Guidelines to Grant Success

Sign warning of the dangers of tree climbing. Far below you can see the ground.
That was the easy bit by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

There are three key points for efficient grant application writing:

  1. Read the guidelines,
  2. Read the guidelines, and
  3. Read the guidelines.

Research developers like to trot this one out regularly. It usually gets a laugh (or an eye-roll, ymmv), but it’s TRUE.

I am a strong advocate of this mantra at the moment because university research offices around Australia are geared up for major Australian Research Council (ARC) funding rounds. ARC grants are arguably the most difficult and prestigious to land.

When talking with researchers about their applications (including using the ARC’s online system), I often have this experience:

[Five minutes into our meeting, where I feel like I’m not making much headway]

Me: [casually] So, you’ve read the funding rules and instructions to applicants, right?


That’s my ‘ah-hah’ moment. It explains why the researchers are having so much trouble getting started on an application, and why they don’t even know what headings to use.

Major grants are tricky beasts to wrangle no matter how many times you read the guidelines. However, funding bodies are generally clear  (often painstakingly clear) about what information they want from you and how you’re meant to present it. I alluded to the kinds of things guideline-reading can do for you in Research Grant Writing 101.

Here are five fab reasons why training yourself to read and digest each funding scheme’s information can make your life easier:

1. Saves you time.

As early as possible, you should work out if you should even be applying to a particular scheme (preferably before you type a word of the application). Eligibility is the key here. Don’t waste time applying for a scheme that:

  • Doesn’t support the kind of research you want to do (e.g. proof of concept, basic research, medical that includes human subjects).
  • Has a maximum funding award that’s inadequate for your needs. If your estimated budget is double that of the funding award, there’s no point applying unless you can scale down the research project (and still retain its intellectual integrity).
  • Requires you to be of a certain career stage, nationality, or gender (e.g. an Australian early career researcher (ECR), a female mid-career academic, a citizen of the USA), and you’re not.

Grant applications take time to develop and complete; you may as well spend that time focused on the schemes that are most likely to fund your research.

2. Allows you to plan the project and personnel appropriately.

Once you know the parameters of the scheme, you can plan a project of the appropriate scope.

Is the funding only for 12 months? Can you use the funding to travel overseas? Can you be a sole researcher, or do you have to be affiliated with certain teams/units? These are elements that may not make or break your overall research direction, but they’ll certainly limit what you might be able to do right now. You need to work out what the happy medium is between massaging a project to fit a certain funding scheme and fulfilling your broader research goals.

3. You’ll know how to strategise and present a stronger application.

Having read the guidelines and instructions, you’ll know the scheme’s priorities and the organisation’s values. This gives you valuable insight into how to pitch your project and extol its virtues. In particular, it gives you the context for what kinds of outcomes would be looked on favourably by the funding body (i.e. academic publications vs. industry reports; local public sphere profile vs. international academic one).

4. You’ll find out what else has been funded by that organisation.

Many funding bodies list previous grant awardees on their web pages or in their annual reports. This is an extremely useful list to browse because you get a feel for the kind of work they like to fund, what kind of project leader they like to have, and (sometimes) what kinds of organisational collaborations are encouraged.

5. Practice makes perfect.

Grant writing is a skill that can be picked up and polished over time. While your research office is on hand to help with the development of your application, it is much better in the longer-term for you to be up close and personal with the schemes and organisations that can feed your research work (and, by extension, your academic career).

A final note: If possible, attend as many grant seminars and workshops as you can. Your institution  puts them on to help you navigate the funding jungle. Sometimes, the funding agencies themselves will host public meetings to demystify their processes. The best outcome is when you know the scheme so well that you can come out of those sessions and NOT have learned anything new. Keep in mind, though, that schemes change priorities, formats and submission processes all the time; always stay informed and up to date.


    • Excellent! Thanks for that. Feel free to grab anything else that is useful. Or let us know what you would like to see on the Research Whisperer. Happy to help.


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