Tips for getting your research funded

If your project proposal gives grant assessors all the information they require, your chances of succeeding will rise. Plus the latest higher education appointments

September 11, 2014

Source: Alamy

In the running: the intense competition for funding means that ‘luck plays a big part, even for very strong proposals’

The crucial thing for anyone submitting a proposal for research funding, says Jacqueline Aldridge, research and impact manager at Kent Business School, is to remember that it will be “read very quickly by non-specialist assessors on grants committees in conjunction with dozens of other proposals on a wide variety of topics”.

Although funding bodies often provide applicants with “a telephone book of guidance” about what they are looking for, this can make it easy to lose sight of one’s central purpose. Yet there are four fundamental points that are vital to get across: the project is important; the project will be successful; the project is good value; and the investigators are competent. Applications that home in on these key areas are also far easier to recycle.

Ms Aldridge has extensive experience as a research administrator helping academics to improve their grant proposals. She has also often joined forces with her former colleague Andrew Derrington – now executive pro vice-chancellor of humanities and social sciences at the University of Liverpool – on workshops and then a book, The Research Funding Toolkit: How to Plan and Write Successful Grant Applications, published by Sage in 2012.

So how can researchers attempt to fulfil Ms Aldridge’s four essential requirements?

By a project being “important”, she explains, non-specialist assessors mean not “within-discipline importance but something any intelligent person would recognise – your project has to be addressing a big interesting question”.

To show that it will be “successful”, Ms Aldridge continues, “you need to explain the steps to be taken, so the academic reviewer can see how they will generate the answer”. Ideally, it is also desirable to “create a blueprint, so that in theory someone else with the right skills could take it over if you fell under a bus. Such a plan is particularly important if you are an early career researcher and don’t have a track record.”

“Good value”, meanwhile, “doesn’t necessarily mean cheap”, but it does mean “showing why the project legitimately will cost that much money…If you are not asking for enough money, it raises the question of whether it will be successful and the grant will be wasted.” On the other hand, assessors tend to look askance at proposals that include a good deal of funding for conference travel to exotic destinations.

Finally, proving that “the investigators are competent” usually means setting out how the team brings together people with skills in areas such as methodology, project management, line management and public engagement. It also often means offering “evidence from previous experience that you can manage a large budget or a large international team”.

For those embarking on the laborious application process, Ms Aldridge offers a final thought: learn how to deal with rejection. Intense competition for funding, not to mention unforeseeable factors such as a gap between the theoretical perspective of researchers and reviewers, “means that luck plays a big part, even for very strong proposals…in my experience, good research does get funded in the end – but it may take five or six goes”.


Andrew Hill has taken up his role as head of taught postgraduate programmes in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at York St John University. He previously worked at the University of Leeds.

Sherrilyn Roush has been made Peter Sowerby chair in philosophy and medicine at King’s College London. Professor Roush joins from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was professor of philosophy.

The University of Hull has appointed David Richards as its pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise. He was most recently managing director of Vivergo Fuels in Hull.

The University of Portsmouth has appointed two pro vice-chancellors. Paul Hayes and Pal Ahluwalia have joined as pro vice-chancellor of education and student experience and research and innovation, respectively.

Allan Howells has begun his role as deputy vice-chancellor (research, enterprise and external affairs) at Staffordshire University. Professor Howells comes to the institution from Glyndwr University where he was senior pro vice-chancellor.

Tracey Wilkinson has been appointed the University of Dundee’s principal anatomist and the Cox chair of anatomy. Professor Wilkinson takes up her post following the retirement of Roger Soames.

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