How to apply for research funding: 10 tips for academics

Article by Helen Lock, published in “The Guardian” on 10th May 2015, sponsored by Coventry University.

Grant writing is time-consuming, tedious and the success rates are depressing. How can researchers make the process less stressful?


©Ryan McGuire


Winning funding for your research ideas is tough, and there is growing pressure in all disciplines to get grants. While there’s no easy way to write a successful application, there are some steps you can take to make the process less stressful. We asked reviewers and researchers to share their advice.

It’s always worth getting a bit of early experience in grant writing even if it might not be on your mind at the time. As a PhD student or early postdoc you can ask to see drafts of work that is being done in your office, as an observer. That way you can keep getting a sense of the process before you have to do a grant proposal on your own. (David Crosby, programme manager for methodology and experimental medicine, Medical Research Council)

It’s never too early to think about funding – even during your doctorate there are funding opportunities for travel grants, equipment, public engagement activities and more. It’s valuable evidence of your ability to win funding and provides important experience before moving on to writing larger, more complex, grant proposals. (Traci Wilson, higher education institutions programme manager, Vita, an organisation aimed at developing researchers)

Decide what you most need the money for – is it your own time, or perhaps the costs of travel to do archival research or fieldwork, or to hold a workshop to bring experts together to advance a piece of research. Investigate possible funding bodies who give grants or fellowships of the type that support what you need the money for – reading the relevant guidance notes carefully to avoid wasting your time and that of the funding body. Discuss your ideas with relevant colleagues, including university research office or research support colleagues. (Ken Emond, head of research awards, British Academy)

Start by picking the right scheme and reading the guidance for the call thoroughly as they may have particular stipulations that you need to be aware of before you spend any more time on it. Make sure then that you signpost how exactly your idea fits in throughout the application. It’s useful to signpost all the aspects of a good proposal that reviewers will be looking for – so they don’t miss it – things like: rigour, value for money, impact, scientific interest. (Matthew Grenby,professor of eighteenth century studies, Newcastle University)

Talk to people within your institution who have already won funding from the organisation you are applying to. For example, different organisations have different emphasises and priorities, so there are nuances in how you should pitch to them, whether it’s Cancer Research UK or the Medical Research Council, it’s worth finding out about that first. (David Crosby)

Common mistakes made by applicants include not reading and answering the questions being asked and being over-ambitious in their expectation of what can be achieved in the timescale of an award. Usually you will have less space than you would want, so it is important to focus on what is really important about your proposed research, and to be clear about how you will go about it. Write positively, without relying on unexplained jargon, and with enthusiasm about what you plan to do, and why you are the right person, with the right blend of skills and experience to make a success of it. (Ken Emond)

If you are applying to do an interdisciplinary project and are therefore going to work with a partner from another discipline, you need make sure the partnership is authentic. You need be interested intellectually in what one another is working on and that will show through to reviewers. If you meet someone you might want to work with make sure that you take time over forming an idea and planning an application. You can’t just put something together in a brief meeting over a cup of coffee. (Tony McEnery, professor of English languages and linguistics and director of Lancaster University’s Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science)

You can always get in contact with the funder, in fact we thoroughly recommend it. Funding calls will have an email address for you to get in touch. That way any queries you have about the suitability of your idea can be answered. Read the handbook: research councils will have rules early on about font size and spacing that need to be adhered to. (Avril Allman, head of peer review and grant operations, Natural Environment Research Counci)

At the panel stage your application won’t be reviewed by people who are experts in your specific area. Getting friends and family to review your idea means they can ask questions others might not have thought of. People in your department can give a sense check, and think about whether it is actually possible in research terms. (Matthew Grenby)

The main advice is to keep trying. Lots of people don’t re-submit applications where they can. But responding to suggestions from reviewers can add value to an application and, once adapted, some applications do go on to be funded. Being rejected doesn’t mean your idea is completely un-fundable necessarily. It might be that you need to make changes, or it might be that this time there just was not funding available in the round you were in. (Tony McEnery)

Don’t just send the same thing again, but respond to feedback and then try. It can be disappointing if you have put a lot of effort into something but see it as a learning point, and we don’t fund everything, there is around a 20% success rate, so you have to expect some rejection. (David Crosby)

In the humanities you get a right of reply before the final decisions are made – and people don’t take that seriously enough. I would see it as actually part of the application. If they have questions you can defend your answers, and provide explanation. If they say something positive you can reinforce that. It’s an opportunity. (Matthew Grenby)


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Find the original article by Helen Lock, published in the higher education networt in “The Guardian” here.




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