An essential skill for any successful academic career is writing grant proposals to secure funding for your research. Securing grants is a competitive process so you need your proposals to be able to stand out from other aspiring and successful academic researchers.
So how do you do it?
You don’t have to go alone.
Yes, applying for research funding is competitive, but writing a successful grant application works best as a collaborative endeavour. You can get help from multiple sources.
Start with your current PI or supervisor. Have they applied for grants successfully in the past, did they do this to get funding for your post? Will they share what they wrote with you. That can be tricky. If they won’t, who else can you talk to at your host university, within your department, from other departments, your research office? Make the effort to find those who can and will help. It will be worth it in the long run. If you’re applying for post-docs find out at interview how much support you can get to learn this skill in your next role.
The more people who see your proposal the better, share it around. Show it to colleagues and don’t forget the funding providers. They often have people you can call, who will give you guidance on anything you are unsure about. It is in their interests to receive good quality applications, so make sure you take advantage of the help they can provide.
Only the science (or research idea) matters.
Nope. Of course, it’s important, but it’s just untrue to think that it will be judged solely on the science or research idea. Funders are also looking for other indicators of success. Do you have a proven record or the potential to be an independent researcher? If you do, crucially, how are you going to show it in the grant application? And while we’re on the subject of the topic, consider this. Just because you find a research idea interesting, doesn’t mean everyone else will, so how are you going to convince them… see below.
What else have you got to offer the funders?
Skills – can you convince the funders you’re worth the risk? Can you demonstrate a successful track record of managing projects? What will you do if the research plan doesn’t go as hoped for? i.e. make sure you show you have a plan b and explain this in your proposal.
I’ve written loads of papers; I can write a grant proposal …
Er no…Not always. You are writing for a different purpose, so you need to write in a different style. You’re not writing to detail your research; you’re writing to convince the funders to give you a substantial amount of their money. A grant needs to have a good title, it needs to tell a story, inject a sense of urgency, explain what you’re doing to non-specialists, not get bogged down in the current literature, and crucially, not just go over your previous research. What is new, what is innovative in your proposal. “But won’t the people reading it be experts in my field?” you may ask. “I don’t want to dumb it down”. Some of the review committee will be experts but often some won’t be. So you need to make sure your proposal can be understood and resonate with them too.
You need to start to demonstrate your independence from your previous work, and your previous supervisors and PIs. What is your research vision? This is an essential aspect of establishing yourself as an independent researcher.
A good grant writer isn’t born – they’re made
Yep, it’s a skill. You can practice it and get better at it. Part of learning is failing. Take on any feedback offered by the grant committee and do better with your next application
Key components of a proposal.
- Why? Why are you proposing that this research needs to be done? Why is it new and novel? This needs to be a compelling narrative, not just a rehash of your previous work.
- Why now? Add a sense of urgency. Why is it important the work is done now? Are new techniques available, is a lack of knowledge in your area impacting on other areas of research?
- How? What will your approach be, what knowledge and expertise do you have that you can bring to bear on the problem. Are you working with collaborators? What will their contribution be?
- Methodologies – Get into some specifics of techniques.
- Project plan – Gantt chart it or give some key milestones of what you hope to have achieved and by when.
- Impact/Dissemination – What will change if your research is successful? How will you share your findings, with who, and why?
Your final structure will be dependent on the funder’s guidelines and instructions. Make sure you follow them. Stick to whatever rules and format they ask for. Don’t try and push the boundaries, give them exactly what they want. Don’t give them an excuse to exclude you at the first round of assessment because you haven’t followed the rules.
It’s a lot to consider, isn’t it? So, the final thing a good grant proposal needs is time. Don’t rush it. Spend time horizon scanning to see what funding calls are coming up and be prepared. Are there schemes that open every year you might want to apply for. Be aware of the deadlines and plan backwards accordingly. It can be better to wait a year and submit a good proposal than rush to get one in, and risk being excluded from future calls.