Writing a Grant Proposal

Clearly, some of the best funding sources for graduate students are those that include tuition remission. For this reason, most students pursue those types of funding options first, particularly graduate assistantships and fellowships. However, there is another path to this goal that is often overlooked. For a graduate student who is interested in funding a specific research interest or who will be pursuing a long-term graduate program such as a Ph.D., it can be very advantageous and fruitful to write a grant proposal, particularly one with a budget that includes funding for a graduate assistantship appointment.

When this type of grant proposal is drafted, the leading researcher is referred to as the Principal Investigator or PI. The status of PI is conferred by the university. Most faculty members have PI status and there are also some researchers on campus who have PI status. A graduate student who is interested in working on a grant proposal must proceed under the supervision of a specific PI. In many cases this will be one's major professor but it doesn't have to be. It could be another faculty member or even another researcher on campus. Regardless of who the PI will be, the grant proposal ultimately will need to be processed by the campus administration. The coordination of this process can occur through any campus department with which the PI is formally affiliated. Ideally this would be the Nelson Institute, but if the PI is affiliated with more than one program or department, one of those could also shepherd the proposal through the submission process. More details follow below.

Submitting a grant proposal does not, of course, guarantee acceptance. However, even if a grant proposal is not successful, time spent learning the "art" of grant-proposal writing can be very valuable, particularly since proposal writing is a significant part of the academic life of many researchers and scholars. Proposal-writing experience is also essential in many other professions. In short, any time put into the process of proposal writing will eventually pay off in one way or another. So do consider this as a part of your funding strategy.

How To Proceed

If you are interested in the possibility of receiving a grant that could fund your graduate studies (i.e., working through university channels to draft a grant proposal with a budget that includes a graduate assistantship), here is a short summary of how to proceed:

  1. Research potential funding sources. One useful reference is the book, Environmental Grantmaking Foundations, available at Memorial Library in several formats. A non-circulating, electronic copy (CD) is offered by the Grants Information Center in Room 262 Memorial Library. A circulating paper copy is available from Memorial Library; check the MadCat Catalog for the current check-out status of this book.
  2. Explore the available funding databases. The university subscribes to several online funding databases, and access is available to all current students, faculty, and staff. Because the system must be able to recognize a user as a UW-Madison subscriber, you may find that you need to access these through a university-based computer (SPIN may require cookies; the others do not):

    Community of Science & Community of Scholars (COS)
    Illinois Researcher Information Service (IRIS)
    Sponsored Programs Information Network (SPIN)

    For links to other funding databases such as GrantsNet, see the list of funding resources posted by UW's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.
  3. Begin development of the proposal. If you haven't written a grant proposal before, the following resources may be extremely helpful at this stage:
    The Office of Research and Sponsored Programs offers information on proposal development. One of these includes a link to EPA's resource advice. EPA once offered a popular online tutorial on how to write a competitive grant proposal. Although EPA no longer maintains this web site, this EPA Grant-Writing Tutorial is still available, and now maintained by Purdue. Here on campus the Graduate School offers a seminar and workshop series each semester, including sessions on funding and grant proposals.

    Another indispensable campus resource is the Grants Information Collection (GIC), in Room 262 of Memorial Library. GIC maintains a large collection of reference materials on fellowships and grants, some of which are specific to graduate study. Both CD-ROM resources and printed materials are available at the library, and funding workshops are offered each semester. In particular, see the funding workshop schedule and the funding sources for individuals. Equally valuable is their list of proposal-writing web sites.
  4. Recruit faculty interest and support. As mentioned earlier, grants that are earmarked for academic institutions normally require faculty and/or administrative involvement. The directory of Nelson Institute Faculty and Staff may be a useful starting point in looking for potential collaborators. When enlisting faculty support, you will need to find someone who is not only interested in similar research but who is also willing to serve in an official capacity as PI for the grant in question. At this point it is important to keep in mind just what this means. The PI will be the lead member of the research team, regardless of who drafts any particular grant proposal. If the proposal is successful and ultimately funded, the PI will be responsible for filling any graduate assistantships that the budget may include. In short, the PI is responsible for managing all aspects of the grant. If a graduate student writes or assists in writing the grant proposal, ideally that student's eventual role will be to support the project, either as a research assistant or as a project assistant (and in many cases this research will become the basis for his or her thesis). But that hiring decision will ultimately be the PI's.
  5. Write the grant proposal. Once a faculty member or researcher has been identified and is willing to participate fully as PI, the proposal-writing process can begin. Every grant solicitation will include a specific set of instructions and criteria. Although the main emphasis will be on the research, another significant aspect of any grant proposal will be the budget. If a graduate student is hoping to fund his/her research with this grant, the budget is the place to build in this possibility. Budget line items related to graduate student support typically include funding for one or more graduate assistantships (i.e., stipend, fringe benefits, and tuition remission surcharge); any necessary travel expenses; and possible research supplies or equipment.
  6. Choose a program or department through which to route the grant proposal. In the case of university grant initiatives, a specific sequence of steps must be followed, including a review by the sponsoring department chair and dean or director, and the university's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. In most cases, the PI will be the one who decides on the processing route. Faculty PIs can route grant proposals through any department or program with which they are affiliated. Ideally, this would be the Nelson Institute. Here at the Nelson Institute, this process is guided by Hope Simon, Assistant Director. Check with Hope early in this process for guidance on how to prepare the grant proposal and how to route it through university channels via the Nelson Institute.