Firsts: writing a grant proposal

Despite my previous post about having a whole month to myself to write a journal paper, things went a little bit differently. A fellow PhD student pointed out these short-term fellowships and I decided it would not hurt to try to apply, so I could finance the second half of my visit to the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. Because I already had a few scholarship applications lying around (such as for the Anita Borg scholarship, which I applied for twice, unsuccessfully), I thought a new application would not cost me more than 2 days. In the end, I spent around 2 weeks working on the new application and neglecting my journal paper, but I still believe it was time well-spent!

One thing that was different about this application is that it was not focused on me, but on the project. Of course, I already had an idea about what I would be working on at the MPI and how that fits together with my PhD topic. What I underestimated, is that I suddenly had to explain all of these machine learning problems to people with a different background – I assume molecular biology, as that is the core subject of the organization providing the fellowships.

What really helped me with writing, was a successful proposal, which was on a different topic, for a different fellowship, from a different organization, kindly provided to me by a colleague. It was a good example of HOW to write for a different audience, rather than WHAT exactly to write about. Here are some of my findings:

  • Don’t assume a term that you use every day is obvious to everybody else. Provide a short explanation and an example. If possible, use pictures in your explanation.
  • Provide references, even if something is common knowledge in your field.
  • Use short, clear sentences in the active voice (“We will conduct experiments…” rather than “Experiments will be conducted…”), here is a good post on how to do this.
  • Avoid words that make you sound unsure, such as “probably”.
  • Include questions which your project will address, such as “What is the cause of X?” or “Is it possible to do Y?”
  • Don’t be afraid to use bullet points for lists, this is probably easier to read than a paragraph of text that does not really fit together.
  • Be explicit about how your previous work is going to be helpful in this project, it might not be obvious to the reviewer that your list of publications is related to the research topic.
  • Ask others (especially people outside your lab) to read your proposal.
  • If possible, use examples (both successful and unsuccessful) of other proposals.
  • Don’t underestimate the time that you will need for writing 😉

I will only get the results of my application in a few months, but I hope these tips can be helpful to other PhD students that are in a similar situation.

Update: the proposal was not funded, but I received funding for my internship from another source, so it was a good experience overall

Writing papers online with ShareLateX

I’m working on a paper together with a PhD student who is technically in my lab, but geographically in Cuba. For some reason, neither SVN nor Dropbox were working, and I was afraid we would have to resort to emailing the paper to each other (the horror!). Then during lunch I thought that we could just use GoogleDocs for the LateX file, or maybe that GoogleDocs even supported LateX. It’s such a simple idea somebody had to already have thought about this!

And indeed, ShareLateX has! You can sign up and create LateX projects and invite others to collaborate with you. Then you have your main file, any other files you want to add, and a button that compiles the .tex file into .pdf (and you can even choose whether you want the latex or pdftex version).

Again, the idea might seem very simple, but I’m still somewhat in awe… You can work on the same LateX file real-time, without waiting for somebody to save, commit or upload a new version. This is very motivating because you see the paper changing so quickly. It is also much easier to decide things together, such as adding that new section, because you already see how it would change the paper. Last but not least, you are all using the same compiler, so you can’t mess up the tex file for each other 🙂

There is  a down side, of course. The free version only supports 2 collaborators and there is no version control. As soon as you want an upgrade, you get the “Collaborator” account which allows 10 collaborators per project but also costs you $15 a month. Not a lot if the only thing you do is write papers with people overseas, but too much if that only happens once or twice a year. I only hope that universities realize how service is great for the researchers’ productivity, and offer it to employees free of charge 🙂

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