Five elements of any application

A hologram of a light bulb
Let there be holograms by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Tseen recently wrote about the basics of research grant applications. I thought that I would expand on that idea by listing the five things that I really want to see in every application. If any of these elements are missing, I’m afraid that bad things will happen to your application.

1. An idea

I’m not talking about the ‘get a clue’ type of idea here. I’m talking about a central tenet upon which your whole application hangs. The thing. The hook that will bring people on board and carry them through the journey of your application. The central driving force that will guide your whole project.

It is remarkably hard to express that central idea clearly and succinctly. Sometimes, it is too vague. You have the germ of an idea, but it hasn’t crystallised yet. There is no clear point, or nothing that will be attractive to a funder. An application to collect data without any clear path to a destination is often a project without a central driving force.

At other times, you might have the opposite problem: when you’re obsessed to the point of obscurity. You are too close, too involved, and you can’t articulate the central point clearly. Get help! Have someone else to read your writing critically, then help you to clarify your ideas. Argue about it. Play with it. Then start redrafting your application.

If that central idea is buried, or not expressed at all, reading the application becomes a chore. Without something to focus on, the reader tends to get lost. Because you haven’t caught the sympathy of the reader from the outset, you probably won’t hold their attention as they read.

2. Background

Projects don’t spring from nothing. While we like to think of research as an exciting series of world-shattering breakthroughs, most research consists of incremental improvements on what has gone before.

It is rare to see an application without any background; in fact, it’s often quite the opposite! People love to write their project backgrounds and generally write far too much of it. Partly, this is because it is easier to look back than it is to look forward. Sometimes, this is a sign that they don’t have much of a plan.

While most people seem capable of writing yards and yards of background, some find it incredibly difficult to write the background of their own project. They write about the field in general or the need for overall change in the area or a comprehensive literature review of the topic; anything except their own academic journey. How did you (and your team) get to this point?

Yes, your background needs to grapple with the research in the field. Yes, it needs to create a sense of urgency about the need for change. Yes, you must demonstrate that you are conversant with the literature. However, you need to do all that from the point of view of your project. If you don’t, your background will be waffly. If you do, your background will end up concise and focused, leading from your general aim to your brilliant project plan.

3. A plan

Now that you have said what you want to do, and why you want to do it, you need to address how you are going to do it. If you are applying for $120,000 per year for three years, you need to show exactly what you are going to be doing with that money over those three years.

More importantly, you need to show how your work over the next three years will address your central idea. You need to link your work to the background, often by showing what you are going to do differently. There needs to be a method to your madness and it needs to be methodical, not a haphazard collection of steps. Follow a path, rather than wandering lost in the forest.

Thinking about the future appears to be difficult, given the number of applications I see where people haven’t thought about it at all, or have provided scant detail. If you have no plan, or no methodology, you will fail. Simple as that. You will almost certainly fail to get the funding. If you do get funded, you will find yourself looking back at the end of the grant over a wasteland of delays, missed opportunities, dead ends and frustration. You can’t make this stuff up as you go along.

4. A budget

Every grant application has two aims: (a) get some money to (b) solve a problem. You can’t do one without the other.*

In truth, I have never seen an application without a budget. What I have seen is lots of applications that miss important parts of the budget. They don’t ask for enough money or have overlooked crucial elements. I once saw an application that had a researcher going to India for three months with no allowance for living costs. I know that India is cheap, but you can’t actually live there for free.

There are two horrible consequences of having holes in your budget: (a) you don’t get the funding, or (b) you do.

If you don’t get the funding, you might feel rejected and frustrated. If you do get the funding, that is when your problems really start. At some point, it will become apparent that you need to pay for something and you don’t have the money to do it. This will mean that you need to revise your research plan, fast. Generally, you will do this on the run, late in the day. If you are anything like me, you will put it off until the last possible moment when there isn’t much wriggle-room left in the budget (or the project). Whole parts of your project will just disappear. They will probably be at the end of the project, just when you need to be bringing everything together and really making an impact. I’m not saying that you will fail, just that you won’t have the impact that you could have had.

During this whole period you will worry. You will angst. You will thrash yourself for the mistake. Your time together as a research team will be fraught. You might try to find some supplementary funding – a process that is uncomfortable, to say the least. It won’t be pretty. Please have someone review your budget critically before you submit your application.

* Actually, you can do research without formal funding. Lots of people do remarkable research outside of universities, laboratories and research organisations. They often say that they are unfunded but, in truth, they are self-funded. They are putting in what the film industry calls ‘sweat equity’ – their own hard work to get stuff done.

5. Someone to do the work

Just as I’ve never seen an application without a budget, I’ve never seen an application without a name on it. Someone has to do the work, after all.

What I have seen are applications where it isn’t clear which people will do what work. Most applications that I see have teams of people on them, with requests for more people in the budget. It has to be clear who is going to do what. Who, for example, is the leader? Who has the right to change the direction of the research and who doesn’t? Who has the skills to do which parts of the plan? Which members of the team have worked together before?

Some of this goes in the application so that the funders can have confidence that you can get the job done. But most of it needs to be there so that you, as a team, have worked out beforehand who will do what. So that you, as a team, can get the job done.

Without a clear description of the people on the project, everything else is for naught. I don’t care how good your idea is, no-one is going to give you the money if you can’t actually make it work. To that end, I want to see who these people are, what their skills are, and what they have done in the past, so that I can judge what they might be capable of doing in the future.

So, there you have it. My nightmare application is one with a fuzzy idea, a sprawling background, no plan, holes in the budget, and an inadequate team. Please don’t write applications like that.


  1. Great article, as ever. I’d agree with all of those points. In particular, I think the budget can reflect well or badly on the application in a number of different ways. One way is that a detailed and rigorous budget makes the ‘application’ look more like a ‘plan’. The subtext of this is “we know exactly what we’re going to do (though perhaps not what we’re going to fund), we’ve thought it through, and we’re ready to go the moment the cheque arrives.” A muddled or vague budget can make the application look more speculative – “give us the cash and we’ll sort it all out later.”

    I also think a poor budget can undermine the credibility of an application. If you don’t understand what resources (not necessarily the figures) your own research needs, well, it doesn’t look good, does it?

    In a UK context (and I’m sure elsewhere too), the credibility of the project management is becoming an increasingly important part of the application, and a strong, detailed, credible budget will go a long way towards demonstrating that.


    • Your comment + Jonathan’s post are definitely speaking volumes to me right now. I sat with a researcher the other day and we were working through the budget with good humour. He reflected that it was a process that embedded exactly what the parameters + objectives of the project would be. And they wonder why we’re always at them to get the budget done EARLY.

      What I also find amazing is how adept experience researchers get about putting their budgets together, whereas ECRs or academics who’ve never applied for major competitive grants before find it a very intimidating, opaque process.


    • Thanks Adam.

      Couldn’t agree more. Of course, the opposite end is the budget that asks for everything. Maybe I should write another post, not about the things that are missing, but what happens when you have too much of something.

      I understand that things have research funding has changed radically in the United Kingdom recently. Over here, I find it very hard to understand the subtle nuances that indicated where the goal-posts have shifted to.

      Thanks for Cash for Questions – I’ve added it to my reading list. Not that I get to read often.


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