Discriminators and Themes

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Kaplan Sponsored Research Strategies (KSRS) Staff Writers

In the process of developing grant applications for research funding you should be looking for personal, departmental and university attributes which are represent strengths that enhance your chances of attracting sponsorship. Think of every grant application as a competitive bid for funding. In every case you will have to give the sponsor reasons to award you the grant instead of someone else. Such attributes are known as "discriminators" and they represent one of the most important concepts in generating a winning grant application or proposal. If these discriminators are properly used, they offer the sponsoring agency reasons for giving funding to one researcher rather than another.

In many grant-selection situations it is extremely difficult for a sponsor to make an award decision because there typically isn't a single clear-cut reason, or set of reasons, to give an award to any of the applicants. Thus, the presence of strengthening discriminators in your grant application may make the difference between winning and losing.

The lack of discriminators is the fault of the applicant. In every case of an award pursuit there should be at least one clear and decisive aspect of a proposal to which a sponsor can point to as the key advantage of that offer. Consider this advice as a warning as well because this logic can also work the other way. If discriminators are not taken advantage of, then there is little reason or chance for an award. Furthermore, a strong application for a proposed major research effort should include several discriminators.

Discriminators should be clearly presented and immediately obvious to a reviewer. In fact the first introductory paragraph describing your proposed research should include at least a brief description of your discriminators. The intent here is to be sure that you capture the reader’s interest and persuade him or her to read the entire application.

Here are several examples of discriminator topics that are commonly found in winning academic proposals:

A specific example may be one in which your institution commits an allocation of 10,000 square feet of laboratory space and $10 million in dedicated equipment for a proposed research center. Furthermore, a number of new faculty positions may be offered in the proposed field of research. Such commitments represent compelling reasons to take the proposal very seriously, indeed. You will get the sponsor’s attention and the response should be positive.

Many other discriminators are possible, but each proposed research project requires a fresh look at what you have to offer. During early project development activities you should continually be looking for new and compelling discriminators. Some not so obvious examples include:


Once a discriminator has been identified, it must be woven into the text of the proposal. This is best done through the use of themes. These are short decisive statements or selling messages which, among other functions, point to the discriminators. When working with a team of several faculty members, themes can be created through the process of "themeing." A themeing session populated with researchers should involve a great deal of discussion that leads to a set of selling messages based on what you can offer a sponsor in exchange for funding your project. These themes can then be incorporated directly into the text of the grant application or proposal.

A theme can be a complete sentence, a phrase or a single word. Here are a few examples:

If your grant applications are rejected, you may need some guidance, advice and mentoring. KSRS can help. The seminar flyer below describes a one-day interactive presentation that will help. Ask your Department Head, College Dean or Vice President for Research to arrange the seminar on your campus.

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Last modified: Sun Jan 18 11:54:10 MST 2015