Writing Your First Grant

Woman types on computer while concentrating

Writing a grant proposal can be an intimidating (yet valuable) process. As a professor, you will undoubtedly observe gaps that could benefit from a deeper understanding, either within your field of practice, with your students in the classroom, or in the community. Research is a way to apply innovation, and ultimately, to advance the knowledge in your field or in the classroom. It may even be required for your tenure or promotion. What follows will guide you through the initial stages of your planning, as well as tips for writing a grant based on the personal experiences of the authors.

Before you begin

First, explore and connect with your community.  Leveraging your own field expertise can assist you in identifying gaps in community supports or services, and consumer demands. Remember that your field or industry might also be academia, so your consumers might be students or other instructors. It may be helpful to ask yourself, What gaps or problems have you noticed in your field? What are the current trends or needs? 

It takes a village.  Connecting with your community or other faculty to create partnerships and collaborations will help to bolster your grant application and make it more appealing to the funders; it may also uncover additional funding opportunities.  You will need to tap into your own professional knowledge to develop your research ideas (Arthurs, 2014), while some expert knowledge can come from a collaborator.  If you are considering applied research, as opposed to basic research, many applied research grants will commend your application if you include an industry or community partner, and some funders may even require a collaboration to be eligible to apply for funds. To be successful, you will want to satisfy a combination of community/industry needs along with your own passion and line of inquiry, and a partner can be uniquely placed to help you address those needs.

Show me the money. Your institution’s research office is an excellent resource to reach out to and explore upcoming call for proposals. Depending on your field of expertise and the topic of your proposal, you may be eligible to apply for a grant through your membership in a professional society (e.g. Society for the Teaching of Psychology) or a local community organization. Federal grants are typically larger and multi-year, and you can search for those online (e.g., for grants available in Canada see https://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/ and in the United States see https://www.grants.gov/). Remember that collaborations can be international, which could make you eligible to apply for grants in more than one country. Imagine the impact you can have on your field of study, community, or industry!

Practice makes perfect. As faculty, we are surrounded by colleagues who have diverse work experiences and skill sets.  Grant funders will be looking for research teams that have a “high degree of expertise and ability” (Ghert, 2017 p. 2189). It is likely you have a colleague who has already been through the grant writing process.  Seeking mentorship from colleagues can anchor your path to beginning your own grant proposal. You can also connect with colleagues and share the workload.  Ghert’s (2017) article, “Never Write a Research Grant Alone,” addresses numerous reasons why reaching out to colleagues and other institutional supports (e.g., research office) early in the grant-writing process is useful (Arthurs, 2014).  

Time is money. Early on in this process, you will want to have a conversation with your department dean or chair about their expectations as well as your own.  Grant writing is time consuming, and your time is valuable!  A grant proposal may require making time for meetings with colleagues or community partners, as well as for supervising and training student research assistants or other team members.  You will also need time to conduct a comprehensive literature review and environmental scan of your topic (student research assistants can be assigned some of these tasks, which we will discuss later).  If you have a large teaching load, with little to no time attributed for research, you will want to ensure that you have sufficient time to allocate these various tasks, so you may need to request time in your weekly schedule from your supervisor.  Depending on the grant, it may take you two to four hours per week for several weeks just to prepare your funding proposal.  As you progress through the various stages of the grant and research process, these needs will change and some adjustments might be necessary.  Keep in mind that writing grant proposals is a valuable skill in academia, but it does take practice and time.  As Gorsevski (2016) describes: no matter how big or small the grant, you are adding some level of value to your institution, to other professionals, to students, and to the community as a whole.  It is time consuming, but worth it!

Aim small at first. Where possible, apply for internal funds or smaller grants first. Many post-secondary institutions have an office of research which may provide access to small internal funds (e.g., for a pilot study or proof-of-concept to prepare you for your larger grant application).  Yes, this may require some additional work, but it is worth it to increase your chance of success when seeking a larger, external grant.  Alternatively, the internal funds and resources offered by your institution may suffice for your research needs, which highlights the importance of exploring and accessing what is available to you, and what your specific research needs are to ensure they are aligned.  

Involve students where possible. A critical piece of advice when using internal funds, or a smaller grant, is to hire great students as research assistants (with paid or volunteer positions). Faculty research in higher education can provide students an opportunity to engage in research in a role they may not otherwise receive in their academic journey, while also providing them with valuable experience for their future experiences, whether in the workplace or in future studies. It also provides you assistance with some of the more labor-intensive tasks such as locating articles or entering data.  

Writing the grant

Now that you’ve considered many of the elements that go into preparing to write a grant application, the real work begins! Arthurs (2014) recommends that you begin with the 5 W’s:

  • What: the general topic/focus
  • Where: the geographical area
  • When: why this project is timely or current
  • How: the research methods you will use
  • Who: what makes you a good candidate to lead this project
  • Why: explain how your project is innovative, or fills a gap or need

These are the types of questions that a funder will likely want answered, so creating a rough outline of these answers for yourself will help ensure your project is a good fit for the grant you have selected.

Next, if you have not yet done so as part of the preparation work, you will want to share your idea with others.  Networking can play a pivotal role in the grant writing process as well as in fulfilling the criteria of the grant you receive. Therefore, it is helpful to start early.  If you have an office which supports research at your institution, ask if they know of potential collaborators or grant funders that would fit with your project concept.  

Once you know the specific grant you plan to pursue, pay attention to deadlines.  A researcher’s worst nightmare is being down to the wire on an inflexible deadline.  Remember “time is money” and if you are committing to the time it takes to write a proposal, you surely want to have it in on time for consideration. Make sure the grant deadline is realistic for you to meet.

Once you find a funder, you will want to ensure that you structure your proposal in accordance with the grant’s outline or instructions.  Outline requirements for grant applications will vary, but common components include a brief literature review, details about the project including the proposed research methods and/or statistical analyses, research-team expertise, the project’s novelty or innovation, and budgetary needs.  Follow the section headings outlined in the grant instructions to structure your proposal (Gorsevski, 2016).  If you’re not sure what the grant review committee is expecting to see in a particular section, reach out to your institution’s research office or directly to the grant-granting agency for clarification.

Before you submit your grant application, conduct an extremely thorough read-through for final edits and have anyone else on your research team (or other colleagues) do the same to catch typos, sentence fragments, etc.  You will want to ensure that the proposal is polished, professional, and all of the grant criteria is met and explicitly addressed in your application (based on the evaluation/judging criteria for that specific grant). 

What if the application is unsuccessful? If you are not funded, it does not mean that your project doesn’t have merit; there may simply not have been enough funds to provide money to every good application received. It also doesn’t mean that you have wasted your time. You can likely re-purpose your application and update it for another source of funding. Alternatively, you may be able to modify your project to be conducted without requiring funding. If your idea was worth pursuing a grant for, the idea is still worth pursuing, so either find another source of funding, modify and re-submit for the next round of funding applications, or find a way to proceed without funding.


Thinking of the word G-R-A-N-T can help you remember the advice we discussed:

Give yourself lots of time to prepare and write your grant proposal.
Reach out to internal experts and supports and external partners or collaborators.
Assess community, classroom/institutional, or industry needs.
Network with colleagues and possible mentors as well as with the community.
Train students as research assistants.

Not all research projects require funding, but for those that do, applying for funding can seem like a daunting process. We hope we’ve provided you with some tips to help manage this process. Applying for research is a time-consuming process and may not always be successful, but it is an important step in many research projects.  If you are looking for more detailed guidance on grant writing, we recommend you consult Gorsevski’s (2016) e-book, Writing Successful Grant Proposals.

Amanda Cappon is a professor in the Social Service Work Program at Durham College.  She has a masters of education in counselling and psychotherapy and is a registered psychotherapist in the province of Ontario.  

Lynne N. Kennette is a professor of psychology and the research coordinator in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. She has a PhD in cognitive psychology, and is passionate about the scholarship of teaching and learning.


Arthurs, O. J. (2014).  Think it through first: questions to consider in writing a successful grant application.  Journal of Pediatric Radiology, 44, 1507 – 1511. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00247-014-3053-6

Ghert, M. (2017). Pearls: Never Write a Research Grant Alone. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 475(9), 2189–2190. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11999-017-5424-4

Gorsevski, E. W. (2016).  Writing Successful Grant Proposals. Rotterdam: Brill