I’ve heard that obtaining external research grant income just got more competitive at my former workplace. I understand that researchers are under intense pressure from senior management to win more grants.
Even worse, failing to secure external funding, as a pre-requisite to carrying out research, can be a reason for dismissal!
The days where researchers without independent grant income can hide behind PIs are gone.
Well, no worries, you can up your game with a little help! Yes – you!
You know those academics who churn out lots of publications and grant applications like it’s no big deal, and are always successful?
Are they annoying, or what?
But the good news is I'm willing to share what I learned through the process of writing successful bids for funding, and you can get similar results too.
I’ve also learned a lot from peer reviewing grant applications. I can tell you that there are writing strategies and techniques the most successful academics adopt that separate them from those who end up with funding rejection letters.
Here’s what I’ve found the best grant writers do.
What the Best Grant Writers Do
1) They write easy to read but convincing grant applications
The best grant writers always focus on expressing their ideas clearly, persuasively and engagingly.
They seem to understand the concerns and aims of their audience – that’s the funding programme staff, and the advisory group membership that includes patients, members of the public, academic peer reviewers, clinicians, service managers, and funding and editorial board members.
Refereeing a grant application will be one of many tasks to complete within a deadline.
That means a well-written grant application must be easy to read and understand. Help the reviewer to glide through your proposal by using the following writing style tips.
Use short sentences. This makes it easier to read your proposal.
Use short paragraphs. This makes it easier for the reader to understand and remember your information.
Use brief but relevant subheadings that match the paragraph content.
Cut the jargon by using simpler synonyms; not everyone is familiar with technical terms, especially non-specialists who will peer review your proposal.
Signpost readers to important information.
And check your spelling; typos are never acceptable and reduce your credibility.
The best grant writers whose applications I see aren’t afraid of using white space.
They don’t try to cram in everything they think the funding agency might want to know. They provide only the essential information needed by the funding agency’s decision makers.
2) They meet all the requirements of a funding agency
Structure your proposal to fit the requirements of the funding agency.
Funders need to be convinced of the importance and potential impact of your research, which is crucial to winning research grants. The best applications demonstrate clear and substantial added value to the research user community by doing their project.
Successful grant applicants demonstrate a good fit between their project and the aims of funding agencies.
The best grant writers scrutinise the funder’s website, looking for funding agency expectations, mission statements, eligibility criteria, and guidance for applicants as well as for peer reviewers, including reviewer evaluation forms.
Failure to carry out this search puts you at a disadvantage, and could even be fatal to the success of your application.
3) They ask an important question and are good value for money
A common aim of these agencies is to invest limited resources in the best research. So you need to show that you are asking an important question, that your research methods will provide an answer.
It’s crucial that the total funding you ask for represents good value for money, and that the resources are appropriate for the scale and methods of the proposed project.
It’s important to justify all costs, including how co-applicant costs relate to specific responsibilities.
The best grant writers scrutinise the funder’s website, looking for funding agency expectations, mission statements, eligibility criteria, and guidance for applicants as well as for peer reviewers, including reviewer evaluation forms. Failure to carry out this search puts you at a disadvantage, and could even be fatal to the success of your application.
4) They clearly demonstrate their ability to deliver the proposed project
You need to demonstrate that you and your research team have the appropriate mix of skills and experience to deliver the project.
The best grant applications I see have a clear structure to the Research Team section, where each research team member has a clearly defined role and their contribution is relevant to the project.
Don’t include someone as a co-applicant just to name drop. This is so transparent and will do you no favours in winning funding.
If the project needs input from a particular professional group to inform either the study design or delivery, you need to demonstrate you have included representation from the relevant group.
Your CV and your co-applicants’ CVs all serve to demonstrate your track record – your ability to deliver the proposed project.
Relevant skills, experience and training should be listed, as well as prior funding and related publications.
Don’t include anything in the CVs that isn’t directly relevant to carrying out the proposed project.
5) They clearly describe how they will manage the project
The best grant applications I see include a clear plan for the management and governance of projects.
I’ve noticed that they include a dedicated project manager who has the skills and experience to ensure the project is conducted appropriately, and is completed on time and within budget.
Good applications I've seen will include details of institutional support. If your institution has won any awards or is great at supporting career development for all staff then highlight these achievements.
Remember to include details of all relevant ethical and regulatory body approvals and how you propose to ensure that your research is ethically sound.
The best grant applicants are not afraid to describe key weaknesses of their project. Just ensure that when you identify any potential limitations that you also describe the strategies you propose to use to overcome them.
6) They have a clear plan for patient and public involvement
Don’t treat the patient and public involvement section of grant applications as a formality. I see so many unsuccessful grant applications that treat service user involvement as tokenistic, and it shows.
Service users need to be involved in all phases of the research process, including study design, conduct and output stages.
The best grant applications describe how service users will be supported throughout the project. This support includes training and mentoring service users for meaningful involvement.
7) They have a clear plan for disseminating research outputs
The best grant proposals I've seen clearly describe plans for disseminating the findings of the research.
These dissemination plans often include peer-reviewed journals and national and international conferences. Sometimes, research networks get a mention, as do professional or faculty meetings. Be sure to specifically name any journals, conferences or professional meetings you mention.
The most common dissemination strategies therefore include the traditional outlets for academic outputs from research.
That’s all totally fine, but in this digital age you need also to consider maximising social media to disseminate your research outputs more widely.
In my referee evaluations of grant applications I usually recommend that the applicants use social media tools, as I believe these platforms are increasingly becoming more essential to the long-term success in disseminating research findings more widely.
Writing great grant applications won't guarantee success. I thought I wrote great applications, but once I used the strategies above, I was able to increase my success rate.
Next time you submit a grant application, make it stand out by using the suggestions I've outlined in this post.
Write persuasive, convincing grant applications that are easy to read, meet all funding agency requirements, ask an important question, demonstrate good value for money and that you can deliver and manage the project, and have a clear PPI and dissemination plan that includes social media.
SHARE: What else do the best grant writers you know have in common? Share their grant writing tactics in the comments!
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