Research grant applications 101 (Tseen Khoo)

Photo by Thomas Hawk
Writing research grant applications should be treated as a highly trainable skill.

No-one comes to the process with an automatic ability to comprehend grants-speak, and you’d have to be worried about anyone who did!

You should treat this short article as the tip of the iceberg in terms of advice on how to start your grant writing career.

My perspective is informed by my ten years or so of experience as a research academic, and the convenor of a research network that mentors many early career researchers.

Whether they’re for project grants, fellowships, conference travel, visiting scholars, or publications, all funding schemes have one basic desire: To give money away to the best applicants.

Your job is to convince the granting body that you’re the best team and project for the investment of their funds. Particularly in major national schemes, such as the ARC DECRA (Discovery Early Career Researcher Award), the competition can be intense.

While no advice can guarantee you grant success, there are many things you can do to make sure you are in serious contention.

These elements are essential to successful grant applications:

Building an excellent publication track-record relative to opportunity.
The argument you need to present in the track-record section of any grant application is that you have performed well given the opportunities that you’ve had. You need to show that you have the potential and skill to produce wonderful outcomes for the granting body and the research field more generally. While track-records are often heavily weighted towards publications, there are other things that can flag that you have research potential and a good professional profile. These include activities such as refereeing for prestigious journals, undertaking significant editorial roles, being an active member of an academic or professional association, and initiating events that lead to quality publications.

Developing a convincing, innovative project that has intellectual rigour and integrity.
Research projects should never be thrown together for the sake of a funding scheme that happens to be around. All good researchers have a project (or two, or three…) in the pipe-line, and these get worked up over time (e.g. gaining publications in your newer areas of research to establish track-record).

Creating a strong research team.
As well as a compelling project, the collaborative potential for your research team has to be convincing: Have you presented or published together yet? What kinds of connections do you have? Did you just find each other in a staff directory? Present a case for your team that assures the granting body that you are a cohesive, dynamic group with an exciting blend of expertise that will successfully complete the project.

Learning to read and comprehend grant-speak.
I know this sounds simplistic, not to mention incredibly boring, but it is a habit that many academics never acquire. Reading the guidelines allows you to figure out things like:
  • whether you should even be applying for that grant (eligibility issues, which might include things like the number of years from the award of your PhD),
  • what you can do with it (there may be restrictions on funding items, such as travel or other personnel),
  • when you need to get the application submitted (major grants have multiple deadlines if you’re submitting through a university; Australian Research Council [ARC] applications are due at College research offices many weeks before the actual ARC deadline), and 
  • how long you’ve got to get things done (most grants have a ‘life’ for the project, and often have set dates by which you have to spend the grant).
Don’t let all your hard work in compiling an application go to waste because you’ve overlooked the fact that you are outside of what the granting body considers an “ECR” (early career researcher), or your project is asking for things the grant isn’t allowed to provide. In addition, as you get more experienced, you’ll learn to read between  the lines of the rules and guidelines, and be able to present your project in the most strategic and effective way for the scheme. For example, some granting bodies are more likely to support medical research in certain fields than others.

Cultivate a strong network of 'critical friends'
As an emerging researcher, it would also be good to start gathering around you a cohort of rigorous, supportive reviewers for your papers and future grant applications.

These reviewers don’t have to be experts in your area and, in fact, may be more valuable if they’re not. Having your research engage the interest of those who are NOT from your area is very important in granting rounds; most times, assessors will be academic, but non-expert.

Your potential personal reviewers could be your peers (i.e. fellow grad researchers), your supervisors, or mentors who’ve demonstrated grant/project success. One of the best ways to fast-track your grant application know-how is to see how (successful) others have done it.

Some researchers also thrive in writing groups. A possible model for a writing group is: you are all working towards the same deadline for a grant application, and have informal weekly meetings to encourage, compare notes, and critique each other’s work.

Pay attention to feedback
When you get feedback from your network of reviewers, make sure you consider their comments properly. You asked them to review for you because you valued their opinion, right? So, if they tell you that your project concepts aren’t well explained, or they’re not convinced you can do the project in that time-frame, think about these issues seriously and amend your application, if necessary.

We often get too close to the topics we’re researching and need someone else to point out our conceptual/theoretical short-cuts.

The process of applying for grants takes much longer than you think it will, and can be tedious and painful. I can attest that it gets easier with practice, and keeping your CV up to date makes life a lot easier.

Be stubborn
All that said, one of the qualities most successful, grant-winning academics have in common is determination (or stubbornness, depending on who you talk to…). Do not be put off by a few knock-backs. You’ve already done the hard work with writing up a convincing, exciting project description and organising your track-record information.

With some tweaking, your project can now be shopped around as many relevant funding schemes as it takes to get funded.


A version of this post first appeared at The Research Whisperer.