Key Considerations for Writing a Winning Academic Grant Application

Increase Your Academic Impact

Successful academic grant applications are a substantial part of creating an academic career, enabling researchers to progress from PhD to post-doc, to tenure track positions, and secure academic research funding along the way. Academic grant applications, fellowships or prizes have two main components. They ask the applicant to describe their personal academic journey to date, and then to outline the research they propose to complete within a certain time frame. 

The most important aspect of both of these pieces of a successful application is finding your narrative arc to captivate and convince universities, decision-makers, and funders. Your narrative arc is the story that takes the reader on a journey from where you began, through the obstacles you encountered and the skills you learned, to describe your vision for your next steps.

Identify your audience 

The single most important thing when writing a proposal is to keep your audience in mind. The easiest way to do this is to carefully read the application criteria and look up the awarding organization. Then there are three elements of ‘audience’ to keep in mind.

  1. What are you applying for? A proposal for an individual position or for individual funding will require a more specialized, narrow scope than an application for a research group or large lab project. 
  2. What organization are you applying to? Are you applying for a university, national, or international grant? 
  3. Who will read your application? Are they an interdisciplinary panel from across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities (like for ERC applications)? Are they a group of specialists in your field? 

Try to have clear answers to these questions before you start writing.

State your goals and objectives 

For your proposal to have the greatest impact, it is important that you begin with the unique contribution of your research. This could be the question you ask to begin with, which has never been asked before. This unique selling point might be what your conclusions will contribute to the field. This might be a new experiment and its results, the collection of a new dataset, or working with a set of sources for the first time.

When writing this first paragraph of a proposal, you should make sure you clearly demonstrate:

  • That your proposed project is new
  • That your proposed project is unique
  • That your proposed project is important (more below) 

Demonstrate your academic research impact

The easiest way to demonstrate that your proposed work is new, unique, and important is to briefly outline the contributions other scholars have made to your field and any related sub-fields. In an academic grant proposal, it is important not to disparage other researchers or their publications. 

Many academics start a proposal by explaining why everyone else who has written before them has been wrong. Instead, try to frame the impact of your grant proposal as the next step in the journey of your field.

A sample sentence might be something like “Darwin’s The Origin of Species made important contributions to the development of the theory of evolution. However, the outstanding question my work seeks to answer is…” 

Share your academic qualifications

The next section of your proposal is to explain why you are uniquely suited to carry out the proposed research and have the impact you claim for your work. There are many possible ways to answer this question, ranging from personal, individual experiences to being the only person in a field with the relevant experience or credentials.

At this stage in proposal writing, it is very easy to forget what you yourself have accomplished! This is a great opportunity to take a few steps to make sure that you put your best foot forward. First, consult your own CV. Is there anything that you have done that might be relevant? Typical academic activities that are often overlooked include: speaking at a conference; presenting at a seminar or colloquium; taking a relevant class; mentoring or teaching a graduate student working on a relevant topic; peer-reviewing a relevant book or article. 

Research contributions

After you have explained your experience, draw the reader back into your proposal by indicating:

  • The outstanding questions in your field
  • How your proposal fits into broader developments in your field 

This is a great time to highlight any interdisciplinary contributions your proposal makes, as well as future developments in your field that your work will enable.

The most persuasive proposals are written by people who are convinced that their proposed research will succeed, is important, and will make a substantial contribution to their field. 

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