As an undergraduate or graduate student, applying for an ACS grant could be your first exposure to grant writing. But it won’t be your last. Most chemists seek funding throughout their careers, whether from government agencies or even their own management. Competition can be tight. Making a convincing case matters.
The ACS Student Communities grants are intended to ease applicants into the grant writing process, while at the same time supporting student undergraduate and graduate chapters. The reviewers have the freedom to say yes far more frequently than in many professional grant review processes, such as those of the National Science Foundation or ACS Petroleum Research Fund. And yet, dozens of applications still end up in the reject column every year. So, what's happening?
Here are the top five reasons applications get rejected—and how to make sure yours isn’t one of them.
1. Oops, wrong grant
Organizations create grants with specific goals in mind. ACS offers four student communities grants, each with a unique purpose. Apply for the wrong one, and your proposal is sure to get passed over. So step one is familiarizing yourself with each grant.
If you’re looking for funding ($200–$2000) to help chapter members attend a conference, the Professional Meeting Grant is an obvious choice. This grant is to help chapter members attend professional conferences, either virtually or in-person.
The goal of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Respect (DEIR) Grant is to support professional development activities that help your chapter, community, or institution create more inclusive and respectful spaces. So, if, for example, you want money ($750 maximum) to attend an inclusivity workshop with the goal of using the results to recruit members of various backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and ideas, this is the grant for you.
If you’re launching a new student chapter, you’ll want to apply for the Starter Grant to help your group become an ACS-chartered organization. If you already have your ACS charter, you no longer qualify.
Then there’s the Engagement Grant, which provides up to $1000 to support community outreach events, member engagement, career and professional development, or group growth. Looking for funds to host an open house to recruit new members or to invite a public speaking expert to coach your group? Then this grant is a good fit.
Dan Reddy, a second-year PhD student in analytical chemistry at Queen’s University in Canada, recently led his ACS student chapter’s efforts to secure a DEIR grant for an upcoming departmental event celebrating DEIR in the chemical sciences.
Through a series of display tables, the gathering will recognize the department’s efforts toward advancing DEIR, which the school refers to as EDII (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Indigenization). Guests will also enjoy a sit-down dinner and an address by the school’s Faculty of Arts and Science's director of EDII, Elliot Chapple.
When choosing which grant to apply for, your chapter might find there is some overlap between grants. Reddy’s group also secured grants from other funders. Applying for two (or more!) grants to support the same activity is totally fine and may be necessary to meet your funding needs. The key is to take a tailored approach, making sure that each grant you go for has goals that truly align with your event. Sending off blast applications to any organization offering money is sure to leave you coming up short.
2. Missing info
Grant applications typically include questions, along with additional items that must be submitted. Be sure to check—and triple check!—that you address all of these requirements. You could have a beautifully outlined budget, for example, but if you forget to copy and paste your school’s student club policy as requested, don’t be surprised if your Starter Grant proposal doesn’t make the cut.
“It is really good to refer to the guidelines repeatedly,” says Farnaz Heidar-Zadeh, a theoretical chemist at Queen’s University and faculty adviser to the school’s ACS student chapter. “Usually these guidelines and descriptions are translated into an evaluation rubric that the selection committee uses for ranking.”
In some cases, you may not have the experience required to directly answer a question. The DEIR Grant application, for example, asks about current DEIR efforts. What if your group doesn’t have any? Don’t just skip the question, says Heidar-Zadeh. “If they are asking for something and you are not talking about it at all, it can come across as not putting effort into writing a good grant.”
Instead, address it head on, she says. “You can turn it to your advantage and show that the fact that we don’t have any prior effort in this area emphasizes why we need this grant.”
You can also style your proposal to make it easier for bleary-eyed reviewers tasked with evaluating piles of proposals to see that you are hitting every point. Perhaps, for example, you are asked to show novelty and impact. You could use each of these terms as bolded subheadings, says Heidar-Zadeh. “You are making it very obvious and clear that you have something to say about impact, you have something to say about novelty, and then you go on and elaborate [underneath each heading].”
3. Vague responses
Funds will go to those proposals that seem most likely to succeed. The best way to demonstrate your proposal’s promise is to share concrete details and examples, both in answering questions about past efforts and when describing your proposed activity. “Examples make you sound more persuasive and give substance to your proposal,” says Heidar-Zadeh. Specificity is an indicator to the reviewers that you have really thought through what you are doing and how you will carry out your plans.
If you have multiple examples to share, don’t hold back! Before graduating with a biochemistry degree from Henderson State University in Arkansas, then-student chapter president Sarah Vue helped her group obtain an Engagement Grant. Neighboring Ouachita Baptist University was hosting the Arkansas Academy of Science conference and Vue’s student chapter agreed to co-host the meeting’s social—themed “Out of This World”—in an event space next to Henderson State’s planetarium.
The grant application asked her to “describe how the funds will support your student chapter by building and strengthening your community and increase the unity of your chapter.” Vue wrote about how the event itself would strengthen the community by bringing together students and faculty from the neighboring universities, as well as scientists from across the state, for an evening of socializing, refreshments, games, and star gazing. But she also wrote about how the process of writing the proposal itself brought her chapter closer to student chemists at Ouachita Baptist. “We did do a lot of planning together,” says Vue. “It really helped with our communication.”
When applying for the grant, Vue, who is now a chemist at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Wisconsin, knew exactly where the event would be held. This showed reviewers that she’d done some legwork and made for a more descriptive proposal.
Knowing specific details also helps when preparing the budget—a common grant application requirement and a total deal breaker if not done with care. “If they ask you for a budget, put in the effort,” says Heidar-Zadeh. “Try to get some quotes, for example, if you are applying for a grant to organize an event.”
When applying for his grant, Reddy didn’t know how many tables he would need because he wasn’t certain how many guests would attend or how many awards would be shared. In such cases, it’s totally okay to make educated guesses or lump some of the more minor items together into an “additional expenses” category. Funders know that some details are subject to change. Just be prepared to explain these changes in your reporting after the event.
And sometimes, less is more. Some grant applications don’t come with extensive writing prompts. Don’t invent your own. Just directly answer the questions you are presented with. If you are applying for the Professional Meeting Grant, for example, you can simply say, “The six group members will attend the ACS Spring 2023 Meeting in Indianapolis, IN.” Just make sure that all of the details in that simple response are correct.
4. Bad timing
Most professional grants have deadlines, and late proposals typically aren’t considered. Not only do missed deadlines reflect poorly on the submitter, they also impact the grantor's ability to process the application. The ACS Student Communities Professional Meeting Grant must be submitted 3 months ahead of the conference. The most common reason these grants get rejected is that the requests are received only 1–2 months ahead of the travel. Because there is no way to get the funds to a chapter this quickly, these requests are rejected.
The other ACS Student Communities grants don’t have deadlines. But, pro tip: there is a limited amount of funding available each year, so applying early means your proposal will be considered before funds run out.
Also, even without an official ACS deadline, you’ll be up against your own deadline. You’re planning an event, after all, that is likely already staring back at you from your calendar. You’ll need to come up with funds in time to cover your costs.
So whatever the grant, aim to beat the deadline. That way you’ll have wiggle room in case of emergencies, like a reference letter coming in late or (yikes!) a computer crashing.
Allowing for time to speak with others is especially important. You’ll want to confer with members of your own group and any other collaborators to make sure that everyone shares the same vision for the activity. You may also need to track down vendors for quotes, or experts in the particular activities that you are planning.
Vue’s team, for example, decided to make liquid nitrogen ice cream at their social, which meant they needed to answer the application questions regarding chemical safety considerations. Vue knew that the people making the ice cream would need personal protective equipment, but she went the extra step and consulted her biochemistry and inorganic chemistry professors, who informed her that anyone watching the demonstration would need to keep a safe distance in case the liquid nitrogen splashed. Taking the time to speak with experts made her application stronger and her event safer.
5. Lack of ownership
Your student chapter adviser likely has years of experience in grant writing. But remember, this grant is not for them to write! By taking the lead and writing and submitting the grant yourself, you show that you are truly invested in the outcomes of your activity. Plus, you’re gaining grant writing experience, which is a big part of ACS’s goal in offering these grants in the first place.
This doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone. Group members, your adviser included, can help you generate ideas for the grant. You could also divide up the writing among multiple students if one person doesn’t want to do it all. For shared writing projects, Heidar-Zadeh suggests first creating an outline and then divvying up sections. Reddy, who is the co-president of his chapter, wrote his team’s DEIR grant. But he received significant input from group members along the way. The group created an online document so that everyone could see it evolve and offer feedback. “It’s nice to have the diversity of perspectives, especially when planning a DEIR event,” says Reddy.
Your adviser can be part of this process, but in a supporting role. “I’m always there if they need help,” says Heidar-Zadeh. Once you have a complete draft, having another pair of eyes on your proposal can do wonders, whether it’s your adviser or someone else who hasn’t been as deeply involved in the planning and writing as you. This reader can capture something that you missed because you were so deep in the details, says Heidar-Zadeh.
And finally, before going to all of this effort, don’t forget to make sure that you are actually eligible for these grants! Your ACS membership must be up-to-date. And valid applications can only come from ACS premium members and active chapters (chapters that have submitted a report within the past 3 years and that include six or more ACS premium student members).