Grant Writing: Guidelines and Best Practices


Engage Your Audience: Write with the Reviewer in Mind

  • A happy reviewer is a positive reviewer. Think about your reviewers as you write and presume that they have already read many grant proposals as they come to yours and will not have the energy to struggle through disorganized, turgid prose.
  • You can make your application easier to review by organizing your content (have each new paragraph pick up logically where the previous one left off to make it flow). Make your discussion concise and precise. Avoid jargon, define acronyms and abbreviations, and use clear and unambiguous language.
  • Think of your proposal as a compelling story: get your reviewers as excited as you are about your field by describing the stakes, the context, and the potential knowledge translation. Do not annoy your reviewers by forcing them to struggle to understand your points. Use a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph to inform them of what that paragraph will be about.
  • Formatting: Use logical, bold, numbered headings and paragraphs that are no longer than ¾ of a page so the reviewers can visually comprehend and navigate through the structure of your argument. Use italics sparingly to highlight key sentences or keywords. Use bullet points to break up blocks of text and to visually represent a well-defined step-by-step process.
  • Balance detailed descriptions of the science with a persuasive answer to the question “so what? Why does this research need to be carried out and how will it be ground-breaking in the context of your field?”
  • Language choices: Use words like “ground-breaking” and “cutting-edge,” as well as the future-tense “will” rather than the conditional “might” to emphasize your highly innovative approach and confidence in its success.
  • Do not assume that all of the reviewers will be experts in your particular field. Use language that will be understood by generalists, but that will also convince the experts on the review committee that you really know your stuff. Define technical terminology and acronyms.
  • Because you are so close to your own project and work in your field on a daily basis, you may need to consciously try to get perspective on it so you can clearly articulate to an outsider how your project is distinct, urgent, and innovative within the context of your field. Do not assume that the importance of your project is self-evident to reviewers. Context must be described and the ground-breaking nature made explicit.
  • Get to the point early: identify the research question, approach and likely outcomes within the first few pages. Describe the key elements of your proposed project before describing disciplinary context.
  • Provide Research Context: “While X has been achieved in this field thus far, our project will critically advance the field by doing Y.”
  • Future Tense: While you will need to address past research and training achievements, it is important that most of your discussion has a forward-looking focus and offers details for how you will achieve future results. Focusing on future achievements subtly implies that you are eager and capable of making further research breakthroughs.

Summaries are More Important than You Might Think

  • Summaries are used by committee members to determine their level of expertise for their review.
  • Summaries are used for the alignment review to determine the relevance of your proposal. If it is determined to be irrelevant, it will be withdrawn before it goes to review.
  • While it may be tempting to give these summaries short shrift, given all of the other tasks you must complete, they are among the most important parts of your application.
  • Use summaries at the end of sections and the end of long paragraphs throughout your proposal to wrap up key points or complex ideas, in order to make it easier for the reviewers to follow your train of thought.
  • Summaries guide your reviewers and allow you to reframe your project in the way you want, rather than leaving reviewers to struggle to summarize what they have read for themselves and perhaps misconstrue your goals/ambitions.

CRITERION 1: Quality of the Program

1.1 Research Concept

This sub-criterion is intended to assess the research component of the program, as well as the significance of the anticipated outcomes. This section allows you to describe your research program at length and to get the reader excited about its potential. It is important to have a well-organized discussion. A running theme of the application should be that the new infrastructure is absolutely essential for conducting your research. The following structure is one suggested way to present your discussion:

Introduction: Begin by outlining the overall vision of your research program. State the major research goals and explain how the program of research will significantly advance the field.

Proposed Research: Follow the introductory section with a more substantial discussion of your research. Discuss the current state of knowledge and the pressing questions you plan to address. Discuss the present research opportunity and how you will capitalize on it. Describe realistic timelines and be sure to discuss short-term and long-term program outputs.

Significance and Innovation: Compare this work to other research being done nationally and/or internationally, and discuss what sets your work apart. Do similar projects exist in Canada or worldwide? Can you differentiate your project from them? (e.g., “We are currently the only team in the world investigating ‘Y’” or “Although research in the field of ‘X’ has been done before, this would be the first time that...”). Make a case for the uniqueness of your research.

Translation: Address your translation strategies. These may include how you will secure the required resources or ensure effective collaboration. Provide specifics about the nature of the translational opportunity and do not simply state that “we hope translational opportunities may arise from this work.

Tips for this Section:

  • Present a coherent vision of your project: build a narrative that explains how the various elements discussed form a cohesive program and not a disconnected collection of experiments.
  • Be sure that your goals are extremely well-articulated by placing them in single, succinct sentences at the beginning or end of paragraphs so they stand out.
  • Make sure your proposed research program is in line with your expertise described in Stage 1.
  • Divide your project into themes subdivided into subsections that clearly defined the justification of the proposed approaches.
  • Balance AMBITION and FEASIBILITY by offering quantitative evidence and a realistic timeline for a project that will “significantly advance knowledge and/or its translation into improved health care, health systems and/or health outcomes.”

1.2 Research Approach

This sub-criterion is intended to assess the quality of the approach of the proposed program of research. Consider the below paragraph structure:

Begin this section by describing a specific and detailed research program, research strategies and key activities (including methodological approaches and procedures for data collection and analysis). Describe why the approach is appropriate and how it will allow for flexibility as the program evolves. Describe how progress and success will be measured against key milestones and explicitly describe the milestones.

Follow the above discussion with a detailed analysis of potential challenges/risks that might arise to the research program and the knowledge translation. Demonstrate that you have considered realistic mitigation strategies.

Tips for this section:

  • Ensure that your research approaches are based on well-established techniques that are well aligned with your expertise and the team assembled by the applicant.
  • Offer details of the methodological approaches and make sure they are capable of being carried out in your lab or available by the collaborators and program experts involved.
  • While ambitious, make sure that the plan is a logical extension of existing methods.
  • Use the word “flexibility” to make it easier on your reviewers who will be looking for this key term in your proposal in relation to the evolving changes in your project.
  • Explicitly address your challenges.
  • Use bullet points to show reviewers you have a specific step-by-step plan to track progress and mitigate potential pitfalls. Be very specific here.
  • Part of your mitigation plan should include alternative strategies.
  • The inclusion of a scientific advisory board for measuring progress and success is an excellent idea
  • Don’t forget to frame your discussion as offering a promising new direction or as developing new methods.


CRITERION 2: Quality of the Expertise, Experience and Resources

2.1: Expertise

This sub-criterion is intended to assess the expertise and experience of the Program Leader(s) as well as any collaborators to collectively deliver on the objectives of the proposed program. It is the responsibility of the Program Leader(s) to ensure that the proposed research program is poised for success. Below is a recommended structure for this section:

Describe the expertise and experience (disciplinary, professional, or methodological) of the proposed Program Leader(s), as well as any collaborators (e.g., researchers, technicians, knowledge-users, partners, patients and trainees, etc.) Explain how you are a world leader in the field and have been recognized. Include h-index and number of citations as well as significant agency funding.

Describe the roles and responsibilities of the Program Leader(s) and link them to the objectives of the research program. Explain how the collaborators, if any, have been carefully selected to complement the PI’s expertise.

Describe the level of engagement (e.g., time commitment and contribution) of Program Leader(s).

As applicable, describe the commitment (cash or in-kind) from interested or engaged knowledge user(s) and/or applicant partners.

Describe the coordinated roles of the Program Leader(s) and any collaborators in the oversight and management of the program of research.

Consider including a plan to seek out expertise (new collaborators based on the anticipated future needs of the program of research, as it is expected that the current collaborators may evolve over the duration of the grant, based on the needs of the proposed program.

Tips for this section:

  • If there are a large number of key collaborators, ensure that all contributions are explained.
  • Emphasize the complementary nature of the experience of the group of experts and collaborators and how this collaboration will maximize the chances of success.
  • Ensure that the contributions of all collaborators named in the research program are well defined.
  • If relevant, be sure to describe the engagement of translational experts.
  • Offer details regarding the managerial expertise of the PI.
  • Check to make sure that the grants discussed in this section are listed on the CV and that collaborators mentioned in this section are also mentioned in the form pages.

2.2: Mentorship and Training

This sub-criterion is intended to assess the quality of the mentorship/training plan, through the demonstrated commitment to/level of engagement in shaping the future of the applicant’s students, trainees, emerging scholars, and New/Early Career Investigators, as well as other individuals in non-academic, health-related fields.

Begin by offering an outline of training goals, learning opportunities, and key activities. Emphasize how the mentorship and training you offer will position students/trainees for successful research careers or non-academic careers in health-related fields.

Describe specific skill development (e.g., technical/methodological, oral and written, teaching, grants management, budgeting, research values and ethics, and, if appropriate, lab management).

Include structured specifics: consider training programs that include projects targeted to the student’s interests, regular one-on-one meetings, and feedback.

Emphasize your own track record in providing this type of training and provide examples of the high positions that some of your former trainees now hold in academia and industry.

Describe planned collaboration with individuals from non-academic spheres

Then offer a rationale for the proposed training approach (a pedagogy).

Discuss potential challenges of the mentorship and training plan and a strategy for identifying and mitigating these challenges.

Offer a plan for how progress and success will be measured and tracked.

Tips for this section:

  • Explicitly state that you have graduated [#] PhD students and [#] [postdoctoral fellows over the past [time period].
  • Explicitly highlight several trainees that now are [name of position] at [institution, company, etc.]
  • Be comprehensive when describing the aspects of your training program. Include technical training, oral and written communication skills, career development, informal mentoring.
  • Offer detailed description of mentorship roles and activities. Provide specific examples.
  • Consider describing opportunities for trainees to gain exposure to international research and (for senior trainees) teaching other trainees.
  • Strike a balance between the supervision and independence offered to trainees.
  • Be careful not to over-emphasize recruitment strategies that benefit you while forgetting to assess post-training placements that benefit the students.
  • It is also encouraged for reviewers to consider collaboration with individuals from non-academic spheres. It is advised that “Non-academic professionals benefit from both interactions with and access to research resources, and training on use of these resources. The reverse is also true.” Consider including discussion of this point.

2.3: Quality of Support Environment

This criterion is intended to assess whether the applicant has the resources necessary in order to successfully deliver on the objectives of the research program in both the short- and long-term. Do not just describe the environment, justify why it is appropriate to the program of research. Devote a paragraph, as applicable, to each of the following issues:

Physical infrastructure (and/or other types of infrastructure such as consortia, professional networks, etc.)
Support personnel
Specialized facilities

Tips for this section:

  • Describe key infrastructure in the environment and how it is state-of-the-art.
  • Offer specifics regarding the management and support personnel for the proposed project.
  • Emphasize, if applicable, the close proximity of the various labs.
  • Emphasize the degree of applicant access to all of the specialized technology needed for this project.
  • Do not forget to describe the long-term resources to support the facility: mention your leadership in raising the funds to improve facilities.