Dr Reza Mohammed is Senior Coordinator, Research Development, in the Research Office at RMIT University, Australia.
He leads a team that manages the University’s research-related professional development program for staff, its Early Career Researcher Network, and many of its internal research funding schemes.
Before transitioning to research administration, Reza held positions in academia, industry, and conservation education.
Many universities allocate funding to support research collaborations, research projects, and travel fellowships.
As public funding for research decreases annually, competition for internal funding becomes increasingly fierce.
The pros and cons of internal funding are discussed in another Research Whisperer post, and I want to talk about how to win internal grants.
If you’re a researcher wanting to increase your chances of success, lean in close so I can share my top five tips with you.
Tip 1: Read the funding rules and guidelines carefully.
Then read them again.
There are no prizes (or grants!) for guessing that this would top the list: it’s the pet peeve of scheme administrators the world over, yet the easiest for you to address. One of the more common reasons why applications are not accepted is that they do not meet the eligibility criteria.
Don’t skim the eligibility criteria simply because you have an excellent research profile or a ground-breaking research project. Eligibility criteria can be quite specific. If they state, for example, that “the proposed industry partnership must be a new collaboration; applicants must be employed with the University for the duration of the project; all travel must occur after the closing date for applications”, then don’t overlook the fact that your employment contract ends in two months and you’re requesting funds to cover last week’s flights to Europe to meet with a long-standing industry partner.
If you’re a serial applicant, don’t just dust off last round’s unsuccessful application, change the date, and resubmit. The funding rules and guidelines may have changed to reflect the University’s new strategic research priorities, application forms may have been simplified, additional supporting documents and signatures may be requested, and eligibility criteria may have been updated. When in doubt, see Tip #2.
Tip 2: Contact the scheme administrator with queries.
If you have concerns about your eligibility due to your special circumstances, or want to clarify if the funds can be carried forward to the next calendar year, then contact the scheme administrator with your questions. You may as well use the opportunity to gather some useful ‘intel’ about the scheme, such as the number of applications received on average per round, how much funds are available, and the scheme’s success rate. This insight could influence whether or not you bother to apply, as well as how much time and effort you put into developing your application.
In addition, contacting the scheme administrator is an excellent way to make a connection in the Research Office. They may be able to assist and support you with other matters in the future. We’d like to believe that we’re a friendly, helpful bunch and, for many of us, stakeholder engagement is one of the more fulfilling aspects of our jobs.
Tip 3: Approach it as you would an external grant.
As with external funding schemes, it’s not always the applicant with the best track record and most ground-breaking project that’s awarded internal funding. It’s often the best application that’s funded. Some internal funding schemes have lower success rates than many (external) ‘Research Council’ funding schemes, yet one of the most common mistakes that unsuccessful applicants make is to assume that it’s free, guaranteed money.
You still need to sell the merits of your project and convince the selection panel – often with backgrounds in a range of disciplines – that they would be doing a disservice to your field if they don’t fund it. A persuasive ‘business case’ could include a discussion of how the project aligns with University and national strategic research priorities, or demonstrate (if relevant) how the seed funding would contribute to the development of a competitive application for external funding.
Even then, you still need to convince the selection panel that you have a sound project plan. One winning strategy is to present an excellent budget. Professor Aidan Byrne, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council, said that a “budget is a proxy for project planning” and that “inaccurate budgets indicate (that the) project (is) not well thought through”. A detailed budget demonstrates to the selection panel that you truly understand the intricacies of your project, and that the funds will be allocated appropriately and managed effectively. One-sentence budget items for a $15,000 research collaboration award (e.g. Consumables = $5,000; Accommodation = $5,000, Flights = $5,000) is usually a significant contributing factor to failure.
Tip 4: Follow the submission guidelines.
Don’t go rogue: if there’s an application template, use it. If there are guidelines on fonts, font sizes, and page limits, follow them. If applications must be submitted electronically, do so. Submitting a hard-copy application with small font and double the page limit is sure to irritate the selection panel before they have even read your second page. When they have to review dozens of applications, they prefer conformity (for ease of comparison) of headings and layout.
If you need endorsement from your line manager or Head of Department, get your application to their Inbox or In-tray early! You don’t want your application to be unendorsed (hence, ineligible) because the person you need to sign it is at a strategic planning retreat or on an inter-continental flight on the day the applications close.
If you realise that you’re probably going to miss the closing deadline then consider contacting the scheme administrator to plead your case: since it’s an internal funding scheme, there may be some flexibility in exceptional circumstances. For example, an applicant conducting field research overseas in a remote village with limited internet access may be granted a few hours’ extension. An applicant who claims to be “very busy” will not.
Don’t, however, submit an application late and expect it to be accepted. The scheme administrator will have their own deadlines and competing priorities, as well as an obligation to the other applicants to enforce the stated deadline.
Tip 5: Ask for feedback.
Benchmark yourself (or your team) against the profiles of previous recipients. If you are so inclined, contact them to request a copy of their successful application. Perhaps ask if they they will review your own application. Although many researchers are happy to share their expertise and experience, keep in mind that others may be reluctant.
At the very least, ask a couple of your trusted and respected colleagues – including those from other disciplines – to review your application and provide feedback well before the closing deadline. If possible, submit your application to the scheme administrator a couple of weeks before the deadline and ask them to review it for compliance issues. Some scheme administrators may review applications as quickly as they are submitted, while others only process them after applications close, but it’s worth asking so that issues can be identified and rectified before the closing deadline.
When the funding outcomes are announced, don’t be disheartened (for too long) if you receive a generic “your application was unsuccessful” email. Most of your successful applications will rest on top of a pile of your unsuccessful ones, submitted in previous rounds.
Contact the scheme administrator and request detailed feedback on why your grant didn’t get up. Although it’s often because the successful applications were stronger, the scheme administrator may be able to pinpoint particular areas where your future applications could be improved.
Finally, don’t discard the application, since there’s always the possibility of modifying it and submitting it to another (external!) funding scheme.