Five grant application mistakes

Writing proposals for research funding can be one of the most stressful parts of academic life. The quality of mentorship we receive on this process is, well, varied, to put it charitably. Yet, our track record of, and potential for, attracting funding is one of the primary ways we’re assessed on the job market, as well as for tenure and promotion. Writing an effective grant application is, luckily, a skill that can be learned.

As an academic coach, I often get to work with people as they prepare funding proposals. I really enjoy helping scholars share why their research matters in clear and compelling ways. From my own experiences as a (mostly successful) grant applicant and adjudicator for national funding awards, I’ve picked up on some of the most common problems that plague proposals. In today’s post, I’ll share five of these. If you recognize yourself in this list, don’t fear: they’re all fixable. And if you think that working with a coach on your next grant application might give you the support you need to knock it out of the park, please check out my services and drop me a line!

1. A weak opening

Your adjudicators are likely reading anywhere from 20-60 proposals. You need yours to stand out immediately. Unfortunately, many applications begin with a dry literature overview or a too-technical plunge into the topic. Remember that not every adjudicator is an expert in your sub-field. They won’t necessarily be able to immediately recognize the importance of your research problem, unless you make it crystal clear. Nor will they necessarily be interested and engaged, unless you draw them in.

You can use the first two or three sentences to hook the reader. Tell a story or present an urgent problem. Draw them in by connecting the topic to a current event or development. Your goal is to make them want to keep reading to find out what you, the intrepid researcher, are going to do about it.

2. Unclear or missing research questions

Shockingly, people sometimes forget to list their actual research questions or hypotheses. Sometimes these are buried within long, elaborate paragraphs. Or the whole document is peppered with questions, leaving the reader unsure which ones really matter. In other cases, the questions are there but it’s unclear how those questions could actually be answered.

Here, signposting is your friend, as are lists or bullets. After your introduction, preferably still on the first page, list your research questions or hypotheses. You might have more than one; three is probably the most you want. Either way, that these are THE questions should be super clear to the reader. And they should be super clear to you! Because the success of the project depends on it. Ask yourself if your questions can actually be answered or your hypotheses tested given the methods and sources available to you. This is connected to the next problem:

3. Lack of alignment

One of the main criteria for a successful grant application is whether the research questions align with the research methods. In other words, you have to actually be able to answer those questions using the methods you propose to use. This means that you have to be very clear on what you’re measuring (this goes for qualitative and quantitative research). And you have to convince your adjudicators that your methods will actually yield that information. A lack of alignment here is a kiss of death for the proposal.

While aligning questions and methods is probably priority number one, in reality every piece of the proposal must cohere. Your literature review has to cover the relevant scholarship. The theoretical framework must make sense for the topic. Student training has to be connected to the aims of the research. Collaborators must have something specific to contribute (beyond star power). Critically, the budget also has to align with the research objectives.

4. Unrealistic aims and timelines

Most grants have time frames (often one to five years) and budget maximums. A proposal for research that can’t possibly be completed or even well underway within those limits will be problematic. While you want your project to seem significant and important, it also has to be doable. Keep in mind that funding bodies want to fund projects that will be completed! If they don’t, it reflects badly on them. So help your adjudicator feel good about giving you money by proposing something that they can point to in x years as having got a result.

Before you submit your proposal, double check your timelines against your resources. Make it clear that you understand how long your data gathering methods will take. For example, don’t propose a one-month ethnography. Or suggest that you’ll complete and transcribe 50 interviews in 8 weeks. Your adjudicators will call b.s. and lose confidence in your plan. Which brings us to the last issue:

5. Unclear researcher abilities

You can write an amazing proposal, but at the end of the day, the funder has to believe that you (and your team) are actually capable of carrying it out. Unless your track record and CV are so outstanding that they speak for themselves, you need to make it clear that you have the skills necessary to do the work. Don’t assume that the reader will infer your capabilities or understand how your past work has prepared you for the current project.

In other words, be explicit about your skills and experience. Do you already know how to use the data analysis software? Have you taken training in a particular method? Do you speak the language of the community you’ll be working with? Are your team members experts in the things that you yourself aren’t? Make sure that the reader knows the answers. If they’re unsure if you have the right combination of skills and experience assembled, they won’t feel confident funding your project, no matter how much they might like your ideas.

As I said out the outset, all of these problems are fixable. If you’re struggling with your proposal, there’s nothing wrong with seeking additional guidance from colleagues, mentors, or your research office. And of course, an academic coach can also be a great resource! Please feel free to reach out with any questions about how I might be of assistance on your next grant application. And good luck!

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