Things I’ve learned about putting together large grant applications (Rachel Winterton)

Elephant in knitted suit plus child | Photo by Kim Tairi
Given that I work as a research-only academic, pulling together large grant applications is something that I do a LOT of.

When I started my job as a research officer back in 2009, my contribution was limited to chasing up bits and pieces for senior colleagues who were submitting grants. I was given tasks like adding up budgets and finding references.

Now, I lead my own grant applications (mostly Australian Research Council grants, but occasionally large tenders for industry or philanthropic grants). I collaborate with national and international colleagues, as well as industry partners.

I've had more failures than successes (which applies to just about every other researcher I know) but, regardless of the outcome, there are things I’ve learned over the years about making the process as smooth and stress-free as possible.

Here are my key tips for your grant writing pleasure!

Tip #1: If you need partners, organise them early.

If you’re dealing with external partners (e.g. other universities, industry), this process needs to start early. I’ve started some negotiations a year out!

It takes a long time to get the sign-off/letters of commitment, and you often need to deal with various levels of management. To expedite the process, I develop a two-page project plan that outlines everything we will require from a partner (i.e. cash and in-kind commitment, letters of commitment), which can be negotiated if needed. I also prepare a template for the letter of commitment (certain grant bodies have strict stipulations over what must go in these letters), so that the partner can simply fill in their details and place it all on letterhead. My theory is that if you make it easy for them, it’ll be easier for you in the long run!

Tip #2: Eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Before starting an application, I take myself off to a café with the Instructions to Applicants document and make an itemised list of everything I must do, with deadlines attached. Some of these are Research Office deadlines, some of them are self-imposed!

I itemise all the sections I need to write, things I need to ask other people on the grant to do (i.e. send their CVs, their track-record documents, letters of support), and things I need to ask the Research Office to do (i.e. budgets). This acts as an ‘action plan’, and I add to it as the grant evolves (i.e. the need to follow up with people, revision of drafts). I use the OmniFocus app (Mac only) to do this, but you can use a table in Word or an Excel spreadsheet. I find this helpful as I can spread the work out over time. It’s unusual that I get huge blocks of time that I can allocate!

Tip #3: Write like it’s for your fifteen-year-old child/sibling/cousin.

A senior colleague told me this many years ago when I was writing my first successful application, and I’ve never forgotten it. While the statement may be an oversimplification, it just means that anyone who picks up your grant application to read should be able to understand it.

Keep your sentences short and sweet, avoid jargon, and make sure you explain all your key terms. Given that the reviewer is unlikely to be in your exact research area, they need to be able to understand what you’re talking about without too much effort.

Tip #4: Find some critical friends, and find them early.

When I start writing a grant application, I line up a series of people external to the proposal to read the draft application for feedback. I’m quite strategic in how I do this – I normally try to get someone who is familiar with the subject area, a senior academic who is not necessarily in my area but who reviews a lot of competitive grants, and a non-academic (think here of your partner or a parent – this is particularly useful in achieving point #3!). This is beneficial in two ways: it gives me diverse feedback and a deadline to work to. I normally give them a month’s notice if I can.

The catch is that you must be willing to do this for others if/when they ask. It's all part of the circle of niceness!

Tip #5: Do what the Research Office tells you to.

This seems obvious but it really does make your life easier if you meet your Research Office's deadlines because then you can get the help you need.

Just about every grant I’ve put in has had some sort of last-minute drama (signatures missing, formatting issues) that has been picked up by the Research Office because my application it was submitted well before the grant body deadline. It's worth the effort. So put the research office dates in your Tip #2 list, and think of them as non-negotiable!

Happy grant-writing!


Rachel Winterton is a research fellow at the John Richards Initiative, La Trobe University, Wodonga. 

Her research focuses on how rural communities, governments and organisations are managing and responding to challenges posed by population ageing. 

She is internationally recognised for her work on rural ageing and voluntarism, and is currently completing a series of projects with international collaborators exploring critical perspectives on volunteering in ageing rural communities.  

Other research interests include the implications of rural retirement migration for rural service provision, rural age-friendly communities and the role of rural systems and structures in facilitating wellness for rural ageing populations.

Rachel tweets at @RachelWinterton.