Should I apply?

Recently, I needed to write an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page about finding research funding. I thought of some questions that people often ask me, but they didn’t seem very interesting. So I asked Twitter.

The response was immediate and wonderful. Not everything came in the form of a question, but everything related to question that people ask. Here is the first of my responses to my Twitter-asked questions. I’d like to thank Ana Isabel Canhoto (@canhoto) for triggering this post.

The Great Wall of China, stretching off into the business
That must have been a lot of work, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Should I apply?

Let’s skip over the existential aspects of this question and assume that you are an academic required to undertake research as part of your job. Let’s also assume that you’ve finished your PhD. If you haven’t, go do it now. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you come back.

Sometimes, your research doesn’t require any funding. You might be working on an aspect of pure mathematics or ethics, and all you need is a computer, a good library, some peace and quiet, and the occasional chance to talk to smart people working on the same stuff. Or you might be working on a very small part of an overall research program that doesn’t need any extra staff, any equipment, or any travel. In that case, don’t apply for funding. You don’t need it and it won’t substantially improve your research. However, those situations are pretty rare.

In all other cases, you should apply for funding. However, there are some important things that you need to consider.

As Ana Isabel Canhoto points out, there are lots of practical disadvantages to applying for funding. Applying for funding takes time. Time is a precious resource. Sometimes, you might be better off writing that journal article than writing a grant application, particularly if you are only writing it because you feel you have to.

She rightly points out that sometimes you are better off doing some academic writing (#AcWri) rather than some grant writing. Submitting a paper isn’t always a sure win, but the chances of getting it published are so much higher than the chances of getting a grant funded that it isn’t funny. Also, that book contract is already in the bag, and the deadline is getting closer. If you need encouragement and company, look for a Shut Up and Write group near you (or set one up). If you really want to get your inner writer on, limber up for AcWriMo, a month of academic writing in November each year.

It isn’t just that grant writing takes up time, though. Writing a grant application is hard.  Writing your first grant application is really hard. It is hard in three ways: intellectually, emotionally, and the fact that it’s just plain hard work to bring it together.

Intellectually, you need to stretch yourself. By definition, you need to go beyond where you are now. You need to move into that uncomfortable space, that risky space where you aren’t sure of yourself, where you are exploring your limits. That is where the excitement comes from, but where the insecurities come from, too. Some people love this space, but lots of people don’t.

Emotionally, writing a grant application can be a roller-coaster. You have to do all the things you probably don’t like – grapple with administrivia, work on your CV, and expose your ideas to criticism.

In particular, the thought of exposing your new-born ideas to the harsh unforgiving world can be draining. You put your heart and soul into this application. All your hopes and dreams reside in it. It leaves you exposed, and you might feel that others can persecute you for your weakness. It combines the intellectual risk that your idea won’t work with the emotional risk of rejection.

Finally, pulling an application together is just plain hard work. A lot of applications will run to 100+ pages, of which about 10 pages will be the research plan (aka ‘the fun stuff’). The bulk of the application is CVs for the research team, updated publications lists, progress reports on existing grants, and a bewildering variety of stupid questions that must be answered with due consideration and precision. Why do they want to know the exact date that everyone got their PhD? And, yes, it would look much better if everybody’s citations were in the same format, but that’s a lot of work.

Planning meetings, e-mail correspondence, revisions, revisions, revisions, and a whole bunch of little compromises (aka ‘improvements’) as each team member comes on board and contribute their ideas. This all equals hard work.

Some people build a system over time that makes things a bit easier. They come to understand that an intellectually risky place can still be a safe place to stand. They toughen up when it comes time to expose their ideas to the world. They collaborate with people they trust and build systems to deal with the administration as easily as possible. Over time, they learn how it works.

Others find writing every application is hard. Sometimes, this never goes away.

The only balm that I can offer is that writing a grant application is one of the few times that you will get to think about the future in a structured, coherent way. Most of the time, we spend out days tied up in the routine, the immediate, the mundane. When we write our papers, we are generally talking about the past – work that has been done and what it means.

When you write your grant application, you are planning your future. Good luck.


  1. Good post Jonathan. I’d argue that you could be even more pushy about writing grants. The most important time to write a grant application is when you have just written one. Sending off another application before you get the results is the only way that I have found of beating the crushing despair that comes with rejection. Think of a grant application as a complicated lottery ticket. If you want to win, assume that you will need more than one.


    • Thanks, Andrew.

      “The most important time to write a grant application is when you have just written one.” – I like that.

      I’ve heard a nursing researcher say a similar thing. She talked about needing three submissions on the go for every one that you want to come through. This rule of thumb came from her days as a nurse, where you always needed to be working with three uniforms: the one that you’ve just worn (in the wash); the one that you are wearing now; and the one that you have on hand for the inevitable emergency.


  2. Hi – given that it takes three to make one, perhaps we could talk to the powers that be about spacing the application processes out so I do not have to spend my entire summers writing>rewriting applications to be submitted at various times throughout the year? I have noticed however that having a draft done before you actually need it works quite well when it comes to honing the thinking when you do. A bit of informal peer review goes a long way and that times time to gather.


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