Generic tips for your approach to a grant application
By Kate Christian
These guidelines provide some generic tips for the extra bits that go with a grant application. These are not about the science, but about managing the process and dealing with the bits that are about the applicant personally.
Forgive the fact that some of the points might appear blindingly obvious. They are included because even the obvious is missed out from time to time. It is all too easy to make a mistake, particularly if you are pressed for time.
The most important point — start early!
Read the rules
Who and what do they want to fund? Funding agencies won’t bend the rules to accommodate you. They have decided what they want to do with their money, and they will stick to their plans. If you don’t fit, go elsewhere.
Check the fine print for eligibility. It might be based on age, or experience, use of some particular equipment, location or just the strength of the idea. Only proceed if you are actually eligible — you don’t have the time to be overly speculative with your applications.
Key advice for your application
Focus on the fact that it will be people, not computers, reviewing your grant application. They might have a pile of 100 documents like yours on their desk. You are selling your story, so treat your application as documents which are marketing both yourself and your science. You want your message to stand out from the crowd.
Realistically, a grant application is not just about the science. Though, if your science is bad, don’t expect strength of character or sales and marketing ability to save you.
Remember that some of your reviewers may not be as familiar with your field as you might expect. This applies particularly to consumer reviewers, trained lay people with a particular interest in the medical condition which is to be researched, but not scientists. It can also apply to other scientists who might come from a different discipline and just don’t know as much as you do.
The application process
- Check the process. Sometimes there are multiple parts to the application.
- You may need to register online, to declare your intention in advance.
- Submission of the actual project grant application.
- In some cases there may be additional questions — which can be just as important as the actual project proposal.
- Make sure you use the correct forms. Typically forms will change each year.
- Keep copies as you go, either hard copy or a pdf. It can be a disaster if something goes wrong mid-process and you lose all the data you have entered. Some application systems do not permit you to retain a copy of your application once it has been submitted.
Questions that cause difficulty
Some questions feel designed to catch you out. Here’s how to address some of them.
Exceptional circumstances (career disruption)
Quantify this. Don’t just say “took time off to care for children” but spell out that you “took six months parental leave in 2012, 2014 and 2016; working 0.6FTE in 2013, 2015, 2017.” Allow the reader to understand quite how much time has been disrupted so that your situation can be properly evaluated with respect to your peers who may have experienced less disruption.
Track record relative to opportunity
You may not have a great deal of space to work with in your application, but you need to use any ‘free text’ within the application to demonstrate your knowledge of the research field and your broader research experience. As with a job interview, you must convince your reviewer that you have consistently overachieved throughout your career.
Other typical questions
Questions about you and your experience
Please list all publications (refereed journal articles, book chapters and key conference presentations, in ascending chronological order [most recent last]).
Where possible, use descriptive words to indicate if your papers were in high impact journals. You can’t rely on the reviewer to understand the difference between New England Journal of Medicine and the University of La La Land Review, and they may not understand impact factor indices.
Please describe the applicant’s role in key publications and patents.
- Describe your contribution to the papers.
- Try to provide fuller explanations than your bare list of publications, especially noting how they relate to the proposed research.
- Describe the impact of your papers and evidence of how your research in these papers has been translated.
- Describe your original contribution as an inventor (patents).
If you don’t have room for a full description in this section, see if you can smoothly include it in another section where there is more space available. There may, for example, be an “Other Information” section — or a section which specifically asks about translation into practice as a consequence of your work.
Research experience (Contributions, evidence of novel approaches, and those most relevant to the proposed research.)
- If you have changed fields during your research life, mention this and explain and how each field has contributed to your development for the research you want to undertake now.
- In addition to the items in the detail of the question, provide evidence of your research leadership roles and capabilities.
Other relevant experience
Involvement in clinical practice will be taken into account, as will details of postgraduate teaching if any and details of any administrative responsibilities.
Detail your supervision experience, including:
- The number of students, including completing students (Honours, Masters and PhD)
- Lab supervision
Mention any community engagement you’ve been involved in. Include everything you do. They matter. They indicate your support of the broad field you care about, your citizenship, and your contribution to society:
- Lab tours
- Talks to community groups
- Other involvement with community groups – fundraising, providing assistance, etc.
Mention any university/institute engagement you take on at work. Again, this engagement indicates your good citizenship and your contribution to the team, and are a good indicator of leadership potential. This engagement might include:
- Leadership of journal club
- Social club
- Establishment of meetings of an interest group
List any administration experience. When you receive a grant, you immediately need to learn how to administer your research. If you have had some administrative experience already, say so.
- List all awards and scholarships — these make you stand out from the crowd.
- Mention any competitive memberships.
- Mention committees you are involved with, and their purpose.
Questions about the relevance of the research
How the research will contribute to the career development of the applicant
Briefly outline your career development objectives for the next five years and how the proposed project will foster these. If relevant, describe any collaborations that will be facilitated by the project.
- Outline your career aims and objectives. Add specific milestones. Describe where you want to be in a few years and how this project will help.
- How will this project help achieve your career goals?
- Use this as an opportunity to identify any gaps in your track record, and explain how this grant will help fill them.
- Note the expected tangible outcomes.
- Describe the collaborations which have been or will be facilitated in your proposed research environment.
- Explain how this will allow development of collaborations.
Describe your reason for choosing the laboratory or the place you plan to work, including mentoring arrangements.
Examples might include:
- If this funding will allow the building of a team, outline the steps, and how they are specific to project.
- Detail the environment in which you will be working and what it will provide in terms of mentorship and facilities. Mention the special access to expertise that will result if project is successful (for example if it means a move to a new lab).
- Detail the mentoring arrangements which will be available.
- Detail the expertise which will be available, plus technologies and equipment in environment.
- Mention how your network might be extended in this environment.
Relevance of the research to the core issue
(e.g. cancer control, diabetes, infectious disease management)
- Describe fully the nature of the problem and its impact on people or patients.
- Clearly explain impact and translation outcomes which could be expected from this project.
- Ensure that your description is simple enough that a scientifically trained non-expert could understand it.
- Essentially, this is a similar process to writing a good abstract for a paper.
A “consumer” is any person who is or has been affected by the disease or condition. In the case of funding for cancer research, for example, the consumer could be a cancer patient or a carer or family member. Evidence suggests that involving consumers leads to improved health outcomes, improved safety, a more trusted health system and a more satisfied workforce.
Use of consumers in research is becoming more common. Any request for consumer involvement is to be taken seriously. Allocate sufficient time to it before you submit the application. Loose plans to approach consumers after you get funding will not be sufficient.
The expectation is that you are not just delivering results to consumers. There must be evidence that your consumers have been able to offer their thoughts on your research plan, and have had real opportunity to have their views heard.
Remember that a non-governmental funding organisation is likely to be primarily supported by people who have been touched by the disease or condition in question.
In this section, describe:
- The roles and responsibilities for consumers: should they be reviewing documentation, helping with communication, or something else?
- How consumers have been consulted already, and how they have influenced your project design in preparation this application.
- Exactly how consumers will be involved to tailor your project in the future.
- The nature and timing of meetings you have held to date, and will hold in the future.
- Whether you plan to involve trained consumers, who might be sourced from an community organisation interested in advocating for patients and their families such as (in Australia) people from the Consumers Health Forum or Cancer Voices.
- The situation and timing for dissemination to consumers.
You should be able to essentially provide evidence that you are already engaged with specific consumers or consumer organisations.
It is important to note that if part of your consumer involvement has been delivering presentations, you must demonstrate how this presentation was a two-way interaction with an opportunity for discussion and feedback.
Sometimes, it’s difficult for some basic researchers to find ways to incorporate consumer involvement into their projects. Try to find the larger story behind your research. Whether, for example, you are working on detection, prevention, cure or cell mechanisms, the ultimate focus of all cancer research is patients.
Suggestions for consumer involvement
To find consumers:
- Make contact with a support group for patients or their families for your cancer type. Tell them what you are researching and ask how you can help.
- If your workplace is associated with a hospital or patients, find the team which supports external engagement.
- Make yourself available for information presentations to community engagement groups. Tell them you want consumer involvement for your project. Interested consumers will find you.
To involve consumers:
- Talk to a patient or former patient or family member about their experiences during diagnosis and treatment. It will help you understand what matters most to the patients.
- Explain your research plan to your consumers and listen to their feedback. Incorporate it if you can. If you are unable to, explain why.
- Ask your consumers to review your lay summaries. Do they understand?
- Practise your three-minute conversation about why your research matters with your consumers. Do they understand?
- Later, ask your consumers to review your progress reports. Do they understand?
- Plan dissemination of your results with your consumers. Make sure you cover the topics important to the consumer
- Invite suggestions for additional avenues to disseminate your research. Plan appropriate dissemination for each type of audience.
At any point if you are asked to use lay terms, make sure that you do so. Ask someone who is not involved in research to check for you.
Katherine Christian has worked in health and medical research for over 30 years, mostly for organisations conducting and supporting cancer research. Scientifically trained, she has chosen not to work in a laboratory, but to use her scientific background and a flair for organization to manage research projects and assist scientists with the management of their research. She is author of Keys to Running Successful Research Projects: All the Things They Never Tell You.