How do I win a grant?

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‘How do I get research funding?’ is one of the most common questions I’m asked as a mentor of Early and Mid-Career Researchers. Doing research usually costs money (and other things, which we’ll save for a future post!), and writing grant and funding applications is often a key component of academic life.  Trying to ‘teach’ grant writing, even over extended periods of time, is challenging; I can’t pretend I can do it much justice in a short blog. But given the clear need for more support and advice on this topic I’ve summarised three key strategies I’ve observed are helpful for approaching the search for funding (i.e. before you even start), as well as links to some of the many other resources out there, that I hope provide a useful framework for EMCRs in early grant-writing endeavours. I’ll cover subsequent stages in future posts.

Three funding search strategies – before you write a word

  1. Don’t apply (maybe)

There are lots of good reasons to apply for research funding, but in the pressured academic environment with its strong focus on competitive grants, it’s easy to overlook the fact that not all research requires funding! Literature reviews, meta-analyses, secondary data analyses and even small or pilot studies can often be done without much more investment than researcher time, possibly with collaboration and input from Honours or PhD students. Three of my most highly-cited papers (this, this and this) didn’t cost me a cent to produce. Ultimately you may want (or be required) to undertake larger studies that do come with substantial costs, but some researchers build very successful careers based on these lower-cost methods of investigation, and in an increasingly competitive funding environment thinking creatively about how you can address important questions using less costly research methods is critical. So the first tip in a funding strategy might be to ask yourself if you really need to apply at all, at least at this point?

  1. Do some funding strategy research

So you’ve determined you need some funding to resource your next research project. You now need to do some research. Here I’m not talking about your own research area (except if you are one of those people who does fascinating studies on research funding systems, like this team). For the rest of us, we need to invest some time researching the funding landscape, well ahead of any planned applications. This type of research might investigate, for example:

  • What are the key schemes in my country that fund this kind of work? What are their scope, eligibility criteria, timelines, requirements, success rates (in your area)?
  • Who won grants in their last round? Can you get hold of any of those applications as examples of a successful approach (e.g. we’ve set up a library of successful applications for our research group – has/can your institute/research manager do the same?)
  • Since those main schemes are typically highly competitive, what are the lesser known schemes that you could target? There are hundreds of philanthropic and industry groups (even crowdfunding platforms) that fund research. Does your University/institution provide alerts to these or access to funding search databases (like this or this)?
  • Think laterally! What other groups in the community might be interested in the outcomes of your work? Do they fund research or partner with researchers – they may not always advertise this?
  • Are their funding bodies in other countries who fund international research or where you could partner with international colleagues?

Don’t under-estimate the time it takes to do this research. For example, the pre-reading instructions, guidelines, eligibility criteria, requirements, and related links for a grant I applied for last year totalled more than 200 pages of reading, before I committed a single word to paper. But this is a crucial investment and will save you time and angst applying into schemes that may not be the most appropriate (or for which you find in the small print that you are in fact not eligible at all). Read more on the importance of timelines and other planning tips here.

  1. Develop your own funding strategy

By this I mean a plan of the research you’d like to do over the next 2-5 years, and how you will seek to support it. Typically for EMCRs, the first step might be to apply for internal funding – more great advice on this here. Your strategy should outline the various planned topics and projects, funding target bodies and timelines, as well as plans for how you’ll invest funds, collect pilot data, disseminate findings, and build your track record strategically to strengthen your position to apply for further funding. Collaborations on grants with other researchers are also invaluable and could be considered as part of your funding strategy. The strategy needs to account for the long lead times these tasks often take. Even philanthropic or industry funders, who may be less concerned with strong academic track records, may want to see evidence that you have good links with communities, or experience translating your research into practical outcomes that benefit society – these all take time. Build these into your plan, and revisit it regularly. I’d love to hear how you go.

 

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