Improve Your Grant Writing by Getting Invited to Join a Peer Review Team

By Beverly A. Browning

Before you start writing your grant application narrative, here’s an insider secret about how to connect mentally and skill-wise to the peer review process: You can search for and sign up to become a government peer reviewer, also known as a grant reader. Yes, you! Simply type call for peer reviewer into your favorite search engine or look directly on the federal funding agency’s website.

Desirable peer reviewer characteristics include the following:

  • Formal education in the grant-funding topic area
  • Volunteer experience in the grant-funding topic area
  • Work experience in the grant-funding topic area

Here are the benefits of participating in the government peer review process:

  • You gain valuable insight into the peer review process. You experience firsthand how applications for a particular funder are evaluated and scored. Plus, you get to see how other grant writers state their cases, incorporate compelling graphics, and present research-based evidence of their need for the grant funding and how that funding will impact their target populations.
  • You have the opportunity to network with other peer reviewers from throughout the United States and its territories. Today, most peer reviews are done online via a password-protected portal managed by the grant-funding agency. Typical peer review assignments require that you review 10 to 12 grant applications online and enter the strengths and weaknesses of each narrative section into the online text box windows. After you complete a set of assigned grant applications, you notify the peer review manager. This person checks on the progress of the other peer reviewers assigned to the same set of grant applications.

When the entire team is ready, the peer review manager schedules a conference call (lasting from two to four hours) for the consensus discussion. This team peer review process (where you must come to a consensus on the final scoring for each application) is when you are acquainted with many types of connected individuals.

By connected individuals, this means people who are experts in the grant-funding field. These same people can become your best friends when you need a third-party evaluator (or a referral for one) or when you need a copy of a successful grant application they’ve written for a particular funding agency.

  • You get paid! At the federal government level, compensation is about $125 per grant application reviewed, or more depending on the agency’s budget for the peer review process. At the state government agency level, the compensation is typically not as much as Uncle Sam’s lucrative offer. Most often, state grant-making agencies set a flat rate for reviewing 10 to 15 grant applications.

If you don’t have a full-time day job working as a grant writer for an employer, taking on state agency grant reviews may or may not be financially worth the effort required by grant-writing consultants. You could be paid as low as $750 for reviewing 15 applications to as high as $2,500 for reviewing 20 applications and spending six hours in multiple “change in the peer review process” types of calls. At best, it’s not always the smoothest process for the reviewer, but the experience you can gain is worth a pot of gold!

Sometimes, if the peer review database is already full, you may not be contacted for months — even a year or longer. But don’t give up! Continue to email the agency’s peer reviewer database contact person and indicate your enthusiasm about being invited to participate in the peer review process. You may have to update your résumé and the peer review application every year, so make a note on your annual calendar now.

A federal agency constantly looking for peer reviewers is the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance.