Seven deadly sins that kill your grant proposal

How to get more funding? Avoid these mistakes! Writing grant proposals in life sciences is tedious, evaluating grant proposals is even more tedious. Quite often the reviewers end up with a small number of outstanding proposals and a huge number of excellent proposals which have to be ranked based on tiny differences in quality. Therefore, reviewers are very, very grateful if you show one of the sins described below because they provide perfect justifications to kill your grant proposal.

During the last 5 years I had to evaluate hundreds of grant applications for national and European funding organizations. I spent many hours in commissions to discuss biomedical grants. I realized that there is a number of mistakes which are made again and again. Let me help you to avoid these mistakes and increase your chance to get more funding.

Deadly sin No 1: Writing for expert reviewers

I am frequently surprised how difficult grant proposals are to read. Please always remember that there is a good chance that your proposal is evaluated by a “generalist”. The term “generalist” means that the reviewer is rather incompetent to judge the brilliance of your ideas. Most commissions suffer from tremendous workload and insufficient numbers of experts for every possible submission. Thus, you may get an incompetent reviewer. Find a good balance between explaining your concepts and methods to well-educated lay readers as well as to experts in your field. For example, I have seen proposals which have been rejected because the generalist reviewers did not get through the jungle of abbreviations which are very clear for every expert in the field.

Deadly sin No 2: No hypothesis

One of the worst mistakes when writing a grant proposal is the absence of a hypothesis. Maybe you know exactly what your hypothesis is but it is not visible. Make it easy to find the hypothesis and mark it clearly with a title like “Working hypothesis”. Add some formatting such as a box – if allowed by the proposal formatting guidelines. Never write a hypothesis which sounds like “we have an idea and now we are going to see what happens”. Never – and I mean NEVER – write a hypothesis which includes expressions like

“The hypothesis is to study the role of our fantastic factor in XX disease” or “Our great factor modulates YY signalling”. This is not a hypothesis. A hypothesis can be tested and falsified such as “Our factor decreases mortality in XX disease”.

Similarly, do not propose fancy techniques just for the sake of being highly modern. Without a sound hypothesis fancy techniques are pointless and will not be appreciated.

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Deadly sin No 3: Screening

Closely related to the first two sins is the third one: you should not propose a screening project. Screening approaches rarely excite reviewers. Most reviewers of grant proposals want to become excited and entertained by the great new ideas you are proposing.


I am aware of the fact that most genetic and proteomics approaches qualify for sin No 3 – however, these may be exceptions: fancy new techniques which have never been done before or which are the newest on the market are fundable. However, reviewers are substantially annoyed when fancy techniques are proposed without being justified by the research question. Depending on the board or commission where your proposal is discussed they may appreciate for example genetic screening or proteomics approaches. However, an intelligent hypothesis always helps to sell your idea.

Deadly sin No 4: Annoy the reviewer with sloppiness

One of the most annoying aspect of evaluating grant proposals are incomplete submissions. When the reviewer has to look up the impact factors although they should be provided by the applicant. When the reviewer has to search for final scores in 15 separately saved attachments or in a complex email exchange between the funding organisation and the applicant. This costs a lot of time and the reviewer will be less in favour of your fantastic ideas. Finally, if your proposal is full of typos, grammatical or formatting errors the reviewers will be annoyed and presume that your research is also done in a sloppy way.

Deadly sin No 5: Being arrogant or overambitious

I think this should be self-explanatory. However, again and again I read grant proposals which claim that the applicant is the most qualified person in the world (“Nobody else can do it”). Reviewers hate that because they have been forced themselves to become modest under all circumstances. Even in those rare cases when such extreme claims are justified you should be careful to make such a statement. Quite often these proposals suffer from other weaknesses which will weigh even more when contrasted with such a statement.  It may also be interpreted as a sign of arrogance or egocentricity to propose a project that costs 2 million euro although the maximal amount available is about 600K.

A similiar problem is being overambitious. Can a single PhD student in 4 years time analyse 3 different knockout animals in 5 different models? Can a postdoc analyse a zebrafish, rodent and human model in 2 years? Either the PhD student or postdoc have an unrealistic idea of their capacities or the supervisor did not read the proposal well.

Deadly sin No 6: Out of scope

When you submit to a funding organisation which funds primarily applied science you should not propose fundamental or clinical research (e.g. “new therapeutic strategies to avoid pre-eclampsia”). Applied research will not be appreciated by a commission that funds basic research (e. g. developing a specific device to measure blood sugar). Every year I see a handful of excellent proposals which have been sent to the wrong commission. Do not waste your time and do not waste the time of the reviewers.

Deadly sin No 7: Propose new and challenging research

The worst sin of all is to propose the new and exciting project you really want to start right now. The reviewers will hate it because you do not have preliminary data. If it is very challenging you may get low scores in feasibility. They will criticize that you have no track records in the field. If your research field is really new they may even question the relevance because nobody else is doing research on this.  You may get high scores for innovation but lose the grant.

What to do with your PhD?

Get clarity about your career! Find your dream job in science!

Career in academia?

Learn the rules and become a professor!

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  1. Hello Sven,
    you hit the bull’s eye! I absolutely agree with your statement as I got the same notion. I would ad an advice: take your time to look for an expert person who is willing to discuss your proposals! Corinna

  2. Congrats on the new blog! Perhaps Deadly Sin # 7 deserves a blog post in itself because the opposite advice is equally true.

  3. Congrats on the new blog Sven!
    You hit the ball and translate with many of us think.

    Geert VM

  4. Couldn’t agree more with emphasis on writing for a general audience, particularly when it comes to national or regional innovation funding. Like any piece of good writing, it’s essential to grab attention in the summary or opening paragraphs.

    I’d also add an “eighth sin” of poor definition/lack of clarity of the problem or the market application of the research or innovation is supposed to address.

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