The 101 on grants for graduate researchers (Clare McCausland)

Photo by Thomas Hawk
As the manager of the Graduate Research School (GRS), I’m keenly aware that one of the topics we’re often asked at the GRS is around grants and additional funds: "how do I find what’s out there and how do I actually get paid?"

We know that research can be expensive!

Apart from fees and basic living expenses, costs associated with research can add up. You might want to travel overseas to conduct your fieldwork, purchase useful equipment to get your project underway and, at some point, you’ll almost certainly want to attend a conference to present your research.

You can also work with your colleagues to build a better intellectual climate – invite a guest speaker, set up a Wiki, or run a well-catered (and therefore well-attended!) reading group or seminar to support the efforts of graduate researchers across your discipline.

Sometimes, it seems like there are floods of cash available for doctoral and research Master’s candidates, but finding it and then seeing the dollars materialise can take more effort than the research these funds are intended to support. That’s not the intention.

I’ve put together some questions and answers here in an effort to shine a light on the sources of funding available and what’s involved in getting paid.

Q: Who has all this money to give us? 

A: Lots of people.

The first person to ask is your supervisor. Your supervisor will be an expert in your discipline area and should be able to give you a useful set of tips about where to start – perhaps there are discipline-specific mailing lists you should be subscribed to, or professional organisations you can join.

You should also speak with your Graduate Research Coordinator. Each School, Department or major discipline area has its own Graduate Research Coordinator, or GRC. These staff are specialists in your discipline area and, as experienced researchers themselves, will be able to give you good advice. You should certainly be receiving all the relevant emails from your area and these will include information on funding opportunities at La Trobe. There might be standing funds available or rounds in which you can apply – in any event, make sure you ask if you don’t know . . . then ask again next year, in case there are new opportunities you’ve missed. You can’t go wrong with this approach!

Moving slightly outside of your immediate discipline, it’s essential to subscribe to the interdisciplinary Research Focus Area (RFA) Newsletters for opportunities across La Trobe. We know that at least two-thirds of our graduate research candidates have a relationship (or potential relationship) with an RFA. If you’re not sure where you fit, speak with your supervisor. Each RFA publishes regular newsletters that feature opportunities for funding that may not be published in other forums.

Here at the Graduate Research School, we have an Intellectual Climate Fund. This grant is offered annually to groups of graduate researchers who come up with initiatives to support their local areas. Last year’s applications were incredibly diverse. People arranged for everything from lab training to symposia with invited speakers, networking breakfasts, career nights. There was even a proposal for a new student society at the Bendigo campus for Bendigo Graduate Researchers. If you’ve got a good idea and can put together a cogent application that fits the criteria, chances are there’s money here for you, too!

You can also look outside La Trobe for money – and we hope you do. These applications might entail a bit more work, but can be very lucrative. The GRS has set up a tailored Research Professional search that displays all the latest grant opportunities, both in Australia and internationally. It’s well worth taking time time to look through the results carefully – you’ll find a list of opportunities here and here.

Finally, talk with the Grants Team in the La Trobe University Research Office for support and mentoring in applying for grants. This team are real experts – they live and breathe research grants and will support you through the application process.

Q: I’ve applied, I’ve been successful – show me the money! 

A: Congratulations! Your next mission is to determine how to get paid. If it’s from someone at La Trobe (such as your School or the GRS), we’ll let you know directly. Often, this will be through your School Finance team. Channeling external money through the University into your bank account can be more challenging. In a large organisation like a University, this isn’t always simple. That’s because we need to report to the government about any money we have coming through for research purposes, as 'research income', and that means there are some specific steps we need follow.

Q: Hang on, what do you mean 'research income'? 

A: Good question! It’s not always easy to tell. To see whether we need to report the funding through the Research Office, we’ll ask whether you answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions:

1. Is the money connected to a major external grant, for example, through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) or Australian Research Council (ARC)?

2. Do you know if the funding otherwise reportable through HERD(C) (Higher Education Research Data Collection)?

3. Is the funding for a PhD stipend (other than an Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) or La Trobe University Postgraduate Research Scholarship (LTUPRS))?

4. Is the funding for a purpose other than travel to a conference?

5. Is it for more than $5,000, or are you still not sure?

If you answer 'yes' to any of these questions, then 'research income’ may be a good way to describe your money. Make your way to the Grants Team at the Research Office to discuss further; they will need to be a part of it.

Q: So, what are the specific steps we’ll need to follow?

A: There are several, and you’ll see that lots of people and offices are involved. A very important point to keep in mind is that all external research funding is administered through the Research Office and, to access grant funds that have been awarded to you, your supervisor will first need to submit what’s called a Research Activity Statement (RAS).

Once they’ve done that, a member of the Research Office can arrange for what is called a ‘WBS’ to be set up – this is where the funds are allocated. Central Finance will then arrange to receive the funds from the external funding body (for example, by generating an invoice). Once the WBS has been set up, you or the Chief Investigator (CI) on the grant (possibly your supervisor, possibly someone else) will need to go work with your School Finance team in the College of Arts, Social Science and Commerce (ASSC), or in the College of Science, Health and Engineering (SHE) (if you do not have access to the Staff Intranet, your supervisor should be able to provide you with the contact details) – they will often be your final port of call.

We find the hardest question to answer is “how do I get paid” when only some of these steps have been completed and, at the GRS, we can’t tell which. This means we sometimes don’t know who to ask next for advice.

We’ll usually start with the Grants Team at the Resesarch Office (they really are great), but often they’ll need to say that the ball is now in your supervisor’s court, or that someone in Finance will now have the answers. We know it’s frustrating to be directed from one place to the other in search of a simple answer.

Q: What if the money has been awarded to me or my supervisor directly, or if it is not research income at all?

A: If this is the case, talk with your School Finance contact in ASSC, or in SHE. Again, your supervisor will be able to help you out with these contact details if you don’t have access to the Staff Intranet.

Q: So…do I even need to talk to the GRS about grants?

A: You’re always welcome to talk with the GRS! And you’ll need to talk with us if, for example, you’re looking to travel or base yourself outside of your usual campus for some time. Make sure you let us know if there are going to be any changes to your candidature as a result of receiving grant funds – the forms you’ll want are always here!


Dr Clare McCausland manages the Graduate Research School at La Trobe, where she has worked since 2014. 

She has worked in policy and operational roles in research and graduate research for ‘many years’. 

Clare has a PhD in moral philosophy and publishes on animal protection issues.