On why you should seriously consider actually submitting your grant application

I have just finished providing the first round of feedback to a number of faculty members at my institution in the wind up to the first major research funding deadline in Canada of 2014. During the first round, I feel I do the most service to prospective applicant by providing the applicants with substantive feedback pushing them to be very specific with their research question, clear with how their question emerges from or responds to the existing literature, and clear defining their methodology.

But sometimes this substantive feedback, given with the objective of allowing them to produce the most competitive application possible, leads to a sense of discouragement.

For example, today I received a phone call from one of these applicants, saying that the applicant agreed wholeheartedly with my comments but felt that because of the work that needed to be done on some of the concepts was now considering delaying submitting the application until the next round.

Obviously, this is NOT what I was hoping to achieve with my early internal deadlines and my substantive comments.And this is not the first time I have received this kind of reaction from applicants that I have provided feedback to or have received feedback from others.

So here are my top 3 reasons why, even with comments that indicate there is a lot more work to be done on your application, I believe you should still submit.

1) It is never going to be perfect.

This is self-evident but worth stating explicitly. No grant application – even the funded ones – is perfect. The very fact that the project is  “proposed” at this stage means that it must be living document. If you wait for it to be done before submitting it for review, you will have completed the project before it is time to test the waters.

2) Trial and error is the best strategy.

If you don’t ever submit the application to that different funding agency, you will never know if your project is truly outside of their scope or not. If you don’t submit your multi-disciplinary application to one disciplinary committee over another, you will never know which one is best suited to reviewing it. While there is a lot of advice that research administrators can provide you based on experiences with a large volume of proposals, there is ultimately no predictor of success.

Additionally, on average, I find it takes researchers about two applications to get their project funded. The sooner you submit that first-most-likely-not-funded application, the sooner you can get to the improved-second-and-more-likely-to-be-funded submission the following year.

3) Don’t underestimate the “luck factor”.

Yes there is an difference between a competitive grant application and non-competitive grant application. You definitely want to produce the best possible application with your given conditions (time, resources, etc.). But, there’s also a strong element of luck that determines which projects get funded and which ones do not.

For example, a few competitions ago, I supported an application from a researcher that I believed was very strong but proposed using a methodology that was far from traditional in the applicant’s field. In the comments back from the review committee, there were a number of external assessments that took the project to task for the proposed methodology. That said, the project was ultimately funded by the committee – ranked in the last funded spot for that year’s competition. You could say it was funded because it was well-written (it was!), or that the applicant had a strong funding history and publication record (they did!), and the project was incredibly well-defined and scoped out (it was!). Without these things, it wouldn’t have been funded but it probably didn’t hurt that the chair of the committee that year also happened to be a well-regarded scholar who also was known for utilizing the less-than-traditional methodology proposed in the project.

Peer reviewers do take their roles as reviewers seriously but it remains a subjective process, vulnerable to the tastes, trends, and opinions of scholars-as-human-beings. You will never be able to control the process entirely, so you might as well throw your hat in the ring.

The key is no matter the result to not get discouraged. There’s a lot to a grant application result that cannot be predicted ahead of time. As B.F. Skinner is oft quoted as saying “A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”


Start with the idea

We all know and recognize that there is mountains of pressure on university-employed researchers to find and obtain funding for their research. And there is a lot of pressure put on universities to demonstrate constant yearly growth (or at least stability) in terms of research revenue. This means that as institutions, for every big grant a researcher at our institution scores this year, there’s an increased expectation that a different researcher will score another one next year. This must happen just to achieve funding “stability” – never mind increase funding year over year.

This situation leads to a phenomenon I like to call “funding opportunity opportunism”. Funding opportunity opportunism is defined as “the applying to funding opportunities as and when they arise, regardless of planning or principle”.

Research offices pump out funding opportunities to our researchers several times a week. These funding opportunities seek projects that respond to a variety of objectives, from the very broad to very specific. If you are researcher actively looking for funding, it’s easy to be swayed in your thinking by the aims and objectives of funders. “I work on the racialization of poverty in Big City in the U.S. but this funder is looking for globally comparative poverty alleviation strategies so a little tweak here and adjustment there and I could propose something.” This gets more complicated when your university has employed someone like me, who will encourage to you to apply to a variety of funding opportunities where I see a connection – but as someone outside your research program, I, of course, can only ever have a partial understanding of where you want to go with your research.

This is the wrong approach.

Before seeking funding, researchers should develop a very clear idea about what exactly they want to achieve and what resources are needed to achieve that objective. I (and others much smarter than I) call this approach “starting with the idea”.

In a book that has profoundly influenced how I think about grant writing and proposal development, Shore and Carfora state that it is the idea that provides the intellectual justification for the project, enthusiasm to get through the grant writing process, and motivation for the team once the project is underway (p.7).

So what does it mean to start with your idea – it means deciding concretely on the following things before you even look at a funding opportunity:

  1. Your project’s goal, objectives and/or research question see my previous post for a discussion about research questions
  2. Your project’s contribution whether through theoretical or methodological innovation, addressing an existing problem with a new lens, or establishing new relationships.
  3. Your project’s outputs. Outputs are the things you will produce through the realization of your idea, such as mentorship for graduate students, publications, and conference presentations.
  4. The resources needed to achieve your idea. Finally, you need to consider what resources you will need. How many RAs will you need? Will you need a project manager? Will you need to travel? Will you need to purchase books?

Once you begin to outline idea, its contribution and outcomes, and your needed resources, you’ll get a better idea about what size of grant, if any, you may need to secure in order to implement your idea. This allows you match funding opportunities to your idea, not the other way around.

For more information on “idea-first” proposal development, I highly recommend the following book:

Shore, A.R. & Carfora, J.M. (2011). The Art of Funding and Implementing Ideas. Sage Publications, Inc.: Thousand Oaks, CA.

The dreaded “strategic” sections of the application

In my several years as a Research Facilitator, no section of the grant application tends to strike fear into the heart of applicants more than the strategic sections. For those that many not be familiar, the strategic sections are the section of the application, whether they be as part of your proposal description or independent sections that request you to justify your proposal within the state program objectives, how your research is relevant to the funder’s priority areas, or how you project aligns with the strategic priorities of your institution. While not all applications require these sections, there is definitely an increasingly tendency amongst funders to explicitly request that applicants address these sorts of issues in their applications.

Here are four key tips to producing a strong strategic section of your grant application:

1) Familiarize yourself with the relevant policies and documents

It is impossible to generate a good strategic section of the application if you are not familiar with the relevant documents or policies. Unfortunately, this section requires additional background research beyond your literature review. If the funder is asking you about how your project aligns with their priorities, you need to research what are their priorities. In my experience, it is not sufficient to just find the bulleted list of priorities, you actually need to look into the substance of those priorities, including the objectives and outcomes expected for projects that fall under those areas. For the big government funding agencies, this information can usually be found through a search of the relevant funder’s website. For example, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) provides a link to a more detailed description of each of its priority areas here. In the case of institutional priorities, the preparation of this section will require you to locate and read your institution, faculty or department’s strategic planning documents.

2) Create explicit connections

Once you know what the priorities are, you able to begin preparing these sections of the application. You’ll want to use this section of the application to make explicit connections between the strategic priorities of the funder/institution and your project. If your project’s objectives match the objectives of the priority ares, explain the overlap. If the projects outcomes will contribute in a direct way to an institutional strategic goal, tell us why. It is alright to copy and paste directly from the strategic documents.

3) Provide detail

That said, copying and pasting is not sufficient for a strong strategic section of a grant application. There are a number of times that I have seen strategic sections just include a statement that reads a long the line of:

My project studying elephants clothing preferences overlaps with the following strategic priority of my institution: training students in high quality research environments; leading a global network of scholars; and contributing to regional prosperity.

Obviously this is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. Like all sections of your grant application, you need to provide justification for the connections you are claiming. If you project on elephants is going to contribute to the training of students because you plan to hire two students and have provided a innovative training plan, then provide your reviewer with this detail. The more specific you can be about the connections between your research project and the strategic priorities the better.


4) Don’t draw false connections

A lot of faculty feel that the more connections they are able to draw between the funder’s priorities or the institutional strategic direction, the better. This is, in my experience, untrue. It is more important to ensure the connections between your research project and the priorities or strategies make sense and are fully justified. Usually these sections have limited space (or you don’t want to use up a lot of your project description on such strategic stuff). All the more imperative that you use the allotted space judiciously. It is better to provide a higher quality justification for the overlap or connect than to simply list more connections or overlaps. Additionally, by only referring to connections that are substantive, you will be less likely to include a tangential element of your project as a connection, reducing the likelihood that this section may ultimately confuse your reviewer about what your project is really about.

5) Ask for help

Researchers usually don’t spend much time reading strategic planning documents or priority areas background documents by funders – but often research administrators do. We attend conference presentations where funders present their new priorities and we usually have read the institutional strategic plan cover-to-cover. Writing a grant can be overwhelming and time-consuming and preparing the strategic sections from scratch is a labour-intensive process. This is an excellent section of the application to turn to your institutional support staff for assistance. Keep in mind, we are not magic workers and these sections are not easy to produce, even for a research administrator with a solid background. If you do want help, come talk to us well in advance of the deadline and be willing to provide us with a substantive background on your project, methodologies and theories. With a good understanding of your project, we can usually point to the relevant text from the funder.

The importance of the research question

As I ramp up towards the next big round of research grant applications at my university, I’m back to advising faculty on how to build their applications for success or how to revise a previously unsuccessful application into a successful one. For my first post, I thought I would tackle by number one piece of advice.

Photo  taken by Ethan Lofton http://www.flickr.com/photos/eleaf/

Photo taken by Ethan Lofton http://www.flickr.com/photos/eleaf/

A competitive research proposal must have a clear and compelling research question.

I am a strong opponent of copying and pasting from one section of the research application form to another, but the research question is the exception that proves the “no-copying” rule. Feel free to repeat the research question, in the same phrasing, ad nauseam throughout your application – in the summary, the project description, the student training section and even in the title (!).

It is your research question that provides the motivation for the project and provides overall clarity to the application as whole. A clearly stated and visually obviousresearch question is what holds the application as a whole together. For applications without an explicit research question, often reviewers will be left without a sense of what you, the researcher, hope to achieve with your study – not a position of strength to advocate for the investment of funds.

Your research question becomes the foundation on which you build the rest of your application. Using your research question as a guide, you can create sub-questions and/or specific objectives for your study (by breaking your research question into achievable parts), summarize the existing literature (other attempts to answer your question or similar questions), justify your choices for a theoretical framework and methodology (they are appropriate for answering your research question) and provide an overall motivation for your study (by convincing your reader of the timeliness, originality, and/or importance of your question). In short, the research question is to grant writing what the thesis statement is to argumentative writing. As someone who reads a lot of grants, a clear research question, what used effectively, is what gives an application a coherent narrative.

While the clear and compelling research question is not common in all forms of academic writing or even in all disciplines, in an age of increased competition for limited grant funds, grant writers should seek to present a coherent and convincing narrative from the first page of the application to the last. A clear and compelling research question is one of the easiest ways to achieve this goal.