How to write successful funding applications?

Ok, I acknowledge: I have not been the world’s most successful academic in terms of getting research funding. But who knows I might have been if I had followed the advice of my older self :-) So here is my top-10 of tips I have picked up over the years, it might well help junior researchers to embark on a train of successful applications.

1. Start early! Build up your academic profile

From the beginning of your career get used to seeing your academic profile through the eyes of funding organisations. Yes, you might have many great ideas for important and ground-breaking research. And yes, you know that you are capable and passionate about executing them. But the funding committee can’t look into your head! So make sure your public profile (university home page, Linkedin, Researchgate, Blog etc.) reflects what you are good at.

Start early

2. Start early! Get a publication record

Start publishing early to resolve the eternal chicken-and-egg problem. Yes, you might need funding to do research and publish. But if you haven’t published anything, you are unlikely to get any funding. This might mean working with other academics that have funding in disciplines where it is impossible to do research without it. In disciplines where research mainly requires time, it might simply mean doing all the hard graft yourself rather than employing a research assistant. Even as an established professor I still regularly do my own data entry.

3. Start early! Apply with senior academics early in your career

Start applying for funding early in your career as a junior co-investigator of more senior academics. Yes, I know it can be frustrating to have to work on someone else’s research agenda. But put yourself in the shoes of a funding agency. Who would you be more likely to fund: a group of senior academics with an impressive publication record and a history of successful grant management or a junior academic who doesn’t have either of them?

4. Start early! Don’t leave writing till just before the deadline

When you have decided on applying for a particular funding scheme, start writing up a draft of the application as early as you can. By all means reserve 2 weeks just before the deadline to polish the application, but don’t think you can write the entire application in that time. Well of course you can, but – unless you are a natural grant writer – your application is unlikely to be successful. The best applications are like wine and cheese: they have matured over a longer period.

cheese

5. Be focused

If you are anything like me, you get bored working on the same topic for more than a couple of years and/or papers. However, if you do want to acquire research funding, it is probably better to choose focus over diversity in the early part of your career. You need to be known for “something” if you are going to be successful in getting money to do more research in that or a related area.

6. Don’t keep your application to yourself

Once you have a first draft of your application, get as many people as possible to read it (another reason to start early). Anyone will pick up something differently that you can improve. The best people to read your applications are those who are not in your area of research. Remember that most members of funding panels have to read a very broad range of applications.

And I mean really broad! So say you want to do research on expatriation and knowledge transfer, don’t write your application just for people who work in that narrow field, or in the slightly broader field of expatriate management, or in the broader field of international human resource management. Don’t write for the yet broader field of international management either, or the much broader field of management. In fact, don’t even write for the broad field of Business & Management. Write so that any Social Scientist can understand your application, you might well be evaluated by sociologists, political scientists, economists or psychologists.

7. Ensure you have all the basics covered

Of course there is no single “recipe for success”. However, in my experience what really needs to shine through is:

  • Why is this topic important? And with important we mean important for “real people”, i.e. the wider society, not just you and a handful of your colleagues. This is of course easier to argue for some topics than for others. But it is up to you to do this explicitly, it is not up to the reader to understand your implied messages.
  • Why is more research needed? You need to establish that the research that has been done to date has not answered the important questions. This of course means being thoroughly familiar with it. Remember that some of the external reviewers that report to the funding panel might well be experts, so this is the part of the application that can and often needs to talk to an expert audience.
  • What theories are you building on/testing/contributing to? What is the conceptual framework that guides your study? Some disciplines are more focused on theoretical grounding than others, but there does need to be some sort of coherent framework guiding your study.
  • Why am I the best person to do this? Once you have convinced the readers of the importance of the topic and the need for more research, you need to convince them that you are the best person to do this research. That’s why your prior publications and academic profile are so important.

win

  • How certain is it that I *can* do it? Even though the readers might be positively inclined towards your academic record in general, they need more. They need to be convinced you can deliver what you promise. Prior successful grant management as well as a really detailed description of methods and data sources can help here.
  • What are the outcomes that make the funding worthwhile? You might think this should be abundantly clear from the first point, but it is not. You need to show exactly *how* your research will lead to relevant outcomes.
  • How does your application address the call? In these days of increasingly specific calls, make sure you address the call. That means, read carefully and re-read the specifics and especially repeated phrases + impact needs from start of project to finish. If your project does not address everything in the call then it's not for you! [courtesy of Stephen Morgan, one of my former Melbourne colleagues, now Associate Provost at the University of Nottingham, China]

8. Keep your fingers toes and anything else you can find crossed!

IMHO the outcome of grant applications is even more dependent on the “luck of the draw” than the outcome of submissions of manuscripts to journals. It is also more dependent on contextual factors that you cannot influence. Are there for instance many other excellent applications on the same topic, from the same university, from the same country, the same age group or gender? Many funding agencies will attempt (even subconsciously) to maintain some balance. Has the topic of your application (e.g. migrant crisis, Islam fundamentalism, obesity, global warming, global financial crisis) been in the news recently? Your assessors will read the points under point 7 above very differently.

9. Don’t give up!

Point number 8 means that many excellent funding applications are not successful. So don’t give up. Remember it might be a lottery, but in order to have a chance of winning it you need enter the draw. Who knows, you might be the one benefitting from the luck of the draw next time.

dont giveup

10. Explore ways to do research without funding

Regardless how hard you try, some of us may never acquire a significant level of funding. Don’t use this as an excuse to opt out of research altogether. In many disciplines you can find other ways to at least make some progress (and increase your chances of funding in the future). Instead of relying on research assistants, you might be able to find co-authors who can help with data collection. Or you might be able to strike up a deal with a company, government agency or NGO to do research for them in exchange for help in getting access to data.

Be creative! During my PhD studies I wrote up several specialised business reports. To my surprise, I managed to sell enough of them to partially fund the cost of the survey, which had been graciously advanced by my host university.

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