If you asked most researchers, they would likely say that writing a research grant is one of the most difficult parts of their job. Indeed, writing research grants can be challenging, even for experienced researchers. And for early-career scientists, winning research grants may seem like an insurmountable challenge. So what distinguishes winning research grants from those that don’t get funded? Let’s dive in and see.
Planning and research
A winning research grant is the culmination of a lot of time, effort and planning. It involves the exhaustive efforts of a top-notch researcher, or perhaps a full research team. This is because a research proposal has a number of key objectives, which we will discuss here.
Before you can ask for funding, you’ll need to explain the research problem. This includes stating why the research is important and what your investigation can lead to. It also means sharing the design of the investigation. Additionally, you’ll need to detail the resources you’ll need, and any necessary controls you will put in place. This will indicate to the funder that you intend to conduct the research safely and ethically.
Benefits of planning
It is important to demonstrate planning and forethought in your proposal. This will inspire confidence in your prospective funders. Likewise, it is crucial to understand the aims of your target funders. If your research does not align with their funding priorities, you’re unlikely to write a winning research grant, no matter what you do.
Part of the planning process will involve getting feedback on your plans from other researchers. It is best to include those who understand your research interests. In addition, you may find a great deal of support from the research administration staff at your institution. For one reason, they may be able to suggest funding opportunities. Also, they may make tweaks to your research proposal that can make your proposal more attractive or more fundable. Additionally, they can help you to:
- develop proposal development timelines
- identify institutional deadlines and submission requirements
- find other similar proposals that may (or may not) have already been funded at your institution
This type of collaborative knowledge-sharing will be invaluable throughout the proposal writing process.
Incorporate critical feedback to develop winning grant proposals
Mid-career and late-career researchers have a lot of experience with writing winning research grants. They’ve been through the process multiple times. Because of this, they can help you understand what funders will and will not find appealing. As such, we suggest taking them up on any help they offer. Incorporate as much relevant feedback from your colleagues and co-workers into your proposal as possible.
One caveat: some people at your institution will act as reviewers for your proposals. Those colleagues you’ve tapped for feedback will need to excuse themselves from any internal review processes your institution may use. If you know who will review your proposal, you’ll need to avoid asking them for help during proposal development.
The grants office or the SPO at your institution may also have access to national and international grant databases. These resources will help you search for winning research grants. Part of the strategy here is to present unique or innovative proposals. If your proposed research has already been funded elsewhere, you’re unlikely to receive funding. So, it’s a great idea to know the kinds of related research that have already been funded. This way, you can more easily create a fresh proposal that advances the overall body of knowledge in your field.
Putting pen to paper on your research grant
Let’s say you’ve planned your research proposal and know what has already been funded or tried. At this stage, it’s time to write your research grant proposal. The importance of clarity here cannot be understated. Everything comes down to definable objectives being presented.
As you draft your proposal, seek out feedback from other researchers in your community. They can help to validate that your goals are clear, achievable, and meritorious. At the same time, you will need to tell the prospective funder why you, your research team, and your institution will provide the perfect combination to conduct this important research.
Along with this, you will want to be thorough and detailed when describing your research design and methodology. This is because the funder will assign knowledgeable reviewers to examine this section carefully. So being specific here can significantly increase your probability of winning research grants. It can also reveal significant gaps in your research design.
The value of your existing research
If you’ve conducted related research in the past (even as a co-investigator or as part of a larger team), you can cite your published research in your proposal. This will help reviewers assess your qualifications to complete the research you propose. You can also include any preliminary data you’ve collected to support your proposed investigation.
Prior to submitting
Before you submit your proposal, you’ll want to conduct several critical reviews. In doing so, be sure leave yourself enough time to circulate key portions of your proposal to reviewers. It’s ok to provide them with sections of your proposal, rather than asking them to review a complete draft, which can be a lot to ask.
One critical section of your research grant proposal is the summary. Often, this is where funders make their decisions. If the funder does not understand the significance of your research, or can’t get excited by your proposal, you’re not likely to receive an award.
Respect the research grant application process
Funders have grant cycles, proposal deadlines and specific areas of interest. The best proposal will not mean much to a funder whose funding priorities lie elsewhere. Likewise, a funder cannot likely provide grants outside of their standard grant application cycle, outside of a dire emergency.
Contacting the funder early in the application process is also a good idea. Funders can often provide valuable insight into their priorities and processes before you submit a grant proposal.
Prior to submission, your institutional reviewers may ask you to submit additional information, provide clarifications, or make changes to your proposal. Likewise, after you submit a proposal, a funder may have a similar ask. Always respond to comments from internal and external reviewers.
Sometimes, a reviewer’s comment indicates an area where your proposal is unclear. Use the opportunity to clarify and address the reviewer’s concern. A comment may also indicate a previously unrecognized area of weakness. When that happens, make changes to strengthen your application before you resubmit it.
Furthermore, you also reach out to the funder after the process is complete. They may be able to pinpoint what they liked about your winning grant proposal or even why they chose other proposals over yours. Take the information for what it’s worth and use it to improve your odds of writing winning grant proposals.