Monday Motivation #112 (7/18/22)
Long ago, I won an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. I’d always been a pretty good writer, and was fortunate to have some great faculty mentors to help me polish up the application. When I eventually returned to the College of Engineering, I started helping students prepare their own applications for the NSF and similar graduate fellowship programs. I organized information sessions; got past Fellows to come give advice to current applicants; and spent a lot of time in conference rooms hosting “write ins” and feedback sessions. A decade later, I’ve gotten to celebrate with more than 50 students who have won these major awards!
Writing a successful proposal is definitely both science and art: enough details and background to demonstrate the intellectual merit of the new work, with enough inspiration and storytelling to convince reviewers of the potential for positive impact on science — and on society. While my first proposal to the NSF resulted in a graduate fellowship, almost two decades passed before I finally earned funding for a project where I was one of the principal investigators. I worked on a number of successful proposals in between, including a few where I was named (and paid!) as key personnel. But there were also a LOT of rejection letters, often with conflicting feedback from different reviewers. Some loved the project and were eager to see it funded, while others didn’t see the point or weren’t convinced that the potential impact was worth investing federal dollars.
Once I got the hang of writing successful proposals, I started getting invitations to serve on review panels. I spent hours sitting in rooms with other experts as we tried our best to infer what the authors meant in proposals where the details were not explained clearly, and as we struggled to decide which of the excellent proposals to fund — and which great ideas just didn’t fit into the budget. Serving as a reviewer is a great education, and I learned a lot about how to structure strong proposals and how to present information in ways that make it easy for reviewers to understand (hint: section headings are a huge help!).
This week, I’m sharing some ideas and resources to help improve your own persuasive writing skills; while proposal-writing is only part of some careers, being able to make a strong case in support of your ideas is an important skill for all of us!
Three Things to Try This Week
Learn about Grant Writing — there are many resources for writing proposals in specific areas of science and engineering, and it’s always a good idea to seek out specific advice for your field. As a starting point, though, this article from Nature offers some practical advice for communicating clearly whether you’re writing a grant or talking about your experiences in an interview or at a conference.
Engineer your Writing — this essay describes how to apply engineering skills and problem-solving approaches to writing projects.
Be Persuasive — whether you’re drafting a proposal for funding or a cover letter for a job application (or even your thesis!), knowing how to understand and communicate effectively with your audience is key. Learn more about persuasive writing here.
- Last call! Tomorrow is the beginning of the final summer series for the FREE, VIRTUAL training opportunities offered as part of the NSF-funded CyberAmbassadors program: https://tinyurl.com/US22CAcert. Completing the full series will help you build your Communications, Teamwork and Leadership skills, and earn you a certificate! (Full disclosure: I’m one of the PIs on this project.)
- Want to apply for your own NSF Graduate Research Fellowship? The MSU AGEP Program is hosting a series of workshops to help you draft a strong application, starting September 12. Learn more and register here.
- On Wednesday, July 27 the Graduate School, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, and Office of Research and Innovation are offering a workshop to improve teamwork skills in research contexts. This is an event designed specifically to support the success of graduate students and post-doctoral scholars, and will happen in person in the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility from 3:00p.m. to 4:30p.m. EST. Learn more and register here.