Five ways to kill your application

An angel as a memorial, against a blue sky
Angel of Death by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I read a lot of grant applications – it’s what I do. I’m a very vocal reader. There are ideas that make me say, “That’s brilliant!”  There are passages that make me laugh (not always a good thing) and there are things that make me growl.

It is a low, guttural growl. It comes not from the back of my throat, but from deep in my gut. It comes from my rage, my frustration at seeing the same mistakes again and again.

These are five of the things that make me growl.

1. Weak on theory

Research applications are about theory. Your background should provide the background to your theory. Your significance should describe the significance of your approach to the theory. It isn’t hard, people!

2. No methodology

You need a methodology.  This is the main thing that you will be assessed on. It is almost always the weakest point in your application – a hostile assessor can always find something to criticize in your methodology. Writing background is easy. Working out how you are actually going to solve the problem is hard. Think hard. Plan well. Write clearly.

3. Declarative phrases

In research, nothing is ‘obvious’. Declarative phrases like “It is obvious that…”, “Clearly” often seem to cover the fact that you are weak in this area and want to shore up your argument. Syntactically, there is no difference between “It is obvious that this is a good idea” and “It is obvious that This is a good idea”. Delete, ruthlessly.

4. Lack of planning

You need a plan. A plan is different from a methodology.  It is a concrete expression of how you will spend your time and money solving the problem at hand. For a three year project, think about what you are going to be doing for the 12 quarters that you will be working on the project. Map it out in a simplified Gannt chart. You will be so glad you did.

5. Running late

Leave time for editing. A grant application is a serious document. 90+ pages is not uncommon. That leaves a lot of room for error. If you deliver it to me on the due date, there is nothing I can do.

Don’t make me growl.


  1. I have always found writing a methodology easier than writing the background. Maybe it’s because different projects call for different sets of methodologies (I find it very challenging and exciting at the same time) and writing them makes me plan (I think of ideas and incubate them for days before writing them down).

    But on the other hand, my research/project background remains pretty much the same regardless of the project that I am applying for a grant for. For example, in Malaysia, “local communities eat terrapin eggs and this has led to a drastic decline in the populations of the terrapins in the river”. This is a fact that I cannot change. But I can think of many research, conservation, outreach and/or education projects to “try to solve” the “problem”.


    • Writing a methodology is writing a plan, there is no doubt about that.

      I am always a bit nervous about my methodology. Like your terrapin example (I love that you are a turtle researcher), I know what has caused the problem and I know how to describe the problem. Sometimes I just get a little nervous that my intended solution won’t work. That is why I find background easier than methodology.

      When I review applications, I often see people who have written five or more pages of background and one to two pages of methodology. It always seems to me that they love the idea of the project, but haven’t put too much time into actually planning the project.

      Which makes me growl. 🙂

      If you want to write a post about the joy of choosing methodologies, I’d love to see it.


  2. What strikes me about this list is that many of the complaints are the same that I have about first year assignments: poor planning and structure, unsubstantiated claims, and no evidence of revision or proofreading. Hmmm.


    • A lot of the grant applications that I am reading are written by people who are writing the first application for a particular project. They may not be writing their first application (although some are), but a lot of them are moving out of their comfort area. They are starting down a new track, or doing something very multi-disciplinary.

      And when they do that, they seem to throw out the rules that they have learnt in the past, and that they want their students to follow.

      Your comment has given me a good idea, though. I might start trying to convince them to review their applications as they would a first year assignment. Might get them a bit further along the line.


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