the projects we want to pursue for the next four years. Everything is shiny and new and full of promise. By the time you get the answer of whether you are funded, the darkness and winter have started to close in. And for all but a few of us (<10%), it is a bit of depression before we can get distracted by the Christmas season.

This April will be my third time trying for a VR grant (major Swedish government grant). The last two years I’ve received decent reviews and written a fairly solid plan of research, but neither times was I close to being funded. Sweden is like a lot of places (all?) and the competition for large, multi-year grants is fierce. To some extent there is an element of chance to which projects ultimately get funded. So, it is tough to know whether there is some fatal flaw in your project or whether it is worth giving the same project another try.

I’m finding myself in a familiar place again this spring-trying to decide what project to apply for this year. I still think that the projects I have used in the past are good ones, worth doing. I could, of course, improve the grants for this round. But I’m leaning towards completely shifting my study system (although not all of the questions) and writing a new grant. My quick list of pluses and minuses goes something like this:


  1. no fatigue for the idea/project (even though I like my old proposals, I am getting tired of being rejected)
  2. local system (easier to involve masters students, reduced travel costs)
  3. maybe demonstrates more independence from past advisors (something that seems very important here)
  4. get the fun of playing with a new-to-me system but with the advantages of a strong literature on the species


  1. more writing/time to prepare (can’t just dust off the old proposal)
  2. no preliminary data of my own to present in the proposal (but lots of other peoples’ publications to back up the ideas)
  3. no North American research (a plus and minus for me)

I’m getting advice from my peers/mentors and reading successful grants to give me more ideas of what I want to apply for. Although our grants are ultimately about the science, it is interesting that there are a lot of factors that go into what projects you actually decide to apply for.

Because I seem to be all about lists today, here’s another with some things (in no particular order) that I consider when writing a grant:

  1. research you want to do/questions that interest you
  2. system/location
  3. sexy science (will it get funded?)
  4. feasibility (can you convince the reviewers that you can do the project)
  5. logistics
  6. tailoring to the funding agency

My choice to switch projects for this next round is in part due to my own funding/position. My salary for my position is running out in the next two years, so any grant I receive will need to cover my own salary as well as other costs. Covering me, means that I won’t have the funds to hire a PhD student for the project. Much of the work I want to do requires a lot of field data collection. It would be really fun to do but at this stage it isn’t feasible for me to leave my family for such long periods, so switching to a system in Sweden where I can support masters students as well as break-up the fieldwork with going home for dinner makes a lot more sense. I can allow practical issues like location drive my decisions on what to study, in part because the kind of questions I’m interested in are relevant to my backyard, wherever that might be.

In any event, I’ll make a final decision about what to propose in the coming weeks and get hopeful again that my project gets funded.

Feel free to give advice in the comments!

One thought on “On deciding what to write for grants

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