Quick Steps To Winning A Grant (Part 1)

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Obtaining research funding is a critical component to the success of many research-oriented jobs both in academia and in the private sector. Thus, becoming proficient winning research monies can be essential to securing a desirable position. During the standard doctorate, relatively few candidates are asked to write funding proposals. Consequently many Ph.D. recipients feel ill-equipped to undertake this important pursuit. To assist, I have compiled a list of quick tips in addition to all the standard ones of (1) giving yourself enough time so that proper proof-reading can be done and good images can be generated; (2) not crowding the page with too much text; (3) clearly defining the problem and the solution with text, images, and quantitative data; (4) assembling a competitive team to do the work; (5) doing your homework in terms of generating an appropriate literature review; and (6) including something “cool”, when possible, in terms of developing new technology or applying it to a new problem. This is what everyone will tell you, but there is more….

  1. Apply – too often eligible applicants do not apply for funding, because they are intimidated by the process. The bottom line is that you cannot win, if you do not play. So open your laptop and start applying. 
  1. Choose a career-level appropriate grant – in most fields there is an almost dizzying array of funding opportunities. These may start at 1 or 2 thousand pounds or be several million. Knowing which to choose from may not always be evident. In the same way that you would not be competitive for a management position overseeing 100 employees, if you had never supervised any, most granting agencies will consider your previous funding record both for a history of competitiveness but also to judge your likely ability to manage a grant of the specified size. A good rule of thumb is that you should not apply for a grant, if it is more than 5 times larger than your largest grant. If you have a good track record of small grants you might consider using as a limit of 3 times the sum of all your grants to date.  For example if you largest grant is £10,000 and your total competitive grants to date (including competitive scholarships or fellowships) is £25,000, then the largest grant you should currently consider is £75,000. Obviously if the grant is slightly larger, this is ok, but you will not be competitive for a grant of £2.2 million, if you have never overseen anything at this level. 
  1. Choose carefully based on reward versus effort – what is always shocking to me is that many grants that require a huge amount of effort often do not pay that well. In contrast there are a number of other opportunities that for a relatively small amount of effort (2-3 pages) get your through a stage 1 screening which rules out much of the competition. For example, consider 2 EU Horizon2020 programmes. First is a standard research project, which requires a minimum of 3 participants from 3 EU or associated member states, but typically have more than 12 partners. These applications are long. My most recent one was 120 pages for a funding request of slightly less than €8 million. Success would result in €67,000 per page, but when this is spread across the 16 partners, the figure drops to only slightly more than €4,000 per page.  In contrast, my ERC grant was €2,500,000 for a 25 pages submission. In that case I received €100,000 per page – all for me! Where this disparity between effort and reward is often extremely high is in small local granting authorities. They often want a lot, but are willing to give only a little. So think about your time, as there are only so many hours in a day. 
  1. Choose carefully based on grant competition – the very best time to apply for a grant is when it is brand new. At that point the playing field is fairly level as no one has ever applied for that grant. Once a programme is well-established, certain players gain grant specific advantages. The same applies where re-application is possible. In this case, savvy applicants apply early and apply often learning from reviewer feedback on how to improve their applications. Increasingly national funding agencies are developing grants for younger and/or new Ph.D.s. These are your best chance, as your publication record and reputation are more likely to be at the same level as the competition. Also most of these programmes have a limited number of years for which you are eligible. So take advantage of the entire eligibility window, and apply as soon as you can, and then reapply when you are rejected.
  1. Understand that rejection is part of the package – while no one likes a rejection, whether it be a grant application, manuscript submission, or job application, it is part of the reality of modern life. While there is no denying that one needs a relatively thick skin to obtain, retain, and prosper in a research career, a good attitude towards rejection can be a major asset. Try thinking about these processes in the same way that you probably already think about your research. Only the rarest of researchers will have an experiment go perfectly the first time through. So why would grant submission be any different? It too is a learning process. Thus, the best thing to do is learn from it. If you disagree with the feedback you receive, think about how you can be more convincing in the next submission. Often it is a matter of language. When it is not, it is often a matter of having preliminary data that proves your point (see part 2 of this article here).

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