How to write a grant application

 It’s that time of the year again. It’s starting to get light early in the morning. Shorts are appearing, revealing pasty, faded legs beneath. In Canberra, bloodthirsty magpies have begun swooping, terrifying young and old. In Australia, it’s also that time of the year when researchers start thinking a little more purposefully about impending grant applications.

Proposals to the Australian Research Council (ARC) for fellowships or major projects can take months to prepare, and prospective applicants tend to begin well in advance. Next week I’m sitting on a panel to assist early career fellowship hopefuls with their budding proposals. Although the deadline for submissions isn’t until March next year, the early career researchers are expected to bring along well-formed project ideas for fine-tuning.

My grant experience is fairly limited – I’ve successful applied for an ARC fellowship, unsuccessfully applied for some minor grants and gained some insight by sitting on the fringes of some major multi-institutional proposals. I’ve compiled my own experiences into a few tips for grant hopefuls.

1 Timing and timeliness is everything

It’s best to be well prepared for an application. Some applications, such as the Australia Research Council schemes can take months and months of preparation. If you are going to make an application for funding, be prepared in advance. Talk to your research office at your university and let them know of your intentions and get assistance early. Talk to successful and unsuccessful applicants from previous years and politely ask to see their proposals, so that you can start framing your thinking.

It’s also worth brainstorming project ideas early and make sure that you are working strategically towards this. If you want to sidestep into a slightly new research direction, planning in advance can reframe this from something potential grant assessor will see as a risk, to an ambitious and innovative step. In some cases, it might be worth delaying an application for a year or two while you build towards this point of seamless, sensible research strategy.

It’s also important to emphasise the timeliness of your project idea and explain why the project should be funded now. Is there a new dataset available that opens up new approaches? Are your research questions suddenly of political or social importance? It’s not just a matter of convincing assessor of why you are well placed to undertake the research, but also about why is has to be done now.

2 Get the funding rules early

By this stage, you are already Cub Scout-like prepared and have a good idea of the requirements of the scheme you are applying for and have already made best friends for life with your research office. Now is a good time to focus in on the specifics of the funding rules for your grant of interest. For major grants, this will be pages and pages of incomprehensible acronyms. For smaller grants, it may be as loose as “do you love science, so do we, let’s work together”.

Either way, you have to know what is required of the application and the grant holder in advance, otherwise you are likely to have compliance issues later. For example, you might inadvertently breach contracts with your employer, you might mistakenly publish in a journal behind a paywall when open access is required, or you might be required to store your data for many years after funding has ended.

More seriously, you might spend months working on a proposal, just to find that you actually aren’t eligible to apply in the first place. Your university or faculty office, or equivalent, should be able to summarise major issues and possible recent changes in grant rules for you.

3 Learn the genre

Grants require a very different style of communication to journal papers, reports or other forms of academic writing. Often you have to communicate complex and nuanced ideas to a non-expert, or even non-academic, audience. They often impose very strict word limits. Make it easy for your assessors (and yourself) and learn the genre so that you can communicate effectively. Learn what specific words mean for that scheme – excellence, benefit, feasibility, significance, merit can all have slightly strange meanings and it’s best to find out what the funders want in each application section.

As for the part of your application where you have to talk about yourself, make sure you try to do so objectively. Most people err on the side of modesty and tend to write about themselves in a fairly flaccid tone. You might be disgusted by what you’ve written about yourself and think it’s over the top and awfully narcissistic, but from an outsider’s eye, it is probably quite flat. This section about your own merit tends to benefit from some external help. Get a friend, mentor, supervisor or partner to help.

4 Too many cooks

While I’ve just said that help was useful, too much help is counterproductive. There comes a point where you have so many voices contradicting each other and competing for attention that you can no longer see what is you and what you wanted to do. Now is the time for you to ask yourself – if this project got funded, would I want to do it? If so, great. If not, it’s best to step back and block it all out and focus on your interests and expertise.

5 Eggs and baskets

Grants from many sources, including foundations, government, industry and funding bodies, can have extremely low success rates. This shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent from making an application, but it’s worth weighing up your chances of success versus the required investment of time. If you do go ahead and submit a funding request or proposal to a scheme with a low funding rate, then it’s worth planning for bad news. Don’t wait around for 9 months if your salary situation is precarious – keep applying for jobs and other money sources.

If you are relying on grant money for project costs, keep an eye out while you are waiting to hear and keep balls rolling. This will also help moderate disappoint if you aren’t successful. Earlier this year I spent a ridiculous chunk of time applying for a small grant and didn’t even get shortlisted. Having other balls in the air at the same time moderated my feelings of being under appreciated and misunderstood. Invest yourself in your application, but don’t put your whole self-esteem on the line.



5 thoughts on “How to write a grant application

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am planning to apply for DECRA in this next round so this is very timely. I have a question – how did you know whether you were likely to be competitive? I seem to swing from strong self doubt and talking myself out of it to possible unwarranted confidence! It is obviously quite an undertaking and time commitment for a small chance or success. My uni has a library of past successful DECRAs and the track records are quite mixed.

    • Hi Lauren, exciting times, Good luck with your application! And great question. This is so hard to work out and depends on so many factors. If you were nearing 5 years post-PhD, it’s probably worth applying even with doubts about your track record.

      If earlier, it’s a more complicated assessment. I considered applying early and sought advice from senior academics in my field. A few looked at my CV and said it was ok but would be better if I could wait and build up. It is very discipline specific – what is exceptional in one field is average in another. I felt my track record was shaky, but my assessor commented on the strength, which surprised.

      So in short – Ask experienced people you trust to be gently honest. Don’t compare yourself too broadly. Remember that lots of things influences decisions including current position/personal life etc – it’s ok to go early or wait if that makes sense for other non track record reasons.

      • Thanks Sophie! Yes it’s still early-ish, I’ll be ~3.5 years post PhD if I submit this round. Which as you said makes it complicated, and why I’m finding it hard to work out. Thanks for the suggestion re talking to honest senior academics. I do think it would be better if I waited in some ways, especially since I’m trying to combine two research areas in a newish way. But at the same time I’m out of funding by the end of next year so I kind of feel like I should! Thanks again for your answer, I appreciate it. Also I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, it’s always very helpful 🙂

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