By Matt Jamieson
I’m a post-doc who has recently completed a PhD. Part of my job is to apply for funding applications for future research. This has brought an uneasy revelation; I need funding to continue doing the work I love, but I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing… Fortunately there’s plenty of useful advice out there for researchers learning how to make successful funding applications. You may also have a grant writing team that you can join at your institution. I’ve summarised some of the tips I’ve been given that took me by surprise or seemed to be particularly important.
The message is key – methods are less important than abstract / introduction
Something that has come up repeatedly has been the importance of explaining your research and research justifications clearly. This is key for two reasons: a) the person reviewing your submission probably won’t be an expert in your area, and b) you need this person to be on board, and they won’t be if they find it hard to understand what your application is about or why you’re doing the research. Some interesting recommendations I’ve read are to enter headings that match the reviewer’s marking criteria and to make the text bigger than the minimum allowed in order to make reading your application a stress free experience. Another key task is to have your application reviewed by people who do not work in your field, to ensure it can be understood by someone without prior experience.
Networking and collaboration can be specific to funding not just the research
Networking and developing collaborations can be difficult. Funding applications can actually be a useful catalyst for working with people with complementary research interests and skills because they force you to establish more concrete ideas. An interesting recommendation is to network and collaborate with people based on their previous experience applying for funding, not just based on their research interests. It is common for early career researchers to work with a more experienced supervisor, but it is always good to get a few different perspectives from experienced researchers in other fields.
The first time takes much longer and it gets less tedious (but still tedious!) over time
Writing applications is distinct from writing papers because you’re communicating to an audience who are unlikely to be experts in your area and you really need to sell the worth of a whole research programme not just one experiment or study. I’ve found to difficult to adapt my writing in this way and this has meant I’ve underestimated how long the application will take. There are also other administrative jobs such as costing and applying for departmental approval that take time. It does seem to become more streamlined over time; I have seen a professor who supervised me during my PhD utilise collaborations and previous applications to make applications efficiently. More senior academics also tend to make several applications simultaneously for different research ideas, and this takes me to my next point – hedge your bets against inevitable rejection.
Rejection is pretty likely so take criticism constructively and make many applications
It is recommended to write a lot of proposals, and to apply a few times with each. Though it depends on the type of funding you are applying for, the acceptance rates are generally very low and so a lot of good research won’t get funded during each call. Ideally you’ll get some indication about the reasons for rejection and you can use this to hone your upcoming projects. It’s easy to talk about rejection in an abstract way but it’s not so easy in real life. In a recent IHAWKES blog, Olivia Kirtley writes about burnout and health issues amongst researchers. Funding rejection can exacerbate this because many months of work (usually overtime) can be written off with a rejection. More pressingly, the thought of not being funded and subsequently not having a job is seriously stressful! To me, this is the main drawback tempering my enthusiasm for a research career. If I’m not always on form and coming up with good ideas, or even if I’m just unlucky, I could hit a wall.
Above all be positive! I’ve just submitted my first application so I’m sure it won’t be long before I get my first rejection. I think it will be difficult for me, as it was when I have had papers rejected before (reviewer two, you cannot be serious!!). This is where collaborations and supportive research teams can be really helpful; they’ll help you to keep faith in your research ideas and experienced researchers will have a good idea about what is fundable and what is not.