A novice’s tips for grant writing

I’ve just submitted my first proposal for funding to the Australian Research Council. It’s been a long process, made longer by my unfamiliarity with grant writing.

The DECRA scheme I’ve applied for has a low chance of success, so it’s likely I’ll be going through the same process again next year. Next time, I expect the process will be quicker.

Over the last few months, I’ve learned a lot about grant writing. Here are some of my top tips for novice grant writing.

1. Get expert advice from the experts.

By chance, I attended several workshops on grant writing that just happened to give me excellent advice in the perfect order. The first workshop was given by the Research Whisperer and gave some very useful general information about understanding the grant writing process. This started me thinking about what needed to be done and the kinds of timeframes I should keep in mind.

I followed this up by attending a few grant writing workshops run by my university’s Research Office. These provided more specific information about writing for the ARC and for the DECRA scheme. They gave details about the contacts I would work with, what information was needed in each section, what tone to use, how to emphasise my track record, and even which words to use and which to avoid. Overall, the Research Office is a fantastic resource that is there to help as needed. Use them!

2. Start early.

Overall, I probably spent more than a year thinking through ideas. Of course I didn’t a spend a full year working on my proposal but it was great to have the luxury of time to let ideas percolate and then turn them over and let them marinate again. My ideas changed substantially over this period but the early themes persisted.

As a result, the final idea for my proposal felt mature. It started out as a haphazard mess of disjointed ideas smashed together, but by the end it was smashed avocado, feta and mint. It worked! But it only worked because I’d had so long to put different pieces together, take them apart and put them back together again.

3. Have lots of people read it over. But not too many people.

I had a lot of excellent scientists generously offer to give their time to look over my proposal. In the end, I had four senior and two junior colleagues read over a reasonably polished proposal. My direct supervisor read through my drafts several times. In addition, the Research Office gave two rounds of feedback on my proposal. And of course my brilliant girlfriend read every section several times and applied her masterful copy editing skills to it and gently pointed out where I was talking garbage.

This was way too much feedback. Everyone had competing ideas about the project, the style, the word choices, the references I used. It became hard to work through the motivation behind comments and work out how I could fit changes into the strict page and word limits.

There was also the tricky problem of revealing my ideas too broadly and too early. We are all invested heavily in our research. We love it! But we don’t necessarily love new people moving in new directions. Without meaning to, I found myself treading on toes. It’s hard to carve out a space for yourself in a busy and competitive field. This made the writing process stressful all round.

Next time, I would run my ideas by a couple of colleagues, the Research Office and a non-expert, who can provide feedback on the communication. And of course all that important copy editing!

4. Write the project you want to do.

My first foray into grant writing was unnecessarily drawn out because I ended up writing several proposals. My first idea was a project that incorporated a lot of early ideas from my senior colleagues. Many months before I began, I had many wonderful mentors, who are also brilliant scientists, start to talk ideas over with me. After a while, their kind interest became gentle direction. As a result, I found myself being guided by their ideas, not my own.

I wrote up a solid proposal focused on a project looking at the predictability of drought in Australia. It was an interesting project. But one day I got home from work quite deflated. I’d realised it wasn’t a project I was interested in and I would be quite disappointed to be successfully funded and have to go on and work for three years on that study. It wasn’t for me. So the drought prediction went into my laptop’s trash folder and I went back to the drawing board. It ate up a lot of time but prompted me to think not just about great new ideas, but also about what I want to do.

5. Let it go.

At some point in every task, you have to let it go. After months of backwards and forwards between me, my supervisor and the Research Office, it came to a point where the investment of further time was wasted. Either my project would do well, or would not. And no amount of tweaking commas and full stops was going to help it on its way. At this point, the only thing to do was press “Submit” and set my proposal free.


One thought on “A novice’s tips for grant writing

  1. Thanks, Sophie.

    This is excellent. I particularly like the bit about ‘not too many’ experts. We sometimes love our applicants to death with the amount and variety of feedback that we give them.

    Good luck with the DECRA.


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