I was really annoyed when I started writing this post – I’m glad I didn’t hit send on the first draft I wrote – I have had a chance to reflect and calm down after a period of steam coming out of my ears! Having said that I think it’s best to just get straight to the point >>>> So, to just to cut to the chase please do read the funding guidance before developing a research application as it makes life so much easier for everyone, especially the applicant! Let me explain:
Research Development is complicated (and sometimes tough!), you are often working with a raft of people at the same time who are each working on an application (or two) which will be targeted to different funders. Each of these funders and often different schemes within each funder will have different rules and regulations regarding what you can apply for, the type of research you can do, what the budget can and can’t pay for and how an application should be presented (amongst other things). Now I’m always happy to read applications and provide guidance and I know that research development professionals all over the country and the world are happy to do the same. What really helps us though is when we know that the PI has, at the very least, had a read of the guidance. This initial read may only at headline level but it gives a good sense of what is required. It’s also helpful when you come to us to clarify any areas of misunderstanding or concern. The reality is that you ignore funding guidance at your peril and it can lead to many wasted hours of work, time that is precious to academics (and believe it or not, administrators and managers too!). So in order to save the stresses involved in hitting hurdles and barriers later in the application process I’d suggest the first priority for a PI, once they have identified a funding scheme, is to read the guidance. If it is long and complicated (and some guidance is ridiculously long and complicated!) then it might be worth making time to sit down with your research office and go through it. Two heads being better then one and all that. In addition to this I would suggest doing (or not doing) the following:
- Talk to your research office as soon as possible – as soon as you have an idea. They can point out all the immediate and obvious pitfalls that you should take account for as you develop your application. This is often generic advice (not particular to a specific funder or scheme) but is really valuable.
- Send drafts for comment (to research office and colleagues) on an ongoing basis. Don’t wait until you have finished your first full draft. By then it may be too late (I’ve blogged about this before).
- Start your budget as early as possible. It really can help shape your proposal and avoid problems later down the line. I have outlined the basics of budget preparation in a previous post but do remember your research office and finance teams will support you with this too.
- Do not base your application solely on previous successful (or unsuccessful) applications as this can lead to disaster. Why? Because often funder rules and priorities change and these won’t be obvious by looking at previous applications alone. They can be a useful guide but as the following blog by Adam Goldberg highlights there are pitfalls to using them and I’d suggest all applicants and aspiring researchers should read it.
- Lastly – if in doubt please don’t make it up! This applies especially to the budget but to the application more broadly. Talk to your research office, they will be able to help or will know someone who can. A lot of unnecessary time can be spent undoing mistakes made when assumptions are made about what is required.
Okay, so rant over – save yourself some time and read that guidance! Any other tips and thoughts welcome, what do you think?
Every now and then I am approached by an academic with a full first draft of an application for funding for me to look over. I’m always happy to do this, even if I haven’t heard about the application before and the deadline is looming. I’ll always do my best to try and give some feedback.
One of my key pieces of feedback will always be to encourage them to get in touch with me (or their research office) as early as possible in future. This should be as soon as they have an idea or think they have found the ideal funder. One of the reasons for this is simply so we can help check that the academic and the research are actually eligible for funding under a particular scheme. Now this may seem pretty basic but submitting applications that are not eligible to be funded is more common than you might think one will always pop up when I least expect it. This can lead to a lot of heartache if proposals are rejected purely on technical / eligibility grounds. The idea may be great but the funder may be wrong. Often much of the work is then wasted as remodelling an application to another funder can take a considerable amount of time. Examples of the types of mistakes I have seen recently include:
- Applying for a travel grant to a conference within the UK when the funder only funds overseas conference travel.
- Looking to undertake policy analysis research overseas when the funder wants UK based research. In this case the topic was right, the location was wrong.
- Developing a large research application and the budget didn’t meet the scheme criteria. In this case the budget and scope of the project was actually too small for the funder concerned! For this reason I also suggest starting the budget nice and early!
In all cases drafts were written and in one case it was submitted and rejected. So next time you have a great research idea and think you have found the perfect funder do contact your research office and double check your eligibility, it can save a huge amount of heartache and pain!
So you have an idea for a research proposal but now you are sitting in front of a blank computer screen waiting for the words to magically appear. This should be easy right? We all know it isn’t but we all know time is precious too, especially when developing a research proposal as well as continuing with day to day teaching and academic work. So where do you start?
Someone recently sent an interesting web-page to me which has a useful schematic on it that provides a quick pointer on what your research proposal needs to cover and it challenges you to produce a short summary, a couple of paragraphs long, that will form the basis of your proposal. I think that irrespective of whether you are stuck for inspiration or not this is a good place to start. The website itself is a resource targeting early career researchers and is US based but lots of the messages and ideas on it are useful wherever you might be based. You can see the website here.
The website author, Dr Karen Kelsky, has produced a grant proposal template and you can see that here. I would suggest that before you get too bogged down in funder guidance or drafting the application form I would write out the research, using the structure Dr Kelsky has provided. Once you have this, share it with someone, a colleague, a research officer, your family or a complete stranger! They will soon tell you whether it makes sense or not. Pay particular attention to the ‘Gap in knowledge’ section which is essentially the ‘Who cares?’ question. Be clear about why your research is important and should be funded.
After you have this summary you are in a good position to launch into the full application, making sure you start that budget early and make sure you give yourself plenty of time too! What do people think of the template? Is it a good place to start? Is it missing anything important?
Nothing frustrates me more than a lack of attention to detail on a grant application. In my job I am lucky to be able to support people to develop high quality funding applications that not only meet the eligibility criteria but (hopefully!) make sense! I am also lucky as I am asked on occasion to review proposals that have already been submitted and to score them against different funders’ criteria. This is a really useful insight into how people are developing grant funding applications and what common mistakes might be. No grant application is ever going to be perfect and even if it were it doesn’t guarantee that it will be funded but there are some key things you should do, some of which I referred to before here.
The one thing that continues to strike me is the lack of attention to detail in various different areas of applications and these normally fall into two categories:
1) Budget inconsistencies – Please check and double check your budget. A key aspect of this is getting your budget justification right and checking for accuracy. Make sure your figures add up and this includes any breakdowns you might include on various budget lines. If these figures are wrong it damages your credibility and raises doubts about your ability to manage budgets.
2) Broader internal inconsistencies – This is similar to the budget but at a broader level. One helpful way to resolve any issues relating to broad internal inconsistencies is to give yourself as much time as possible to complete an application. Further to this always try to make sure that any items referred to in the budget are referenced and explained in the narrative. I have read a number of applications recently where upon arriving at the budget I have noticed a number of budget lines, some of which are for posts, software, consultancy and other IT, which are not mentioned at all in the project narrative! This, perhaps even more than the budget inconsistencies outlined above, will damage your credibility and will pretty much guarantee that your application will be rejected. It suggests that the narrative and budget were written by different people or that the PI doesn’t have a good handle on what they are delivering.
These problems are both easy to iron out. Make sure you develop the budget at the same time as the narrative of the application and proof read your application a number of times. This is enhanced by sharing drafts with others who have the time to proof read it (and not the day before – give them time!). Don’t risk your application being dismissed out of hand by not addressing questions of accuracy and attention to detail. A concise, well structured and accurate application will help you go a long way towards success.
To pull a strong application together there are three key things to do (well there are lots of other things as well and blog posts will come in due course regarding them but these three I believe are key!). They are the three things that I keep coming back to when approached about grant writing tips and advice.
1) Give yourself time – an application written quickly, in only a few sittings rarely reads well and is usually easy to spot. One significant drawback of a quick application is there is little time to edit it. Good editing will help to make sure the application flows and therefore has an internal consistency. Further to this it is likely the research will have poorly thought through research questions and budgets. I have written about budgets previously and this can be accessed here. In essence I would suggest that whatever time you think it will take to write a strong application you will need double that time!
2) Answer the questions asked – sounds simple doesn’t it? It should be simple but it can easily forgotten, especially when you are close to your research. This is totally understandable but can lead to questions not being answered correctly or fully. My personal favourite is when a funder asks for a description of the aims and objectives. Often answers will start with a paragraph or two of context before listing the aims. This isn’t necessary, there is normally space for context and background information elsewhere in the proposal so it is best to put that text there. Just list the aims and objectives if that is what is asked for. Both reviewers and funding bureaucrats will like you if you do this (I know, I used to be one!). Keep it simple and if you have doubts about whether you are answering the questions then the third key thing to do will help address this.
3) Make sure you ask colleagues and research support staff to read your application – This is incredibly valuable. This process can be uncomfortable, particularly when the research idea is so important to you but by sharing your application with people who you trust will give you honest feedback your application can only be strengthened. This could include sharing you proposal with academic colleagues in your institution or a wider network. It may also involve sharing it with research support colleagues. By sharing it with both groups you will get insights from both technical and generalist readers which is important given that you will have both technical and more general reviewers looking at your proposal after it is submitted. Take any feedback offered and think through what it means. Adapt your proposal accordingly and ask people to read it again. Research support staff exist to read applications! Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification and to debate points, it can really help clarify your thinking.
If you can successfully achieve all three of the above then you will submit a credible application. Even if it is not funded (hopefully it will be) you can use the information again for future applications and I can guarantee the time spent isn’t wasted. Are there any other key tips you should consider? There are lots of resources out there and some links to these are listed on the homepage. Happy grant writing!
It is not uncommon when developing a research funding application for the budget to be left until the very end and sometimes it becomes a last minute thing! Many academics will see the budget as a wholly administrative task and not something to worry about. It is often viewed as something that can be done by someone else. I don’t agree with this approach and I encourage all academics to think about their budget right at the start of the development of an application. This is important for a number of reasons including:
- The process through which a budget is developed helps to map out the research, what resources are required and whether it is feasible. It can provide an early ‘sense check’ for the research. By developing a full and comprehensive budget early on it is easier to make adjustments to meet funder guidelines and subsequently identify where there may be shortfalls that need to be met from other budgets. I believe you should start with the full picture and see if the research project will work!
- The budget can act as a guide to ensure that the written narrative in the proposal is internally consistent. Often when budgets are left to the end of the process things are included in the budget which are not referenced in the text or vice versa. In addition the budget may not match the methods. For example, getting the right number of interviews or trips is crucial both in the budget and the text and shows an attention to detail and a good overall understanding of what you are trying to achieve.
- The early development of the budget may steer you towards different funders. I have worked with academics in the past who wanted to apply for grants like the ESRC Standard Grant Scheme but after working up a budget the total cost of the research came in much lower than the £200,000 threshold for the scheme. By developing the budget early we can focus our efforts on more appropriate funders.
Now that I have convinced you to start developing the budget early on I know many people start to panic about what should go into the budget. The key thing is don’t worry! All budgets, like applications or journal articles, go through a number of drafts in order to refine them and make them as realistic and robust as possible. Having said this I know it is useful to have a template to start the thinking process. As such the following list should help in developing the first draft of a budget:
- Start and end dates – are they realistic for the project? Do they fit with the funders guidelines?
- PI and Co-I time – How much time will be spent on the project?
- Other researcher time – Will other researchers need to be appointed? If so, for how long and are they full time, part time etc?
- Travel – Where will you need to travel to conduct the research? How will you get there – train? Plane? How many trips are required?
- Consumables – these should generally make only a small proportion of costs but are any required? Laptop? Dictaphone? Check the funders guidance.
- Transcription – How many hours of transcription? Who will do this? Is it in house or outsourced?
- Experiment costs – Are there any costs to hire equipment or to pay for participant involvement in any experiments?
- Conferences – Will you be attending any conferences to share findings? Where are the conferences? Are they within the project dates? Are they appropriate to your research?
This list is just for starters. The more you map out your research at the beginning the more detail will be included in the early budgets which will only strengthen the proposal. Lastly, it is worth remembering, you will need to justify your budget? Most funders will expect you to justify the amounts you are asking for so be ready to explain what you have done and why! Further really useful information regarding budget development can be found on the Research Whisperer Blog here. Any other thoughts and suggestions are welcome – what are your tips to developing a good research proposal budget?