How to avoid the Common Pitfalls when navigating the Grant Application process

Writing a competitive grant proposal is time-intensive and challenging, especially when you are applying to a competitive grant program. The tips in this article serve to highlight some of the pitfalls that catch us out when first embarking on writing a grant proposal. The major pitfalls occur when we do not:

✦ Identify an appropriate grant program for our application

✦ Fully understand the requirements of both the funding agency and our institution

✦ Elicit collaborator input and feedback on the proposal narrative to ensure it is as competitive as possible

✦ Allocate enough time to attend to all of the moving parts

Choose an appropriate grant program that aligns well with your research ideas

Dedicate some time to finding the right funder for you. This will involve conducting searches online and there are many databases that can help you find the right RFP to respond to. For example, is a database of federal grant programs in the United States and includes access to grant programs run by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The Foundation Center also maintains a database of US and global foundations that run grant programs.

Talk to other knowledgeable colleagues

Find some time to talk to someone in the Research and Grants office or the Foundation Relations office at your institution. These offices generally have staff who can support you in searching for the right public or private grant program. At some institutions, staff in these offices can also provide support for developing your proposal. Seek out colleagues who conduct research in your area and ask where they have sought funding. In addition to helping you identify where to seek funding, other researchers can provide guidance on navigating the proposal development process. Finally, reach out and talk to program officers at funding agencies where you might apply. Program officers can help you decide whether your idea is a good fit for their grant program, as well as provide more detailed information about their application process. For private foundations you can often submit a concept paper, or inquiry letter, that outlines your research idea. This can help to determine whether there is a good fit before spending time in developing a full proposal.

Follow all guidelines

Make sure that you read carefully through all of the grant application guidelines and requirements. Proposals will likely not be considered for review if the grant application guidelines have not been followed exactly. Look at the specific forms required by the funding agency and determine who at your institution can offer support for completing those forms. Pay particular attention to:

✦ The date and time for submission

✦ Specific requirements for developing your budget and budget narrative including allowable expenses

✦ Format for the proposal narrative and abstract

✦ Documents or letters of support you need from partners

In addition to the application guidelines from the funder, there are a set of mandatory procedures and processes at each institution. At universities, most proposals go through a sponsored research office. They generally require approval and signatures of a fiscal agent at your institution. Make sure you understand all of these procedures before you begin to work on your grant application and, if possible, reach out to staff who will be involved in the process. Allocate ample time for all procedures to take place. At most universities, the office of sponsored research requires your application at least 5 working days before the submission date so they can review everything. Providing them with more than 5 days is preferred and they do often catch errors which you will then need to correct.


The grant application process is complex and time-intensive. Forming research collaborations is always a good idea. A great way to enter the grant application process, especially for early career researchers, is to collaborate with senior faculty and serve as a co-principal investigator on their research project. This provides an opportunity to experience the process from beginning to end with a more seasoned peer. If you are at a small institution, you may not have access to more senior researchers locally. Develop relationships with academics and researchers at other institutions. This networking can often be achieved when you become involved with professional organizations and attend conferences in your field.

In addition to collaborating with other researchers, you should develop relationships with stakeholders who might play a role in your research project or be involved in submitting the grant proposal. For example, in education research many projects involve a role for schools. If you have other entities outside of your institution that might be involved with your grant, make sure to develop those relationships, and to launch the partnership early in the grant application process. You will often need letters of support from those entities, and depending on the nature of your project, you may need to include them in the budget portion of your proposal. Grant applications involve complex paperwork from all partners. This often includes a separate scope of work, budget, and budget narrative. So, starting to develop these in collaboration with partners early in the process is key to your success.

Elicit feedback when preparing the narrative

The project narrative is the most important component of the grant application. However, since you are managing so many components, it often feels like your time is constantly being pulled in other directions. Plan for ample time every day to work on the narrative. Decide in advance who you will seek feedback from, and when you will send pieces of the narrative to them for their input. Try to stay on track with your planned timeline and be realistic about the time you allow for readers to generate meaningful input. Make sure that you reach out to anyone from whom you would like feedback in advance of starting the process and provide them with clear indications about when you will be sending them something to read and when you need them to send feedback to you.

The main components of most research grant narratives include:

✦ Abstract – summary of the proposal that should include a statement of its significance.

✦ Specific aims of the project – here you should include the purpose and method of proposed research – your aims should be focused and connected.

✦ Background and significance – literature review on what research has been conducted in this area. You should emphasize any deficiencies in that body of research and state how your research will contribute to any gaps. You need to state why your research is significant to the field.

✦ Preliminary studies/prior findings – state any preliminary studies you have conducted connected to this research project and describe the findings. This could include any pilot study data that you have.

✦ Research design and methods – this is a key component for the reviewers. You will describe the research questions, your plan for data collection, and your proposed data analysis plan. This section should be quite detailed and very clear. This is the section that benefits the most from colleague review. If you have reached out to researchers to be an advisory group for your project, you can ask them for feedback and input on this section. Make sure that the data analysis plan aligns with the expertise of the principal investigator and/or co-principal investigators for the project.

✦ Limitations and conclusions – this section is generally very short. But you should note any limitations or potential problems of the research study. Conclude this section with a statement re-emphasizing the significance of this study.


Manage your time. Before you begin the grant application process, develop a detailed timeline to make sure you keep track of all the moving parts. This should include the following:

✦ Date that the application is due to the funding agency.

✦ Date that the application is due to the sponsored research office at your institution.

✦ Date that you need any grant applications forms back from partners named on the grant application, including co-principal investigators, consultants that are named in your budget, forms relating to any sub-awards from other partners.

✦ Date that you need any letters of support.

✦ Dates for multiple revisions of the proposal narrative.

✦ Dates for proposal development meetings with collaborators.

Start small

Don’t be too ambitious when developing your research questions and project ideas. This is especially true if you are an early career researcher just launching your research agenda. You should consider starting with an exploratory study or a pilot study. A smaller study will often mean you are looking for less money over a shorter period of time. Proposals for exploratory studies don’t often require showing existing research that you have conducted, but rather they should show how your research questions are grounded in the existing research conducted in the field and will help to further knowledge in the field. Pilot study data will help you apply later for larger grant programs. You can often seek funding from private foundations to help support smaller research programs. In addition, many institutions offer small grant programs for academics at the beginning of their career, so make sure to know what research support is offered at your institution.

In conclusion, these tips can help you avoid some of the major pitfalls of the grant application process. Remember that many grant programs make only a very small number of awards during each grant period and the review process can often be quite rigorous. So, if you are not successful the first time, don’t get discouraged. Many researchers are not successful with their first application. It may take a number of rounds of submissions before you receive funding.


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