The (sort of) essential guide to writing a grant application

There’s a slightly painful time in any researcher’s career when they realise they won’t always be showered with money by their lovely Professors for ever. Of course, the sensible (or unfortunate) amongst you may have realised (or experienced) this from the outset. Whichever way, it turns out that at some point you – yes, you – are going to have to roll up your sleeves, get your cap out, and go out begging for funds. Here follows my possibly not entirely helpful guide to doing so.

1. It all starts with the research questions

Please don’t roll your eyes at me. I know this is ridiculously obvious. But it is amazing how far your questions change as you go down the path of writing your grant. We submitted an NIHR application this week whose research questions were entirely re-written for the 278th time last Tuesday. It’s only by seeing the aims written down again and again you can get really picky about them. Rushing in at the last minute is likely to result in unclear objectives. Never good.

2. Try to choose co-investigators you can tolerate

Tricky, this. You need the best team you can assemble, of course, and that might mean plumping for the razor-sharp methodologist with a foul temper (not talking about anyone on our team, understand). But allow yourself to fantasise you actually get the money. You may have to spend five years of your life with these people. If you can, pick the nice ones.

3. It’s All About The Small Print

So, helpful people like NIHR write big documents called “Guidance for applicants”. It’s amazing how people often forget to read it. But read it you must. In fact, you must live it, breathe it, become it. As a grant reviewer, I WILL put your application on the slag heap if (after six hours of ploughing through the stack) I am shouting “Where IS the Gantt chart? It says WE REQUIRE A GANTT CHART! DO THESE PEOPLE EVER READ ANYTHING?”

4. Find out about local advice and support, and use it

Ever heard of the Research Design Service? Know your local Research Support Services Manager? Up to date on the PPI groups in your area? If you are grant writing, you need to make these people your friends. Applications will be dramatically better if they have been read and commented upon by a whole host of people from the public to your finance department. Be humble, listen, and revise: if someone doesn’t understand something, it’s usually because it isn’t written clearly enough. And if someone tells you it isn’t “in scope” for where you’re planning to send it, you should really listen.

5. However much you plan, the last 48 hours will be awful

Ideally, start your grant application at least a year in advance of the deadline. No, really. This is not about completing the dissemination section with eleven months to spare. It’s just that for your ideas to really coalesce and your plans to become streamlined, you need a lot of thinking time. And a lot of revisions. And a lot of talking. In spite of this, however organised you appear to be with two weeks to go, the last two days will be awful. Somehow, everything suddenly needs to be changed. One key tip here: check your finance officer is not on leave. You would not imagine how many re-costings you will ask for in a 48 hour period.

6. Get in the correct supplies

As you can see from all of the above, if you are responsible for pulling a grant application together, it can be just a bit stressful at times. Especially as you know the odds are never great for actually getting the money. I find chocolate chip cookies immensely comforting at this time. When it’s finally in, you can give yourself a pat on the back and eat a few more. You deserve it.

Find out more

First things first, check and see if your institution runs courses on writing grant applications – many do, and this is a useful introduction for those new to the joys of this sport. Local Research Design Services also run events aimed at those seeking NIHR funding in particular. For loads of really sensible and up-to-date advice, go to the Research Funding Toolkit website, run by Jacqueline Aldridge and Andrew Derrington. If you’re feeling really keen, they have even published a whole book devoted to the cause. Finally, for wise words on applying for Fellowship funding, go read Annie Bruton’s blog. She’ll lecture you on starting early, too…

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