It’s scholarship season in Australia at the moment. Many unis have the end of October as the cut off date for applying for an APA, the full living stipend paid by the Federal government. Well, you wouldn’t want to try to actually live on it – unless living on the smell of an oily rag for 3 years is your kind of fun… But I digress.

Grant proposal writing is a vital skill for any researcher, so I hope this post will be of interest to  people writing all sorts of grants or doing post doc applications.

I want to state upfront that although I was successful at getting a living stipend to do my PhD, I have never won a competitive grant. I have to rely mostly on published work in the area and the advice of others to come up with suggestions. Unfortunately much of the advice on the subject is dispensed to research students in the form of lists, which I find frustrating.

As I have said a few times now in this blog, the problem with a list is that it can be hard to turn into actions. Consider the following list of advice on writing successful grant applications which I compiled as I researched a recent talk on the topic:

Pick interesting problems
Clearly define your aims and objectives
Show you have read some of ‘the literature’
Make sure your project is feasible
Demonstrate you are the best person to do the job
Outline your methodology
Provide references
Address the budget

On the face of it these sound like eminently sensible things to do – but how do you go about doing them? For instance, what is an ‘interesting topic’? How much of ‘the literature’ do you have to include? What does ‘feasible’ mean when you don’t know what the outcomes will be?

Let’s take a step back for a moment and think about the problem of the grant application in a non listy way. Since academics generally are the ones who make decisions about how to award research money,  perhaps a better understanding of how academics make decisions can help us to write better grant applications?

Unfortunately there is very little research in the area of academic decision making. One notable exception is a book which I reviewed recently: “How professors think” by Michele Lamont. Lamont studied the decision making processes amongst 80 humanities academics who were tasked with awarding prestigious grants and scholarships. Her thesis is that, while academics might recognise excellence in slightly different ways, awarding grants decisions are a matter of ‘satisfying’ – or reaching the optimal solution, given a set of constraints.

What are these constraints? Some of them might surprise you. The initial shortlisting process was usually carried out by other, less experienced readers who served as ‘gatekeepers’. Once a proposal made it past this stage, the decisions by the panel were affected by a range of quite mundane things – such as the order that the grants are presented to the panelists, how much time was allowed to make decisions, who on the panel was most persuasive, who the other applicants are and what they are proposing.

All of the panelists Lamont interviewed took their responsibility seriously. They wanted to be sure the work proposed would get done.Most agreed that it was important for a grant application to be authentic: it should stem out of a deep and abiding interest in the topic at hand, no matter how obscure.

Now it is dangerous, of course, to generalise from qualitative research, but I think Lamont’s observations could carry across to the science disciplines and beyond. Although we vary in our disciplinary approaches, in some basic ways academics are similar. As researchers we are curiosity driven. We want to find stuff out – and argue about it. Piquing an academic’s curiosity is sure a way to get attention.

So I propose an alternative set of success strategies, based on some of Lamont’s observations:

Remember the panelists have to read a lot of proposals in a short time. There’s also a chance your proposal may get read initially by someone with a limited grasp on the field.  Your task is to explain the originality, significance and feasibility of the project and the appropriateness of the methods as concisely and clearly as possible. Therefore the first paragraph is vitally important and should convey what is new about the project and provoke excitement and interest in the reader.

Authenticity is important. Be honest about what the contribution will really be. If you are interested in the history of kitchen utensils because they tell us about how we have changed the way we eat over time – then just say so. Don’t try and pretend it has some kind of sustainability agenda because you think that’s ‘what gets funded’.

Remember that the panelists feel a deep sense of responsibility to make the right decision and not waste money. So include any and all information which will show that you are the right person for the job. If you worked as a dishwasher through college and developed your fascination with utensils by washing thousands upon thousands of them, perhaps it might be worth including this somehow?

Finally: think about resubmitting if you fail. The reason you failed may not be that your ideas were ‘bad’ or the method was wrong – it may simply have been that on that particular day you didn’t make the cut because someone else had a more interesting project than you did.

Do you have more suggestions? As always, I’d love to hear them.

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