New grant opportunities may emerge when you are at your wit’s end. It is a fact of university life. When I started my first teaching job, a grant opportunity arose while I was planning a new course, hiring research assistants, and unpacking furniture. I pursued the grant to establish collaborations in my new academic institution and develop a line of research. But is it worth the considerable effort when there are many other demands on your time?
This is a question I often hear as a faculty member and while writing my book, The Grant Writing Guide: A Roadmap for Academicswhich is due out next year.
On the one hand, grants relieve you of your responsibilities and give you the stability to focus on your work by paying for your research time and equipment and supporting your collaborations.
On the other hand, writing a grant proposal is time consuming and the success rates are low. For example, I submitted an application last October to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Rockville, Maryland, which is part of the US National Institutes of Health. This application took me 68 hours and 11 minutes to write on a computer – time which I was careful to track exactly. It was less time than usual, because I had a few advantages: previous research in the field, experienced collaborators and pilot data. You may not have pilot data if you are embarking on a new area of research. It took me eight months to receive a decision on this grant. Success rates for this type of scholarship are currently 24%. At London-based funder Wellcome, success rates are around 13%, and at the European Research Council, success rates are estimated at 16% for seed grants.
Whether you should seek a grant depends on your priorities and your bandwidth. Here’s how I decide to go ahead with an app. Carefully review the grant announcement and answer the questions below. This simple list will help you weed out opportunities that aren’t a good investment of your time.
Are you eligible?
First check the eligibility criteria. It’s not worth going any further unless you know you qualify. The funder may have residency or educational requirements, or require you to hold a certain type of position. For example, the Australian Research Council Discovery Project requires the grantee to reside in Australia for at least 50% of their time during the project.
Are you doing the kind of work the funder wants to support?
Funders aim to be clear in their announcements about who and what they want to support. They are more likely to fund grants that match these goals. For example, the American Educational Research Association’s call for research grants seeks to fund “rigorous quantitative methods for examining large-scale data related to education.” Suppose your interview-based research creates qualitative tools. You could argue that your research is appropriate for the grant. But getting funding will be especially difficult because your work doesn’t align well with the funder’s goals.
How much work will this require?
A one-page submission will require less work than a 50-page submission. Although it may seem obvious, researchers are rushing to submit “less competitive” grant applications. They forget to check the submission requirements because they assume that a less competitive grant will require less work. This is not always true. The application requirements for these can sometimes be more intense than what is required for a “highly competitive” grant. Check the requirements early. If you need it, log in to the funder’s portal to see the submission requirements (which are not always in the announcement). Assess the potential scholarship amount, documents required for submission, time to submission, and your current workload. There is no perfect formula for considering these factors, but use your intuition and experience to weigh the time investment against the potential reward.
How competitive will it be?
Check the funder’s website to see if they publish submission and success rates. Consider how many prizes are awarded and if there will be more than one submission cycle. Do a search to see if you are connected to anyone who has received funding in the past. If there are award winners in your networks, reach out to them and ask about their experiences with the funder. Sharing experiences is an important way researchers help each other navigate the world of grant writing.
Does this ad match your priorities?
Your priorities may include working on certain types of ideas, funding your position, supporting interns, or reaching the next stage of your career. Invest your grant writing efforts in the areas you want to prioritize. To demonstrate, I want to focus on partnering with schools at this point in my career. So my collaborators and I submitted a grant application in February to the Spencer Foundation, an educational research funding organization in Chicago, Illinois, to support our partnership with a school district in Massachusetts.
Does this budget correspond to what you want to do?
Determine if the grant would support the level of work you want to do, the resources you need, and the collaborations you want to form. In February, a colleague and I applied for a grant worth US$15,000. In my field of psychology, $15,000 is relatively little. But this budget corresponds to what we hope to do: we want to collect pilot data in a research field new to both of us (science communication). In scoping out this work, we knew we would need money for focus groups and support for summer research time for two researchers and a graduate student. This $15,000 would help us achieve these goals.
Will it be a learning experience, even if you are not funded?
Most grants are not funded when first submitted. A report on funding practices in 21 countries shows that donor success rates range between 10% and 20%. At the US National Science Foundation (NSF), Principal Investigators submit approximately 2.3 proposals for each award they receive. Assess whether this line of work is compelling enough for you to be ready to submit, then submit it again. For example, in 2019 I submitted a grant proposal on how natural disasters affect higher education to NSF. It was not funded, but because I believed in the importance of this work, I rewrote the application in 2020 and submitted it to the Natural Hazards Center Rapid Response Fellowship Program. The Natural Hazards Center, based in Boulder, Colorado, funded the work. My first unsuccessful grant helped me crystallize my ideas and write a stronger second grant application.
It’s important to ask yourself these seven questions because you’re a busy researcher with limited bandwidth, and it’s important to use your limited time wisely.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place where Nature readers can share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.
Betty Lai is the author of the book mentioned in the text.