Help! I have to write a grant application

This post, jointly written by Jonathan and Tseen, first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Connect. Connect is the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) & Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) magazine for casual academics. It is excellent.

How did this happen to me?

A blank application form - very scary
Demotivating! by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

You might be reading this because part of your role is described as research assistant (as opposed to ‘marking assistant’, ‘lecturing assistant’, ‘attend meetings I don’t want to go to assistant’).

Or perhaps you were chatting to another academic who is working on a topic you are interested in and you said, innocently enough, “That sounds great – if you need any help…”

Maybe they sought you out and asked for your help because your PhD is related to the topic.

Looking back, you may not be able to identify the exact moment when you agreed to write the grant application, or the sequence of events that led up to it. However, the moment that you first stare at a blank form and a confusing set of instructions – that moment will be absolutely clear.

Don’t panic! Fear is the mind-killer. There is a way through this, and it isn’t as scary as it seems. After all, you probably know professors who can’t find their coffee cup but can still get grants. If they can do it, how hard can it be?

How the hell does this grant-thing work, anyway?

First up, it is important to be clear about your role. You should be writing a draft that your collaborators will review and revise. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be polished. As a first draft, it just needs to be technically complete. You are trying to sketch out the idea and get feedback on it as soon as possible. So don’t sweat the small stuff. Just hammer through the bulk of the application as quickly as possible, knowing that there will be a lot of polishing that happens later on.

Secondly, understand that the funding agency is not actually a demon or monster. They are a group of people, often other researchers, who have set out a standard way for people to provide information about their research. Even though it may not be clear to you at the moment, there is a method to their madness. A published method that you can download and read, no less.

For any given grant application, there will be two or three documents that you must have:

  • The application form (there’s always a form – even if it is an on-line form).
  • The rules or guidelines. Sometimes these are one document, sometimes two or three.

If you don’t have these already, download them from the funding organisation’s Web site and read them. All the way through. Boring, but necessary. If you only take one thing from this article, it should be this: read the guidelines.

Don’t rely on last year’s version that someone has passed on to you. Don’t work from vague descriptions that people talk about over coffee. Work from the rules and guidelines that the funding agency has written. That is why they write them.

Another fantastic resource would be a successful past example. Ask your collaborator if they have an example. If not, ask your local research office.

Your university research office can be enormously useful to you (and we aren’t just saying that because we work there). Here are some of the services that they can provide:

  • Provide updated information from the funding agency (if they update their FAQ, for example).
  • Provide examples of past successful grants.
  • Help with calculating salaries and other items in the budget.
  • Explain arcane aspects of the guidelines.
  • Review draft versions of the document.

So drop them a line as soon as possible. Let them know that you are drafting this application, and who you are working with. Explain that this is the first time that you have done this, and would appreciate any assistance that they can provide.

There are other people who can help, too. Four online resource that provide good advice are:

Two of the hardest parts of writing your first application are the budget and the timeline. You should tackle these after you have drafted the project description. From the project description, you should have enough detail to work out what the major stages of the project will be, and how much time your team will spend on each stage. If you don’t know that, then your methodology doesn’t have enough detail in it and you should seek advice from your collaborators. If it does have that level of detail, then sketch it out in a simple Gantt chart.

The guidelines will provide clear advice for what can and cannot be included in the budget. The tricky bit is finding rough estimates of the cost of everything. In some organisations, the research office can provide estimates if you list all the details of the budget. Otherwise, work your way through travel and airline Web sites for airfares and accommodation, supplier’s Web sites for equipment and maintenance, and your organisation’s pay scales for salaries. You are not looking for the cheapest quote – you are looking for a reasonable quote that demonstrates that you have carefully planned this project.

After you have roughed out the project description, the budget and the timeline, the rest of the application will mostly be a paper-chase for details: updated curriculum vitaes for each research leader, statistical information and research codes, reporting information on past grants and other time-consuming, annoying but necessary details. Give yourself enough time to do all this work. It takes time. If the application needs to be submitted via an on-line form, give yourself enough time to work though that, too. Because if you don’t, you may not get your application in on time. That would be a shame after all your hard work.

Once you have a complete draft, hand it out to your collaborators, your research office and anyone else who will give you feedback without stealing your ideas. Make it clear that this is just a first draft, and that you need their feedback to improve it. It might be a good idea to organise a meeting with your collaborators so that they focus on it and give it the attention that it deserves.

As they provide feedback, incorporate what you can into the draft, given the time that you have available. Do the quick things first, so that you always have a complete application that you can fall back on. Computers crash, kids get sick, the vice-chancellor calls and requires your undivided attention – all of these things can get in the way. If you have a complete draft, you can hand it off to someone else in the team to revise, or consider submitting it as it is.

If you receive contradictory feedback, keep in mind who it has provided it. Research office staff will be best at compliance issues and weakest on methodology. Your colleagues will provide the strongest advice on methodology and direction, but may not be up to date with the guidelines.

Why would I possibly want to do that?

Drafting a grant application is a lot of work. However, if you want to be an academic, you should jump at the chance if you get it. All academics are expected to do research and writing applications is a core skill for a successful researcher, team leader, centre director… Dream big!

Also, if you are drafting the application, you can put yourself into it. You can put your ideas forward, you can include a salary for yourself in the budget and you can put yourself on the research stage, for everybody to see.

As an early career researcher, you should consider including draft grant applications in the publications list on your curriculum vitae. Who knows – one way or another, this application might get you your next job.


  1. Great advice, especially to do the budget and timeline AFTER the methodology. They are really the same information written in a different language.

    The other thing to keep in mind if you are a PhD student doing this, is that this is great experience. I help a lot of early career academics who have never even seen a faculty grant application before they are writing their own. Imagine learning how to do this when you are the PI and also have teaching, service and whatnot to do? It’s going to be tough the first time no matter what. At least as a student, you have lots of help and someone else is responsible for the final version.

    The other key piece of advice relates to the literature review or background part of the proposal. The audience for this is not as specialized as it would be for a journal article, though it will be peers in your field. It is important to connect your specialized questions to broader debates even if the bulk of the proposal focuses on the specialized literature.


    • Fantastic stuff as always – thanks, Jo!

      Re the never having seen a grant application: This is so true, and a major reason why I think ‘grant libraries’ in universities (kept at school, faculty or central levels) are such valuable resources. They’re excellent for getting a feel for the rhythm of language and depth of explanations, and how effective phrasing of, say, a budget item justification is done. Saves enormous amounts of time (and angst!).


  2. Great post, thanks for all this info. It’s really helpful for sure. If part of your work involves finding grants too – a very good resource is Grant Watch. You can search by grant type, location and more. We’ve noticed that we’ve been more successful in getting the grants we apply for because we’re more focused on exactly what we need and we’re getting the notifications for new grants right away. Hope this is helpful to you cause all of your info you shared in this awesome grant writing post was really helpful to me!


    • Thanks, Ginney

      Grant Watch is focused on the United States. In Australia, a similar resource is the excellent Australian Directory of Philanthropy. I am sure there are others for the UK and most other countries.

      I also use COS Pivot. As well as providing a great database of funding opportunities, it provides a database of researchers. If you are listed there, it provides you with a list of grants that it thinks might be suitable, based on your publications profile. It isn’t great (only a machine, after all), but it does provide a place to start.


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