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How to write a successful research grant

Quick guide on how to approach your next research grant application

15 October 2020

Supporting the scientists here at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, our Research Grants Officer, Naomi Arbon, knows exactly how daunting the grant writing process can be! Here, she's written a quick guide on how to approach your next research grant application.

Applying for grants is somewhat of an art form. Through your proposal, you have to convincingly convey to reviewers and funding agencies that your research is extremely important and it is vital to the advancement of science and society that it be carried out. In addition, the world of research grants is highly competitive and for every 'yes' you get you have to expect multiple 'no's, therefore, thick skin and a determination to not give up are prerequisites for the job!

Writing grants takes up an increasingly large portion of scientists time these days. Below are some suggestions for how to make that time count as best you can by creating a compelling case each time.

Tip #1: Detailed reading

Read the funding guidelines in-depth prior to making an application. Note what the applications will be scored on and ensure that you answer each of the assessment criteria succinctly and clearly. E.g. use the same language, use some of the key words from the scoring criteria as headings. This will make it easier for reviewers who are likely time poor and have a lot of grants to assess.

Tip #2: Tailor your writing style to the grant review panel

Who are your assessors? Do they come from a scientific or non-scientific background? Some grants, such as those from philanthropic organisations, may be reviewed by a more general audience. If you know they won’t be familiar with your area of research, it is best to tailor your writing style to a more lay audience, with the exception in some cases of the methods section, which often has to use more technical terms. If you know the grant applications are being reviewed by subject matter experts from your field, then it is generally fine to use jargon.

Tip #3: Research past recipients

Most funding agencies will list on their websites the types of projects or researchers they have supported in previous funding rounds. Look at this and use it as a guide for your project or Fellowship application. Does your project seem within their funding scope? If there is a grant range that you can apply for, look at the average of what has been provided previously. For Fellowships, is your track record on par with previously supported researchers? If not, use it as a marker as to what you need to work towards.

Tip #4: Give yourself time!

There is no doubt that researchers schedules are ridiculously busy and time is not something you get a lot of. It may be easier to plan for those grants that have annual deadlines than those ad hoc grants that arise. Ideally, start a draft six months before the deadline, put it aside and go back to it again with a fresh perspective. The more time you leave yourself the more time you will also have to get invaluable feedback from your peers.

Tip #5: Make sure your first page is impactful

The first page of any grant proposal is the most important. It needs to state the current research problem/ gap to address, how you will tackle it and why you and your team are the best placed to do so. You want the reviewer, who again will likely be reading lots of these late at night, to be intrigued from the start. Whenever possible, read as many previously successful applications as you can get your hands on. An example of a well-structured grant proposal is one that includes: a Project Title, the Research problem being addressed/ the health issue (always good to include stats in the first paragraph to emphasise the magnitude of the problem), Project Aims and Hypothesis, Background, Significance, Team, Methods, Timeline, Risks, Outputs and Expected Outcomes.

Tip #6: Take care and time with your budget

Ensure your budget is well thought out and covers all of the required project expenses. Don’t leave it till the last minute. Talk to people to cost things correctly and check the funding guidelines as to what are allowable costs and what are not. Use the correct salary scales. If you aren’t asking for salary, include your time and the time of any other staff working on the project as in kind.

Tip #7: Practice makes perfect

Writing a grant is hard work and requires a different writing style to that used for writing a research paper. Writing a great grant takes a lot of time and tends to come with experience. Don’t be discouraged by the unsuccessful applications. As cliché as it sounds, it really is all great experience and means you are one step closer to a yes!

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years