To apply or not to apply: a survey analysis of grant writing costs and benefits

PLoS One. 2015 Mar 4;10(3):e0118494. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118494. eCollection 2015.


We surveyed 113 astronomers and 82 psychologists active in applying for federally funded research on their grant-writing history between January, 2009 and November, 2012. We collected demographic data, effort levels, success rates, and perceived non-financial benefits from writing grant proposals. We find that the average proposal takes 116 PI hours and 55 CI hours to write; although time spent writing was not related to whether the grant was funded. Effort did translate into success, however, as academics who wrote more grants received more funding. Participants indicated modest non-monetary benefits from grant writing, with psychologists reporting a somewhat greater benefit overall than astronomers. These perceptions of non-financial benefits were unrelated to how many grants investigators applied for, the number of grants they received, or the amount of time they devoted to writing their proposals. We also explored the number of years an investigator can afford to apply unsuccessfully for research grants and our analyses suggest that funding rates below approximately 20%, commensurate with current NIH and NSF funding, are likely to drive at least half of the active researchers away from federally funded research. We conclude with recommendations and suggestions for individual investigators and for department heads.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis*
  • Financing, Organized / economics*
  • Research / economics*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires*
  • Writing*

Grants and funding

Research reported in this publication was partially supported by the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which provided the first author two weeks of salary support to write up the results. The authors otherwise received no specific funding for this work. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.