What makes a good grant application?

Posted on August 7, 2019   by Microbiology Society

Knowing how to write a strong grant application can be difficult. Here, two of our grant reviewers Dr Douglas Browning from the University of Birmingham and Dr Sarah Maddocks from Cardiff Metropolitan University give their advice on what makes a good application.

iStock/Olivier Le Moal
A guide to grants

What distinguishes a 'great' application from a 'good' application?

Sarah: An applicant’s personal motivation and passion for what they want to do stands out in a great application. How a concept or idea is “sold” is also important. Great applications are those that convince a reviewer of the necessity to provide support. It might be helpful to consider compelling adverts that make you want to buy a particular product, compared to those that don’t!

Doug: The best grants jump out of the page at you. Not only do they answer all the questions, they manage to convey that there is a genuine need to fund that work. In the case of the Research Visit Grants it may be that by funding the applicant, they might go on to get that first elusive grant or that glorious 4* paper, whilst for the International Development Fund it might be that the project will make a lasting change in the host country and touch the lives of many people. These grants are always written with enthusiasm, passion and above all underpinned by exciting science.

How much detail should applicants aim to go into?

Sarah: A high level of appropriate detail is important. The more detail the better, but be mindful that it should be relevant. Try to avoid vague or sweeping statements, for example “this will be useful for networking”, rather explain how the opportunity to network will be beneficial.

Doug: Although many of our reviewers are experienced microbiologists, they may not be experts in your field of research. It is, therefore, important to give us sufficient background to the project and really show us why it is vital to fund your work. We need to know that the proposed research visit or workshop is well planned, achievable and of benefit to the applicant or host institution, depending on the grant. So make sure your answers address the questions fully but remember to keep them concise and to the point. We don’t need pages and pages of methodology! 

What is the most common mistake applicants make? 

Career conference grants

Sarah: Clarity is crucial, and common weaknesses include vague descriptions of benefits and outcomes, where tangible examples are much stronger. For example, if applying for a grant to attend a conference, be very specific about the benefits. “Having the opportunity to meet others in my field” is frequent justification, but doesn’t explain what will be gained from this in terms of professional development.

Doug: One of the main weaknesses we find in applications is that the applicant may not have thought deeply about how the award might benefit their professional development or their research, and these sections can often be underdeveloped with simple one-sentence answers. For these sections, it is worth putting down a range of benefits that really tie in with the activity you are planning.

What do you look out for when assessing whether a grant may benefit an applicant's professional development?

Sarah: I look for a well-considered, realistic trajectory for the applicant’s professional development. For example, where they are now, where they see themselves going next, and how receiving this support will help them get there. This is why it is important to include feasible benefits and outputs when building a case for support.

Doug: When we assess how the funding may benefit the applicant, we look to see how the award will make a difference to their professional development. For example, it may be that by simply visiting a lab it will enable the applicant to gain new technical skills and demonstrate that they are developing into an independent researcher. For other schemes, such as the International Development Fund and our Education and Outreach Grant, the funding may enable the applicant to gain and demonstrate organisational and leadership skills. Above all, we look to see that by supporting the applicant we can really help them develop as scientists and teachers, often at a crucial stage in their career when they need help the most.

How much time do you recommend applicants spend on writing their application?

Education & Outreach Grants

Sarah: Always allow more time than you think! Most questions do not require very long answers, but they still need a lot of thought, especially if there are word limits because it can be difficult to articulate your message in a relatively short space. Allow time for proofreading and re-writing. If you ask a peer or supervisor to provide feedback, ensure that you give them enough time. Similarly, if a letter of support is needed, ensure there is sufficient time for this to be written – a good letter of support is important and should not be rushed.

Doug: The key thing is not to leave you application to the last minute and don’t rush it. We don’t need pages and pages of information but a thoughtful, well written and concise grant application does take a bit of planning and time.

What are some of the things that make an application stand out to the reviewer? 

Sarah: Stand-out applications usually provide both convincing context and rationale for support of the applicant and their particular endeavour. This is accompanied by strong evidence that the activity will be successful, achievable and have a lasting benefit. 

Doug: The main things that make a grant application stand out for me is that work focuses on exciting science and that the applicant will really benefit from receiving the funding. It is important to realise that the work does not have to be about the latest hot topic or use the fanciest techniques and equipment. We like to fund all types of great microbiology, no matter what it is.

Do you have any top tips for writing a successful grant application?

Travel & Research Grants

Sarah: Be prepared to re-write the application several times. To begin with, compile a draft of ideas, and use those ideas to begin to “shape” the application. It’s important to refer to the guidelines that accompany the application during this process, and check that answers address the questions asked. It’s imperative to ask someone else to read the application and provide feedback, even if that means having to re-write the application again.

Doug: If it is the first time you have applied for an award, such as the Research Visit Grants, get advice from colleagues and your PI on how to plan your research and write your application. Once it is written, get someone to read it over. Constructive criticism might be painful but it is a good way to iron out the flaws in your application and increase your chances of success. 

What advice would you give to unsuccessful applicants? 

Sarah: Don’t be disheartened and don’t take it personally – although it is ok to feel annoyed and frustrated! If possible, try to obtain feedback about why the application was not funded, and use this to inform future applications. Don’t be deterred from applying again, and what you learn from being unsuccessful can be a useful means of professional development in itself.

Doug: Don’t be too downhearted. Sometimes our grants are oversubscribed and we cannot fund every grant, even though they might all be high quality applications. So ask for feedback, get advice from colleagues and submit your improved application again! We do want to fund you and your science!

Visit the grants and prizes page for more details the grants available at the Microbiology Society.