Friday, November 2, 2012

The importance of the first page, or judging a book by its cover

This blog post has been a long time coming (just realized last post was in August!) and it will be obvious why I’ve been lax writing here. I am at the point in my PhD where I not only need to be frantically doing lab work, analyses, and writing for my dissertation, but also writing and applying for grants, fellowships, and advertized post-doc positions so I can be employed after I graduate. This is both exciting and frustrating at times. With my first big grant proposal turned in this week, I finally have the time to write down some of the things I’ve been thinking about in terms of writing a good grant, and maybe get this online to help those of you writing DDIGs, NSF Pre-docs and other grants due in this fall’s grant cycle. You can of course take any of my advice with a grain of salt, these are just some broad ideas that have been useful for me and you may be advised otherwise..

The whole time I was writing the thing going through my head over and over was “the first page is so important, got to hook ‘em in the first page.” One of the things learned in my first semester when I was writing my first NSF grant (thanks, Spencer!) was that you need to basically say everything that a reviewer needs to assess your project in the first page. These people read tons of proposals during these review panels and if they haven’t been convinced your project is worth funding after the first page, it is going to be tough to convince them in the subsequent pages. For example, anyone who has graded a lab report knows that you can tell if the student knows what they’re talking about after you’ve finished reading their first page, sometimes the first paragraph. I think this must be similar to how it is reading these proposals, although this time with a much higher bar than what we expect for undergrads, hopefully.

You should be able to describe what are the big questions you want to address, why does it matter, and how you are going to accomplish it, within the first page of the proposal, with the rest of the document following up on the details that will probably just confirm that you are capable of actually doing what you propose.

The first paragraph should state clearly what the big issue, knowledge gap, or question in your field is that needs attention. Here it is important to remember that an issue that may be obviously interesting or important to you or someone in your immediate field. You are likely (probably 100% likely) to have a reviewer that is outside of your discipline a bit, and that you will need to make this issue relatable to someone who hasn’t read all the papers you’ve read, etc. For instance, why should a plant-fungal ecologist or climate modeler think my project investigating co-infection patterns and immune function in rodents is important? Even better, if you can describe how your work will influence people outside the scientific community (remember those “broader impacts”) that would make this first paragraph even stronger. Using some well-placed references in this section can help make your argument stronger.

Shortly after the first or second paragraphs you should directly state what your research questions/hypotheses followed by a brief description of how the proposed project is an innovative way to answer these questions. You need to convince the reviewer that what you want to do is new and exciting enough that it is worth funding. You do not need to go through every detail of the proposed methods, but you should mentioning the general plan so they know you have thought out how you are going to accomplish what you propose. Also, if you are good at summarizing your methods in a way that is clear for an expert and a non-expert, you are probably going to have a good complete description later in the proposal. This will also make the reviewer want to keep reading and be interested in learning more about this super-awesome project you just introduced them to. Mentioning previous experience that will make you the best person to successfully accomplish your project could also be beneficial here.

One thing to remember as you are figuring out the best ways to get your ideas out on paper is that they are not only funding your project, they are funding you as a scientist (thanks to friend and former IU EEB student Britt for reminding me of this). They want to see in your proposal that you are thinking about your research in an interesting and innovative way. The NSF loves things that are “transformative” and “interdisciplinary” and it doesn’t hurt to use those buzz-words strategically if you think your research in fact is. What I think is exciting is when someone takes old/established ideas and integrates them with new methods and findings that somehow makes a complex problem seem simpler or more tractable. Go figure, I am a disease ecologist and I think it’s totally awesome when theories describing population or community dynamics that have been around for the last 40-50 years overlay onto disease systems and perfectly (or close to perfect) illustrate host-parasite interactions.

When I was writing my NSF proposal it was kind of exhilarating, scientifically, to get out my community ecology notebook, check out Jared Diamond’s book on community assembly from the library, and refresh my memory on some hard core ecology theory, and see how these concepts I had learned about when I started grad school I could now see through my host-parasite lens. These moments remind me that I am doing what I want to do, that I think my research is important, and that all the pain and stress is worth it (hopefully).

Also, go through as many drafts as possible with your advisor, lab-mates, and other science friends as you can. But, also know when it is time to stop editing and let it be. This will probably happen the day before the deadline. I did some last-minute editing the day-of this time, and I’m not sure if it was the greatest idea. If you have worked hard on it, it is probably in great shape the couple days before the deadline and anything you turn in would be a good representation of what you want to do.

I hope this is helpful to anyone going through this process right now. However, this will probably make any non-academics reading this happy they don’t have to sing for their supper continually. I have to keep thinking this process is making me a better writer, communicator, and scientist and that it pays off when I graduate and become a more independent scientist. Fingers crossed for funding for me, and you too! 


  1. Revision can really take up a lot of time, especially if you have a lot of correction just like in the comic strip. Worst, instead of moving forward with your dissertation research, you will spend a lot of time revision and correcting mistake and error on your paper. I would be a good idea to do check first the paper before submitting to lessen the error that the supervisor might see and let you correct in the end.

  2. At last the thesis will be finished. Excellent comic writing.