12 top tips for writing a grant application

Building grant writing skills can help you secure funding. Updated by popular demand: how to master the application process and make your grant stand out.

1. Allow plenty of time

Everything takes longer than you think it will. No matter how simple it may seem to pull together a project, there are lot of different steps involved in submitting a proposal, some more time-consuming than others.

Plan your application and take your time, don’t rush it. Make sure you’ve got all the paperwork required. For example, some funding calls require specific letters of support from university administrators or mentors.

2. Choose your funder and scheme carefully

It’s good to talk! Speak to the funders, we’re here to help. Ask us questions to get an insight into what we’re interested in and which scheme’s remit might suit your idea. Read through guidance and eligibility criteria carefully. We don’t want you wasting your time applying for an inappropriate scheme.

3. Get advice at an early stage, from a range of sources

Create a collaborative network within your organisation and beyond. Look for inspiration to help pull together an idea that’s worthy of being funded. The wider the range of ideas you can expose yourself to, the more interesting concepts you’ll come up with.

Speak with your grants office, mentors and colleagues who have served on funding panels. Get involved in grant writing at an early stage, if only as an observer. Find out how senior colleagues get ideas together, assemble teams and put an application together.

4. Get the right partners

The people involved are just as important as the project you’re proposing. Provide evidence that the team can deliver the work and a return on the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) investment. Do you have the right people and representatives from the appropriate research communities?

5. Consider your audience

Your proposal will be reviewed by independent experts working in the field, as well as board or panel members with a variety of specialisms. They’re smart people but they’re also busy!

Provide a clear rationale for what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Create specific aims and well-defined criteria to quantify success and keep it concise. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to understand what you’re proposing to do and why this is important.

6. Consider the impact of the research

Explain the intended consequences of your work. Who could benefit in the long term? How can you increase the chances of reaching those beneficiaries?

Even if your proposal doesn’t directly address economic or societal impact you should be able to explain the pathway that links your work to improving human health. Embed the potential impact of your research throughout your application.

7. Include relevant preliminary data

Provide enough preliminary data to validate the approach you’ve selected and reassure the panel you’ve identified a signal that’s worth pursuing. If you don’t have preliminary data, consider what other published work you can use to support your approach.

8. Tell a compelling story

Be focused. You’re selling an idea to an audience, make sure it’s an exciting idea taking on a serious challenge. Identify a hook, the key feature that your proposal hangs off, and then tell a convincing narrative linking each experiment to your main aims.

9. Justify your methods

Get your sums right! Why have you chosen the sample size? Justify sample sizes with power calculations. Relate the methods to the aims and the deliverables. Use the right tools in the right way.

It’s also a good idea to acknowledge weaknesses in your proposal but explain why it’s still worth pursuing. This shows reviewers that you fully understand any limitations in your approach.

10. Mitigate the risks

What could go wrong? What you will do to minimise this risk? What are your contingency plans? This shows you’ve thought through your application and provides confidence you’ll be able to deliver your proposed research.

11. Get your proposal reviewed internally

Many research organisations have ‘mock’ internal funding panels. If yours does, take advantage of it. If it doesn’t, look to get opinions from a mentor or a senior colleague.

Getting your proposal read by a peer who has not been involved in drafting the application can also be extremely valuable. If they struggle to follow the key objectives, or what the potential impact will be, then it is likely that reviewers will also struggle.

12. Do final checks

Proofread, spell check and stick to specified formats. Remember the little things count! Presentation, punctuation and grammar set the tone for how people feel about your work. They really do matter.

Finally, before you click the submit button check the common reasons we return applications and make sure yours is not one of them.

Find out more

Read the MRC guidance for applicants.

Find out how to contact the relevant Programme Manager.

Watch what’s needed for a successful New Investigator Research Grant application (YouTube).

Watch how to win funds and influence panels (YouTube).

Read funding decisions: insider insights.

Read 10 expert tips to help you respond to peer review comments.

Find out more about the MRC Board Observers scheme.

Top image:  Credit: fizkes, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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