Nailing a grant application: a how-to guide

April 28, 2016
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Aside from publishing, most academic careers see income come from grants. Research grants are the bee’s knees for PhD graduates everywhere. Receiving total funding basically means you get paid to research your own area of interest for up to years at a time, which is just about all the career freedom and prestige you could hope for in an academic career. If you are able to illustrate to government departments and/or private interest groups that your research deserves to be done, there is money and opportunity out there. Because of these reasons however, grant applications are extremely thorough and competitive processes. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Ensure you aren't replicating a recent project similar to yours

Typically, successful applications are those that stand to give something back to the agency that provides funding. A lot of the time, this “something” can be as simple as news coverage. Let’s assume you’re approaching the Department of Innovation with a research proposal. You’ll want to make sure that your research idea isn’t similar in any way to research funded by the Department in the last five years. Because of the amounts of money involved, funding bodies need to ensure that the research will return something usable to the agency, whether that be change in policy and practice, media exposure, or prestige.

Work on your presentation - the initial pitch is key

Like all sales pitches, confidence plays a massive part in success or failure. Your proposal should take weeks of preparation - you’ve only got this one initial window to outline why your research is important, what’s new about it, what previous research has shown, how your research will be done, the limitations you face and what you’ll do with the money before the review board make a decision. It’s around this time it starts to become obvious why grant writing is such a lucrative business.

Familiarise yourself with the proposed agency

Speaking of confidence, a good place to start is knowing that your research fits the agency or group you’re approaching to a T. We mentioned news story value before - think about whether or not this is the kind of research the proposed agency will be able to promote. What are the objectives and aims of the agency? Who is the executive director? If your research objectives align with those of the funding body, your proposal is going to look more appealing.

Ensure you have a system in place to measure performance

Research is only worth a damn if you’re able to show that something came of it, and you’ll find that a majority of successful grant applications have a means in place to measure changes or outcomes after the main course of research has taken place. It could be as simple as conducting a follow-up phone survey with participants some amount of time after the experiments or observation period, but having the debrief plan will show that you’ve thought ahead.

Look at the budgeting of previous successful grants in your field

Hopefully you read to the end, because financial management of your research is almost as important as having solid research to conduct. Depending on the size of agency and scale of your research, funds can reach up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the more money that’s involved, the higher the degree of accountability. What this means for you is a lot of nervous performance review staff who will only accept the most meticulous budgets for go-ahead. Find previous grants in your field of study that have been accepted, look at their budget models and let them inform yours. 

Jonathon Davidson

Jonathon is studying journalism at Murdoch University in Perth.

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