How to write a successful grant proposal early in your career

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on

Applying for fellowships is equally challenging as publishing a paper, but a largely unavoidable process on your way up the career ladder. Since I successfully applied for a 2-years postdoc fellowship with a huge national funding agency, I like to share my experience to aid others on their way:

  1. ) The idea behind the project: The science of the proposal was a synthesis and further development of projects I worked on during my PhD and my first postdoc. For getting this grant, it was important to show that I could develop independent ideas and work on a subject that was topically distant enough from my current and past supervisor’s ones. This is also important because you ideally want to have your former supervisors on your side and not as prospective competitors. The field of research was related to my PhD project, but the focus and methods were similar to what I have learned during my postdoc. Then I added something “new” and some methods I was ambitious to learn in the future.
  2. ) To brand my name with the topic and to check out the interest of the scientific community in the subject, I wrote a review about the proposal topic and published it in a decent journal (as a single author). While I think this was very helpful in later getting the proposal accepted because it was easier to sell myself as an expert in the field, I think this step is not generally necessary.
  3. ) Next, a host institution for the fellowship was required. At first, I had no clue where to go and whom to ask. Luckily, I attended a conference and saw a talk by a scientist that had the expertise in the field my future project was about, and I approached the person after the talk. At this point I did not know anything about the scientist, hadn’t checked any scientific achievements but I was just fascinated by the way that person conveyed the science. It was in a really passionate way!! At this point, this passion and the apparent expertise in the field were the major things that had attracted me to this person. I approached the scientist with a vague intuition that this might be good fit and asked for an appointment during the conference. Finally we agreed to work on the proposal together.
  4. ) The writing process was tedious, actually similar to manuscript writing with lots of editing rounds from both parties. Not always a pleasure. What helped me was to work in chunks and to maintain some distance. I worked on it about once a week for a period of 6 months. I did not tell anyone from my current working group about my plans. This was related to the toxicity of the current work place on the one hand, but also I did not want people to know and ask me about my progress. My ambition to work on this topic was fortunately super high and of course this also kept me going. I also created a strong vision it my head about the day I would receive the grant and move on to a more friendly place to work on my dream project.
  5. ) We added some fancy methods and experts in the field as collaborators. It is also wise to make sure that the subject is timely and topical. There are things that are super trendy and act as catalysts for your success…, for instance, science related to Climate Change, Artificial Intelligence, Microplastics, Corona Virus, Big Data, Machine Learning, Robotics …just to name a few of these buzz words. It helps to work in any of these fields, I guess.
Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

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