A good example

Little Free Library, Madison, by Ali Eminov on Flickr.

Do you share your grant applications with people?

Writing an application from scratch is hard work. It is particularly hard when you haven’t done it before. That might be because you have never applied for a grant before. Thankfully, that only happens once. More likely, it is because you’ve never applied for a particular grant before. That might be because the scheme is new or because it is a new opportunity for you. It might be because you’ve moved to a new country, and need to put in an application to a funding agency in your adopted home.

One of the best ways to understand what the research funding agency is asking for is to see a worked example. The very best way is to read the guidelines (and I’m sure that you all do that). But guidelines can only go so far – sometimes they are a bit vague, or ambiguous, or repetitive, or just poorly written. Sometimes it isn’t the fault of the guidelines at all – the fear of the task (and the ramifications of failure) overwhelm your capacity to understand the instructions. In all these cases a good example can go a long way to helping the writing process. So where can you find examples of applications?

The funding agency

It doesn’t happen often, but some funding agencies provide a worked example of their grant application. The Australian Co-operative Research Centre – Projects scheme does this, and it is really handy (see their sample application form). They have tried to provide applicants with the tools that they need to complete the application form. Their example doesn’t seek to be an exemplar. It just provides another way to understand what they are looking for in each question. Their budget, for example, is very brief, so their example helps people who are used to providing long, meticulous budgets that this isn’t what they need to do here.

While most funding agencies don’t provide a complete example document, they often provide worked examples of two different parts of the budget: the budget, and the title and project summary.

They generally provide an example of the budget to show what sorts of information goes where. This is handy, particularly with schemes that require both a table of income and a table of planned expenditure.

Titles and project summaries are presented differently. They are generally used to showcase the grants that they have provided to people. That is, when funding agencies present lists of funded grants, they often provide the titles and the summaries for those grants. Most of the time, those titles and summaries have been drawn directly from the applications themselves, which makes them handy examples of what is expected.

Of course, if you register to be an assessor for a funding agency, there is a chance that they will send you applications for review. You can’t keep those applications, and you can’t use them as models for your own applications. Reviewing applications, however, will give you a clear understanding of what you think is a good application, and what isn’t.

Your university

Many universities maintain libraries of successful grant applications that are available to future applicants. This can be really handy, especially if you are trying to get an overall sense of the task at hand. However, you need to understand what you can get from reading applications. Adam Micolich found that many of the proposals were not amazing, and it was difficulty to discern patterns in the small sample size at his university.

Many universities only stock their libraries with examples of the high-value, tier one funding applications (e.g. National Research Councils and National Science Foundations). This doesn’t help with all the other funding schemes that people might be applying for. It is, however, understandable, given that applicants can be protective of their grant applications, and so administrators are usually careful to construct these libraries one by one, ensuring that they have clear consent before adding them. It usually isn’t an automatic process – opt-in, rather than opt-out.

Universities also have lists of all the staff who have applied for, and won, funding. So even if they don’t have an example handy, they can tell you who has applied for any given scheme. You can then ask that staff member for a copy of their application.

Your network

Unless the funding scheme is brand new, you may already know people who have applied for the funding that you are interested in. Or you may know people who know them.

Search LinkedIn using the name of the funding scheme, and see what turns up. This works particularly well when the name of the scheme is memorable (e.g. ‘Fulbright’ or ‘Churchill’). I suggested this to a colleague last year and she immediately found someone who had won the fellowship she was applying for. From there, it was a relatively easy matter to write to them to ask for a copy of their application.

If you don’t know them directly, perhaps you can reach out to people who do. Your Head of School, Research Director or your research mentor may be able to direct you to someone who might be willing to share. This is particularly useful when the person is at another university. One of the defining limits of university-based libraries is that they only contain examples from your university. Research mentors can put you in touch with people from your own discipline, whereas your university may not have applications from your discipline.

On-line

There are some online repositories of grant applications, but they are few and far between, and they generally don’t have huge numbers of applications.

  • JMIR Research Protocols publishes ongoing trials, grant proposals, formative research, methods, and early results. When I looked recently, I found about 70 funded proposals, divided into eHealth and non-eHealth. They also publish non-funded proposals. In all cases, they ask that submissions include any reviewer comments, which is handy.
  • Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) “publishes research proposals, either funded or disapproved, as well as progress all along the research cycle and exposes it to peer assessment” (About RIO). When I looked recently, I could find about 55 grant proposals published on the site, covering a wide range of topics.
  • [Added 6 October 2019] Open Grants provides over 200 research proposals so that “…all stages of the process can benefit from better interaction and communication and to provide examples for early career scientists writing grants.” (Thanks, Lauren).

Please let me know of others, as I would like to add them here.

Reading an application

When you ask someone for their application, don’t forget to ask for their referee comments, any supplementary information that they might have provided (such as a response to referee comments), and any feedback they may have received from the funder. This gives you the full picture of the application – everything that they wrote for the application, and everything that was written about it. While you can gain a lot from just having the application, you’ll often gain much more when you see how people responded to the application, and how the funder scored it. It gives you the full picture.

Don’t be hurt if the person you ask says ‘no’. In general, I find that most people are generous. From your point of view, it is a huge thing – your hopes and dreams rest on this application. From their point of view, it may be a small thing – they have already won the funding and can afford to be generous.

However, people are also concerned about whether they might be compromising their future chances of funding. They might feel that the application and associated feedback is too personal, and the criticisms contained within are too troubling to share. They may see you as a competitor, or they may get asked quite often and have a blanket policy of saying ‘no’. As Adam points out, it may just be too hard for some people to share their application.

When they do provide you with an application, treat it with respect. Give it the attention that it deserves – a close and considered reading, and careful reflection. Ask them if they would have time to answer some questions, after you have read it. A good discussion about the ideas and format of the application may be almost as useful for them as for you. At the very least, don’t forget to say ‘thank you’.

Compare it to the current application form and the guidelines. There will often be differences. Some may be to minor to worry about. Others might be major changes, that mean that you need to be wary about using the application as a template. In general, the older an application is, the more it will differ from the current application and guidelines. That doesn’t mean that there is no value in reading old applications – you just need to keep in mind what you can get from it.

In general, there are three things that reading an application will give you.

  • A better understanding of the requirements of the funding agency – what they are looking for and how to interpret their questions. The newer the application the better, as older applications will represent processes of the funding agency at that time, which may be different from now.
  • Useful direction in tone and language – how to say things. These are often specific to a discipline, or national norms, rather than to a funding agency per se. When I read grant applications for European Union grants, I find that they are much more ‘big picture’ than Australian applications. That is helpful to know.
  • Good ideas about how to frame and present your ideas. Good grant writing transcends time. There is beauty and grace in a well written grant application. That doesn’t fade with age – if you are reading a relatively old application, this is what you are looking for. It won’t be useful for understanding the requirements of the funding agency, but it will provide you with a good example to strive to emulate.

Also, keep it confidential unless you know that the person providing it wanted you to share it around. Expectations around sharing applications can be very idiosyncratic, so I suggest that you err on the side of caution.

Finally, when you asked to share your own applications, please be a good example. Be generous and share your success with others.

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. All opinions are his own. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not the views of the University of Melbourne.

One Response to A good example

  1. nfa7 says:

    Wow, thank you so much for taking the time out to write this for us! It’s a challenging process for sure..

    Like

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