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Association for the
Treatment of Sexual Abusers


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Volume XVI, No. 2 • Spring 2004
How to Win Friends and Influence Grant Review Committees
 

 
Attention student members: The annual ATSA Pre-doctoral research grant deadline is again approaching August 2, 2004 (go to: http://www.atsa.com/awdPreDoc.html ). Given that this particular grant is one of those few competitions that exclude submissions from all the dauntingly prolific and internationally renowned researchers, you have to ask yourself if you'll ever have a better chance of winning funds and bolstering your CV. Writing your first grant proposal can be rather daunting (and, alas, grant writing doesn't seem to get easier). To counter this, the Research Committee reviewed recent submissions and the feedback given to student researchers in an attempt to discern some helpful hints about how to prepare a winning submission (or at least make a few friends on the committee!).
 
General Points
 
When planning your proposal, bear in mind that you must convince the reviewers that this research topic both important and original. Just because you find it interesting, do not assume the reviewers will automatically share your enthusiasm. On the contrary, it is the purpose of your proposal to sell the project. As well as making sure you are actually going to tackle the next most important question in the field, innovation in conceptualization of the issue(s)/problems or in the design of the study are good ways to score with your reviewers.
 
However, be realistic about what can be accomplished. Your project may be worthwhile but if it represents a 'program' of research rather than a single study, reviewers for the ATSA Pre-doctoral research grant may be inclined more favorably towards another proposal that is marginally less exciting but clearly achievable. Save your 'program' of research for your post-doctoral career. If your proposal is for research that will constitute your graduate degree thesis work, then remember that a good thesis is a finished thesis.
 
Before you begin writing, ask to see grant proposals/submissions (successful ones might be most informative!) prepared by your supervisor/thesis advisory committee members/peers. Look at the wording and structure so you can get an idea for how a research proposal is pitched.
 
From the earliest stages of preparation, you have to ensure that your research proposal is comprehensible to those outside your particular field; grant review committees rarely consist of members from your area of specialization; indeed, depending on the funding source, you may be fortunate to find a single member of your discipline on the committee. This is not the case with the ATSA Research Committee but it is worth bearing in mind for all your future grant submissions. Avoid overly technical language; use terms people outside your area can understand, and keep it simple. Key terms and concepts should be briefly but accurately defined. Errors of spelling, grammar, or facts are likely to make an unfavorable impression. Be clear, follow the format and sections specified, and ensure that your layout is attractive and logical. Avoid exceeding the word limits for sections or the overall page limit.
 
In drafting your proposal, get your supervisor and thesis committee members/project consultants to review the sections as you go. This is to ensure that (a) the proposal is indeed worthwhile and feasible, (b) no glaring errors, inconsistencies, or oversights are present, and (c) the reviewers believe your supervisor is committed to and will be involved in the proposed research. A submission with notable problems (whether in conceptualization, design, or presentation) suggests that the student's supervisor was not sufficiently involved in an advisory capacity at the planning and/or writing stage; the reviewers' inference from this is that the supervisor will be similarly detached from the execution of the project also. Funding in this case is unlikely. Of course, although close consultation with your advisors is recommended, the proposal must be your own work (our field is a small one in some ways and it may be quite obvious to the reviewer who actually wrote the proposal).
 
As with most grant competitions, the ATSA Pre-doctoral grant competition requires that your proposal is structured using a number of sections. These are set out in the grant form available at the website (see above) and brief instructions about what should be included in each section are given. In addition to these instructions, what follows may be useful as you choke down another caffeine laden drink, crack open another pack of candles and push on into the night with your grant proposal.
 
Narrative
 
Specific Aims
Your objective(s) need to be clearly stated and achievable. The idea here is to convey both the main aim of the research and to emphasis the link between this aim and the methodology to be employed. So, if the research is intended to test the hypothesis that sexual offenders differ from offenders with nonsexual crimes or other clinical groups in terms of, for example, executive functioning, the study design and measures chosen should provide a direct means of achieving this objective. Being specific and concrete about these aspects of the research is best in this section. You don't want to claim that the proposed research will examine issues or test components of a given theory if these aspirations are beyond the methodology. Nor do you want to state hypotheses that your chosen measures and statistical procedures will not adequately test.
 
Background and Significance of the Project
Familiarize yourself with ATSA's stated goals and objectives and make sure you show how your proposal relates to these.
 
Strong proposals are those that are (a) clearly located within the framework of (current) theory (or theories) and (b) informed by empirical findings in the field. In preparing this section, you want to demonstrate that you know the literature relevant to your question; failing to discuss an important piece of research sends the wrong message to your reviewers but so too will an overly inclusive literature review that seeks to cover 'everything'. Only discuss the research pertinent to your proposal. Avoid going off on tangents or elaborating at length about theories or studies that are not central to the case you are making.
 
If one were to graphically represent this section it would look like a funnel; general comments first that introduce the areas/issues that are relevant (broad at the rim) followed by an increasingly more specific focus on key elements of the literature (narrow at the spout); discuss what is accepted, what is postulated, what earlier studies have done (and done well or not so well), and what therefore needs to be done next. Make sure you tie all the streams of evidence you've introduced together so that there is a logical progression from what is known to what needs to be known.
 
Be explicit, concise, and justified (back up definitions and assertions with citations). The section should build, crescendo-like, to the punch line, where you state how your proposed research fits in. The aim is to argue convincingly that the research you are proposing is at the cutting edge, work that is likely to make a major contribution to the field. Reviewers need to be shown that what you are proposing represents the next logical step that is crucial to advance the body of research you've presented. If the reviewers conclude that what you are proposing is merely a bit of 'gardening in the field of forensic/clinical science' they will look elsewhere for the 'bright lights' project to fund.
 
One element that can strengthen your research proposal is the link that you draw between the proposed research and your own (or your supervisor's) past work. There is nothing wrong with submitting a proposal to research something slightly different from your (your supervisor's) body of work but if this proposal builds on your undergraduate/masters thesis (or recent studies by your supervisor) then make that clear because it underscores why you are the ideal team to carry out this very necessary research.
 
Relevant Experience
There are two main elements to consider in this section. The first is your own expertise and experience. It should be obvious from your proposal what skills are likely to be required in order to carry it out successfully, and reviewers need to believe that you possess these skills. If the project will involve adolescent sexual abusers as participants, reporting your training (clinical placements/internships) and knowledge (publications/presentations) with this population can improve your chances of funding. Similarly, if the project involves, for example, a qualitative methodology then briefly describing your prior experience with this methodology will strengthen your case.
 
If your background relevant to the proposal is somewhat lacking, you must allay reviewers' concerns by presenting a research team (supervisor and advisors) who have demonstrated competence in the requisite areas. Solid track records inspire confidence. This is the second element crucial to this section. Good proposals are ones that look realistically achievable. Highly competitive national and international grants are won by research teams that clearly possess the expertise required in all areas of the project (research design and statistics, specific measures, study population, etc.). So, if you and your team lack experience with the statistical techniques to be used (i.e., no one has published something using such procedures that can be cited), then add someone to the team who does have it (arguably better to do this than include costs for a statistical consultant in your budget). Specify the role and contribution (time to be spent involved/available) of each team member.
 
Experimental Methods and Design
If the Background and Significance section of the proposal is the compelling sales pitch, this section is the heart or engine of your proposal. Despite its importance and the fact that most of the points for the whole undertaking are to be had here, this is frequently the section that is weakest. In this section the reviewers are looking for evidence that (a) the project design is sound and directly related to the project's objectives, and (b) that the proposed data analytic techniques are appropriate.
 
Innovative designs can impress your reviewers but regardless of the sophistication involved, it is crucial that potential confounds are considered and controls incorporated. For example, if you are intending to use a non-equivalent comparison group, explain how you will address threats to the internal validity of the study, and demonstrate your awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of your design. It can be hard to take a step back from your own ideas so asking a trusted (and experienced) colleague to see if they might draw alternative interpretations from your expected findings is a must. If the likely interpretations are equivocal the proposal is substantially weakened.
 
Similarly, the chosen data-analytic technique(s) should represent current practice/state-of-the-art; look carefully at study designs in the published literature to make sure yours is consistent with the best work on your chosen question. You should describe the planned analyses in some detail so you leave the reviewer in no doubt that you know what you are doing (don't forget to formally state your hypotheses). Cursory mention of the statistics involved permits the inference that you don't quite know how to test your hypotheses or interpret your findings - inferences such as these undermine confidence in your ability to attain the project objectives.
 
Explicitly name all the measures/tests (citing the sources) you will use, and clearly specify how each relates to the research question (i.e., what is being used to measure what). If one or more of your measures are not standardized instruments, then include a copy as appendices. It is a good idea to provide a brief summary (perhaps just a couple of sentences) of the research demonstrating the measure's psychometric properties or suitability for your intended use (again, include references).
 
Another consideration in this section concerns time-frame. It is often helpful to include a timeline (graphic or otherwise) in the proposal. It will help you structure your approach to the project and it will provide reviewers with a sense of both the project's feasibility and your appreciation (or lack of appreciation!) of what will be required. Given that the ATSA award is a Pre-doctoral award, points are awarded for projects that can be completed within a year.
 
In summary here, be specific about the parameters of the project. The size and composition of your sample(s), the selection/recruitment/assignment procedures, the time-frame, who is doing what, where, and when, should all be clearly set out. If an intervention will be used, describe it clearly. Justify why these subjects/procedures have been chosen in terms of the research question, theory, and previous studies. One or more flow diagrams (e.g., one for subjects, showing recruitment from different sources and how different groups will be tested with different instruments at distinct stages of the project) can be helpful to reviewers and save you space. Read your proposal repeatedly while writing it and anticipate methodological questions that could be avoided by including a little more detail.
 
Human Subjects
The instructions for this section provided in the grant application form are quite detailed so if you follow them the preparation of this section is relatively straightforward. Your aim is to convince the reviewers that you understand the ethical issues involved in research with human subjects and have/will take the appropriate steps. For the ATSA Pre-doctoral grant, points are given for completion of the institutional review process and review ethics board (REB) approval (although some REBs refuse to review submissions requiring external funding before such funding has been secured).
 
Adequate discussion of informed consent and confidentiality are particularly important if your project involves a 'vulnerable' group (i.e., a group of individuals whom it can reasonably be expected might feel coerced to participate) such as adjudicated sex offenders or students in a course for which you are the lecturer/teaching assistant. Include the consent form(s) as appendices - writing a consent form that contains all the right elements/statements as well as sufficient detail regarding the study and participation, all at an appropriate reading level, is quite a skill. Get help from your supervisor, advisors, and even your REB. If you have not received REB approval at the time of submission (and the process can take months), inclusion of a good consent form will go a long way to convincing the reviewers that you understand the ethical issues involved.
 
Budget Narrative
This can be the easiest section to pick up points but you need to pay attention to detail. Be specific about items and precise about figures. A confusing, overly general or unrealistic budget will weaken your proposal (after all, the proposal is generally a big 'show me the money,' and the budget is where you show them where the money they show you will go). Exactly what is the economy airfare, car rental costs (and cost per mile), or lodgings? Be clear about the hourly rate for research assistants as well as material costs (paper, photocopying, computer and printer needs, software). Base as many of these as possible on the going rate as determined by your institution (and state this). Make sure that the items in your budget are directly related and necessary for the attainment of the project goals. For example, if you are budgeting for research assistants state why and describe what they will do.
 
The ATSA Pre-doctoral grant is not intended to cover costs for work already completed or to pay either you or your supervisor/committee members (although you could justify the cost of a consultant in certain cases). Nor is it intended to keep you stocked in pizza and cola as you work day and night (check to see if these costs are included in your tuition fees). In recent years, a number of submissions received have included items along these lines despite the fact that the ATSA-administered grants (and quite a large number of professional grants as well) are not intended for personally funding the researcher/research team themselves.
 
Literature Cited
This is your basic reference section - use the APA reference format (see either the APA Publication Manual, or the reference section of any article published in an APA journal or those published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, for examples). Make sure that the correct references for all citations in the body of your proposal are included here. Incomplete reference sections tarnish what might otherwise appear to be a very smartly presented proposal.
 
After The Dust Settles
 
Hopefully you'll win (make sure you do a little dance around the research lab).
 
Regardless of the outcome, the feedback you'll receive is potentially very useful for revising and then resubmitting your proposal (to the ATSA grant competitions or other funding sources - be brave). For student members of ATSA whose proposals concern adolescent sexual abusers, revision following feedback from the Pre-doctoral research grant competition (August) may ensure success in the Falconer grant competition that follows only months later (November). Don't be too discouraged if your submission is unsuccessful. Given the finite funds available ($20,000.00 for the Pre-doctoral Research Grant and $10,000.00 for the Falconer Grant), proposals that are certainly meritous may not receive funding simply because of the competition. That said, most years see the funds awarded to two or three proposals rather then just the most highly rated. Like other grant review committees, the ATSA Research Committee does consider where costs might be reduced for a project and regularly awards less than was requested in order to spread the funds as far as possible.
 
Lastly, do remember that grant reviewers are simple folk who often have to read many submissions in a short space of time - have pity on them and make sure yours is well written so they can give you the money and get back to their many other jobs.
 
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