Published: July 18, 2016
Woman typing on a computer

By Leah Colvin

Applying for fellowships may be one of the most important professional development activities of the postdoctoral training period. For postdocs who plan to go on to academic careers, demonstrating fundability is a key component of a tenure-track faculty application. For those considering alternate careers, obtaining a fellowship demonstrates an ability to plan and carry out a long-term project, budget and communicate effectively in writing. No matter your future career plans, simply applying for fellowships increases your writing and project planning skills in addition to garnering you a familiarity with grant cycles and application processes.  If your proposal is funded, you will also gain project management and administration skills.

With fellowship application success rates between 20-30%, building a fundable proposal depends not only on excellent scientific merit, but also on the quality of the application itself. Grantsmanship – the art of writing fundable grant applications – is an essential tool for any postdoctoral researcher applying for funding. Considering the below best practices in grantsmanship to avoid common errors will help you to increase your chances of writing a successful fellowship application.

Make a plan

  • Set aside at least one hour every day to work on your grant application.
  • When you begin your application process, gather information on due dates and review timelines for the fellowships to which you plan to apply. Plan your grantwriting activities around these dates.
  • When planning your writing timelines, allow 2-3 weeks for your mentors and peers to review your materials.
  • Plan to submit at least one week early to give yourself time to fix any errors in the grant materials and avoid server crashes in submission systems.

Make it easy for your reviewers

  • Thoroughly read, re-read and annotate application instructions, and follow directions.
  • Clearly relate your hypothesis and expected contributions to the mission of the granting agency.
  • Make important components and ideas, such as the central hypothesis or broad impacts, easy to find by using bold, italic, and/or underlined font.
  • Use the 5 W’s and 1 H to build an argument:
    • Who will be doing the research? Who will be doing the mentoring?
    • What resources and training activities will you use? What expertise do you and your mentors have that will ensure your project’s success?
    • When will you complete your aims and training activities?
    • Where will you complete different aspects of your training and research plans?
    • Why should the reviewers, funding agency and society at large care about your research? Why did you select your research methods?
    • How will you carry out your research plan?

Be realistic

  • Writing a competitive grant application can take 6 – 9 months, and the entire process for a single application from initial application to resubmission and award can take 1 – 2 years.
  • Ensure that both your research and training plans are feasible given the limited duration of postdoctoral fellowship awards, which are typically one, two, or three years.
  • Consider the pitfalls of each of your research methods and include alternate approaches.

To complement the above best practices, the OPA offers individual consultations on grantsmanship by appointment or during drop-in hours (Wednesdays, 2 – 4 PM in Regent Administrative Center 1B72), and is hosting Grantwriting: How to Find Funding and Prepare an Application, a panel discussion on finding funding, submitting through the Office of Contracts and Grants (OCG), and grantsmanship techniques:

Tuesday, July 26th
12:30 – 1:30 PM

UMC 247
Lunch will be provided


Joan Eaton
Assistant Director, Proposal Development, Office of Contracts and Grants (OGC)
Joan will be presenting the submission process for fellowships through OCG as well as some general tips to help your application be a successful one.

Paul Muhlrad, Ph.D.
Science Communications Manager, Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Dr. Muhlrad will be sharing his expertise in grantsmanship & writing techniques for postdocs who are applying for individual fellowship or career development awards.

Julian Resasco, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Dr. Resasco is a postdoc at CU Boulder who has successfully applied for several fellowships, and will be sharing his experiences with the process.

Happy grantwriting!

Learn more
Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Postdoctoral Fellowship
NIH Grant Writing Tips
Human Frontier Science Program, Art of Grantsmanship
Social Science Research Council, The Art of Writing Proposals