How useful is reading examples of successful grant applications?

This article is prompted by a couple of twitter conversations around a Times Higher Education article which quotes Ross Mounce, founding editor of Research Ideas and Outcomes, who argues for open publication at every stage of the research process, including (successful and unsuccessful) grant applications. The article acknowledges that this is likely to be controversial, but it got a few of us thinking about the value of reading other people’s grant applications to improve one’s own.

I’m asked about this a lot by prospective grant applicants – “do you have any examples of successful applications that you can share?” – and while generally I will supply them if I have access to them, I also add substantial caveats and health warnings about their use.

The first and perhaps most obvious worry is that most schemes change and evolve over time, and what works for one call might not work in another. Even if the application form hasn’t changed substantially, funder priorities – both hard priorities and softer steers – may have changed. And even if neither have changed, competitive pressures and improved grant writing skills may well be raising the bar, and an application that got funded – say – three or four years ago might not get funding today. Not necessarily because the project is weaker, but because the exposition and argument would now need to be stronger. This is particularly the case for impact – it’s hard to imagine that many of the impact sections on RCUK applications written in the early days of impact would pass muster now.

The second, and more serious worry, is that potential applicants take the successful grant application far too seriously and far too literally. I’ve seen smart, sensible, sophisticated people become obsessed with a successful grant application and try to copy everything about it, whether relevant or not, as if there was some mystical secret encoded into the text, and any subtle deviation would prevent the magic from working. Things like… the exact balance of the application, the tables/diagrams used or not used (“but the successful application didn’t have diagrams!”), the referencing system, the font choice, the level of technical detail, the choice and exposition of methods, whether there are critical friends and/or a steering group, the number of Profs on the bid, the amount of RA time, the balance between academic and stakeholder impact.

It’s a bit like a locksmith borrowing someone else’s front door key, making as exact a replica as she can, and then expecting it to open her front door too. Or a bit like taking a recipe that you’ve successfully followed and using it to make a completely different dish by changing the ingredients while keeping the cooking processes the same. Is it a bit like cargo cult thinking? Attempting to replicate an observed success or desired outcome by copying everything around it as closely as possible, without sufficient reflection on cause and effect? It’s certainly generalising inappropriately from a very small sample size (often n=1).

But I think – subject to caveats and health warnings – it can be useful to look at previously successful applications from the same scheme. I think it can sometimes even be useful to look at unsuccessful applications. I’ve changed my thinking on this quite a bit in the last few years, when I used to steer people away from them much more strongly. I think they can be useful in the following ways:

  1. Getting a sense of what’s required. It’s one thing seeing a blank application form and list of required annexes and additional documents, it’s another seeing the full beast. This will help potential applicants get a sense of the time and commitment that’s required, and make sensible, informed decisions about their workload and priorities and whether to apply or not.
  2. It also highlights all of the required sections, so no requirement of the application should come as a shock. Increasingly with the impact agenda it’s a case of getting your ducks in a row before you even think about applying, and it’s good to find that out early.
  3. It makes success feel real, and possible, especially if the grant winner is someone the applicant knows, or who works at the same institution. Low success rates can be demoralising, but it helps to know not only that someone, somewhere is successful, but that someone here and close by has been successful.
  4. It does set a benchmark in terms of the state of readiness, detail, thoroughness, and ducks-in-a-row-ness that the attentive potential applicant should aspire to at least equal, if not exceed. Early draft and early stage research applications often have larger or smaller pockets of vaguery and are often held together with a generous helping of fudge. Successful applications should show what’s needed in terms of clarity and detail, especially around methods.
  5. Writing skills. Writing grant applications is a very different skill to writing academic papers, which may go some way towards explaining why the Star Wars error in grant writing is so common. So it’s going to be useful to see examples of that skill used successfully… but having said that, I have a few examples in my library of successes which were clearly great ideas, but which were pretty mediocre as examples of how to craft a grant application.
  6. Concrete ideas and inspiration. Perhaps about how to use social media, or ways to engage stakeholders, or about data management, or other kinds of issues, questions and challenges if (and only if) they’re also relevant for the new proposal.

So on balance, I think reading (funder and scheme) relevant, recent, and highly rated (even if not successful) funding applications can help prospective applicants…. provided that they remember that what they’re reading and drawing inspiration from is a different application from a different team to do different things for different reasons at a different time.

And not a mystical, magical, alchemical formula for funding success.

6 thoughts on “How useful is reading examples of successful grant applications?”

  1. I’m a massive advocate of this including the value of unsuccessful applications – especially those accompanied by reviewers’ comments. Whilst I’ve definitely seen the ‘ooh this person has 4 workpackages so I need 4 workpackages’ effect this is something that can be cautioned against early on.
    One of the key benefits is to reveal to applicants the common mistakes that can be made, e.g. making assumptions about the knowledge of the reviewer or lack of detail on specific activities.
    Other grants are also a key source of ideas for impact pathways to help overcome what I call the ‘Costner Mind-Set to Impact™’
    The biggest challenge in my experience is getting people to share their applications over fears that their colleagues may apply the five-finger discount to their ideas…

    1. That’s a good point – I haven’t mentioned the learning from mistakes element, and I think asking applicants to have a go at refereeing grant apps is a really good one.

      I love the ‘Costner Mind-Set to Impact” – can’t watch the video in work, but I think I get the idea. Could I tempt you to write that idea up as a guest blog post if you don’t have your own blog platform? I’ve already got a post about the ‘Star Wars error’ and one on Costner on impact would be great – creative/quirky names for grant writing errors hopefully illustrate the issue more memorably. Fine to write with full credit or anonymously, as you prefer. Drop me an email if you’re interested.

  2. Great post, Adam.

    I’ve never really thought that sharing applications could be a bad thing. I’ve certainly struck cargo cult thinking before, but I’ve also seen people do it with their own applications (“I did this last time and it worked”); advice from successful colleagues (“Prof Needs-Grant always does iit this way”) and, most frustratingly, my own advice (“But you said…” “Yes, but not for Every Single Thing”).

    Grant selection processes are black boxes, and black boxes promote magical thinking.

    I like my library of successful applications because it allows me to give people relevant good examples of precise parts of the application (“Have a look at how Prof Needs-Grant deals with that section”) or applications that use particular methodologies (“Here is an example of how to describe design methodologies in a way that a national funding council will understand”).

    As you said, it helps people to understand the genre, and find the right tone. These are all things that I can’t teach them (or not easily).

    Even a very old grant application can be useful, if it is the only example in that field that I have. Yes, the rules will have changed, but that is something I can fix relatively easily, as part of the on-going conversation about the application.

Comments are closed.