By Cally Guerin
The annual research grant-writing season recently finished in Australia. It’s always timed to occur during the summer teaching break, so that instead of enjoying some well-deserved time off, academics are flat out putting together detailed proposals, competing for part of an ever-smaller pot of research money. As government funding has reduced and more academics put in applications, we engage in this hugely intensive and time-consuming activity in the full knowledge that there is only a very slim chance of success. Most universities run workshops where experienced researchers and successful grant winners offer advice. These workshops are invaluable. In this post, I’d like to add some of my own reflections on my experience this year, and share some useful tips for other grant writers and those helping them through the process.
Specific grant requirements
Funding bodies generally provide lots of invaluable information about how to fill out the dense and complex online forms – read it! The requirements can change from year to year, so make sure that you are up to date with the current expectations. If your role is to help applicants, show them where to find that information so they can check back later to ensure they have included everything and put it in the right place.
The warning that it will take longer than applicants might expect does need to be front and centre of any advice. A lot of detail must be supplied, and quite a bit of that must be gathered from other people, especially as many big funding bodies tend towards a general preference for collaborative rather than single-authored projects. Checks on eligibility must be carried out, and all partner institutions might need to approve the personnel, depending on specific grant conditions. Applicants may not be aware of just how long they’ll need to wait on other universities, even if they have already talked to their research collaborators about the project itself.
Readers and assessors
Grant-writing workshops also encourage researchers to present a clearly written outline of their proposal. It’s important to emphasise that this writing must focus on what the reader needs to see. Just like preparing a Three Minute Thesis talk, it’s important to avoid using technical words for the summary. Grant assessors are even more distant from the research than a thesis examiner, and are often generalists from the broader field of enquiry into which the proposal falls.
For those applying to large government programs, it’s also important to think about how the proposed research might it be received by the general public if it were to be funded – does it sound like a project worthy of tax payers’ dollars? Within the walls of academia, some projects are easily understood, but can look irrelevant and esoteric outside that environment. It’s well worthwhile explaining in everyday language why that research really does mean something beyond itself.
Check the word limits and stick to them from the start! Everyone believes their work is too complicated to explain in a short paragraph, but the task is actually to refine your own thinking so that you can be clear and succinct, focusing in on the central points that matter most.
Budget can be the biggest mystery for first-timers. How do you know the going rate for employing a research assistant to set up interview appointments, or a technical expert to undertake some complex statistical analysis? If you want to send a researcher to another city or country to attend a conference or undertake fieldwork, how do you know what is a reasonable allowance to make for a hotel room, travel on the ground and meals? It’s important to find out where to find this information from the appropriate unit, such as the finance management segment of the Research Office or, in Australia, standard rates can be found on the Australian Tax Office website.
One particularly strong experience for me as a first-time big grant-writer was the requirement to develop a fully rounded fantasy of doing the research. I had to imagine numerous details including what will be published, what the associated website will look like, who will do what. After weeks of intense work fleshing out this fantasy, I felt like I’d already conducted the surveys and interviews, recruited research assistants and participants, delivered the workshops and built the website. At the end I found myself peering around my office and realising that I’d spent the past week inhabiting a fantasy life – not actually mine at all! But like writing ethics applications, it focuses the mind on what needs doing, how, and to what purpose. Tiresome as it can feel, there are big advantages in immersing oneself in this fantasy world.
What other advice do you have for those writing grant applications? It would be very helpful to learn about your own experiences of this activity, or of running workshops to help grant writers.