Episode 22 – How to write successful grant applications

Applying for grants is an experience common to all researchers and with success rates for many funding schemes extremely low, any advice to improve the chance of success for your application is very welcome!

In this episode, Jen and Michael were thrilled to have the chance to chat with Jonathan O’Donnell and to pick his brains about how to write a successful grant application.

Jonathan is the right person to seek advice from because in his job, he helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia (all opinions are his own). He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990’s (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X.

And if you’re interested in learning more about crowdfunding, you can look forward to an episode in our next season in which we chat with Jonathan again and learn all about the role of crowdfunding in research. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, you can follow Jonathan and learn more about his work here:


Jen (00:00:00)
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:33)
Hello and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m Jen and I am very excited about today’s episode.
And of course, I’m also thrilled to be joined by my wonderful friend and colleague Michael. Hi Michael.

Michael (00:00:48)
Hi Jen, I’m also thrilled for today’s episode because we are going to be talking all about how to get funding for your research, which is a really important part of being a researcher, but it’s also a domain of science communication. Now to help get some extra perspective on this topic, we have the pleasure of being joined by Jonathan O’Donnell. Jonathan, welcome to the podcast.

Jonathan (00:01:12)
Hello, thank you very much for having me.

Michael (00:01:15)
It’s our pleasure Jonathan. Now you are behind the hugely popular Research Whisperer blog and Twitter account, which I’d love to hear more about in a moment
But you mainly help researchers find funding in your capacity as a Senior Research Initiative coordinator at the Faculty of Science, here at the University of Melbourne. So you’re really invested in this area Jonathan. And you’ve got a wealth of experience. So we count ourselves lucky to know you.

Jonathan (00:01:42)
I’m a little bit too invested in this, yes. I did the Research Whisperer with my colleague Tseen Khoo from Latrobe University.
And I am contractually obliged to say that all opinions are my own. I am not reflecting the University of Melbourne at the moment.

Jen (00:01:59)
Perfect Jonathan, thank you. So Michael, I have to jump in now and tell you how lucky I feel to know Jonathan because I have had the chance to work with Jonathan a few times, presenting some workshops together.
But Jonathan, I feel like we need to begin by you just telling us a little bit about your career path because you know so much about this stuff. How did you get interested in funding? And tell us your story, please.

Jonathan (00:02:23)
Sure. So I did a very lacklustre Bachelor of Arts at ANU; took me about five years to do a three-year degree. At the end, even though every student in ANU swears they’re never going to work for public service, I started working for the public service to finish off that final subject that I needed to do. I was in the, what was in the Department of Science. And there were people down the corridor who were having a much better time than I was in the part that I was in. And so when they had an opening, I applied for it. I had very little idea of what they did. That is what is now the Australian Research Council.
So I spent a year working for them. And that was fabulous. I fell in love, I moved to Melbourne, I broke up as you do. And I went to an interview at the Research Office at RMIT and I said well, I’ve worked for a year with the Australian Research Council and they just went, we want you and I win, OK. And I’ve kind of gone from there. I basically spent a lot of time either in a central research office or in a research centre, or some part of the university. And part of my role has always been trying to bring in money because that’s the lifeblood of the university. Yeah.

Michael (00:04:00)
Fantastic. So Jonathan, from your sophisticated perspective on this — So I wonder if you could help paint a picture of the research landscape in Australia, especially for researchers who might be new to this. Thinking about some common questions like who are the main funders of research in Australia? What types of things do they fund? What are the differences between finding money for projects versus salaries? And maybe some of the hoops that researchers have to jump through to actually apply for funding.

Jonathan (00:04:31)
Sure, there are three research councils in Australia that are at the federal level that are the main funders of research. There’s the Australian Research Council who fund everything except health related research. There’s the National Health and Medical Research Council that fund health research. And there’s the Australia Council for the Arts that funds practising artists in art schools at universities.
For most of your listeners, I suspect they’re either applying to the Australian Research Council or the National Health and Medical Research Council. The problem with applying for those, particularly if you’re starting out, is they have a success rate of roughly 15 to 20% right? And it’s a very bifurcated system. So if you’re at one of the kind of seven or eight big universities of Australia, really successful universities of Australia, the success rate is probably 25%. But if you’re at something like the University of the Sunshine Coast, or RMIT University or some of the, the less well-funded research universities, then your success rate drops to like 10% right? It gets really hard.
And the way to think about success rates is they’re actually failure rates. So your chance of failing at one of those is 80% or more. If you are starting out, I think you really want to think like a kindergarten. Kindergartens are fantastic, right? They seem… Well, I don’t know what they’re like now, but I have an image of them sending kids home with chocolate to sell around the neighbourhood and running raffles and having a fete and having a working bee, being really creative about where you get your funding from.
A lot of people come to their PhD and then two universities having had a career. So if you can go to your industry, broadly understood, whether that’s education or whether that’s like museums or whether it’s actual for-profit industries and work with them, and get them to the point where they trust you and you understand what they need. Then it takes a much longer time, but your chance of getting funded is up around the 80/90% mark. ‘Cause you’re not competing against anyone else. You’re having a conversation with them about what you bring to solve their problems.
The other space is philanthropic funding. So you’ve got people who are trying to essentially solve social problems. And you might be like you’re looking at a biology issue, or you’re looking at a like a physics issue, but there’s also an educational component where you might find that a philanthropic organisation is happy to work in that education space with you. Or if you’ve got an environmental issue that you’re trying to address, they also work in that space.
And they’re not looking for what’s your h-index, how many things have you published. They’re looking for evidence that you’re able to work with community groups to solve an actual problem, right? And that becomes a different kind of equation. You’re suddenly, you’re not competing with professors and associate professors. You’re competing with the local Rotary Club, and it’s a different kind of competition.
The other thing to think about is we think about the big research councils because they do provide the bulk of the money, right? But every government department almost has some sort of funding scheme that it runs or is trying to solve problems. And that’s at the federal level, that’s at the state level, that’s at the council level. And so people forget that you can solve a problem at a national level, but you can also address a problem at a local level. And so there’s a lot of funding there that you can build up as well. And again, you’ve got a better chance of getting it because you’re not in the space where everyone normally thinks Oh, we should go to the research councils for funding.

Michael (00:08:40)
Hmm yeah, that’s fascinating.

Jen (00:08:43)
So Jonathan, I think you’ve done a really great job of highlighting that there are lots of options out there. You know, there are lots of groups that potentially have money that need to solve problems. And I think that’s a great message because there’s so much anxiety in the system because the success rates with the big funding schemes are so low.
But I am interested to hear your thoughts on the criteria that many of these funding bodies are using. So I’m thinking about a young scientist who’s listening to us, who’s starting to look for funding. What’s your advice? What are the really important things that that person should be doing to try and become more competitive?

Jonathan (00:09:18)
Yeah OK. I’m not going to talk about building up your CV in terms of writing publications or stuff like that, because that’s something you do anyway as a researcher, right? And yes, you will be judged on your CV. It’s really weird. We use double-blind review for everything except funding. And I really wish we used more double-blind review for funding ’cause it would concentrate on the ideas rather than on track record.
You want to think about what is the person asking you to do rather than what are you interested in doing? And the classic example there would be something like there’s a specific fund to address asthma, right? And issues to do with asthma. And they will find anything to do with asthma. But they only fund stuff to do with asthma. And your interest is in I don’t know, runny noses. I’m not associated with health at all, so I don’t have a good example. But something that’s kind of almost like asthma, but it’s not asthma, right? And you will fail.
And that comes a lot. You see it where someone really just wants to do their own research and they’re going to a funding agency that has a specific set of criteria. And the other reason we go to the big research councils is ’cause in the main, their criteria is excellence. So you can fund the stuff you’re interested in, because as long as you are excellent at it, as long as you’re in the, in the top 10 to 20% at it, they will fund you, even if it’s just this is what I’m interested in doing. But with almost every other funder, it’s like tell us how you’re going to address our guidelines, our criteria to give us what we need.
The other thing that you want to do is just kind of get down off your soapbox. So I read a lot of applications, or in the past I’ve read a lot of applications that are… either they’re not really research in that you’ve got a bee in your bonnet and you think you know how to solve it and so you’ve already answered the question. Like you put up a Dorothy Dixer question and then the rest of your application is showing that you know how to solve that question, right? And that’s not research. There’s no new… there’s no risk, there’s no kind of stuff. So that you get that problem.
But the other problem you get is just where you speak like you’re speaking to a bunch of academics, not just in your discipline, but in your specialised subdiscipline. It’s not just you’re using the language of mathematics, but you’re using the language of you know Sub-Newtonian mathematics that only applies to physics. And sure, there’s five other people in the world that will absolutely get what you’re doing, but none of them are going to read your application. You need to speak with confidence, right? You’re not begging, right? You’re not saying, “Oh, no one at my university understands me. I’m such a genius”. No one can get what I’m talking about, right? That’s not going to work. And you’re not saying, please give it to me, because I’ve just had such a hard time, if I could only get a break. That’s not going to work either. Assume a cloak of confidence where you’re saying “Look, I know what I know. And I think that this will take us in an interesting direction. Here’s the way I plan to do that”, right?
The other one where I really see people get it wrong in terms of how to talk about this, how to write about this is they don’t ask for money. It’s like here’s 8 pages on what I’m going to do, and my budget is just give me $250,000 with no detail, with no thing that links back to the project. Because you’re trying to build their confidence in you and you’re trying to reduce their sense of risk. And the best way to do that is to say this is who I am, this is who my team is, this is what we can do, this is what we’ve done in the past, and here’s where we’re going to go in detail in the future to reach this goal.

Michael (00:13:31)
So Jonathan, I think we’re touching on some things here about how to make an application really stand out. And you mentioned risk there, which I think is really interesting. Is it a bit of a balance? Because on one hand, you do want to generate new knowledge where you are taking a bit of a risk. But on the other hand you don’t want to be taking too much risk where the funders might think well, maybe this project is not going to work out. I mean, what’s the balance between those?

Jonathan (00:13:57)
Yeah, OK, intellectual risk is not usually the problem, right? As long as you’re not saying, “I can create a perpetual motion machine” or more to the point, your peers would understand that what you’re saying is a logical next step for the field, that’s fine, even if it’s a bit of a jump. Where risk comes into it is you’re applying for 35 million dollars, and the largest amount you’ve ever managed in the past was you know, the football tipping competition, which was worth about $3. And all of a sudden there’s a gap there, right?
The other way you see that is you’re looking to do something in a place that you’ve never been to before. Like field work, for example. You know, I’ve done a lot of field work in Victoria. Now, I want to go and do field work in Minabwe or somewhere. I don’t know that that’s even a place. And there’s language difficulties and there’s culture difficulties and there’s you know, other issues around that. And if you can’t show that you’ve thought through those issues, then people won’t trust that you know what you’re doing. So it’s those practical kind of risks that you’re seeking to reduce, not intellectual risk.

Michael (00:15:15)
OK, yeah, execution risk rather than intellectual risk.

Jonathan (00:15:20)
If someone is going to give you and mostly it comes down to like the way to measure it mostly is money. If someone’s going to give you $300,000 per year for the next three years, they want to know that you have the capacity to manage that process. And if you’ve never done that before, it can be real challenge to show how you do that.
And there’s you know, there’s a bunch of ways you can do that. You can say “Oh, look, I’ve got a steering committee of eminent people who are going to guide me. I’m working with a very senior colleague and they’ve agreed to mentor me through this process. I’m leading the team ’cause it’s my idea. But we’ve got professor done this before, who’s also on the team. They’ll be managing the project management part of it”. You can borrow authority from other people is one way to do it.
The other way to do it is, “I haven’t managed this amount of money in a single grant before, but I managed 5 grants added together are of this size”. So my research program has been kind of a you know, this size. Yeah, I haven’t been to the middle of Africa before but I have done some research in Vanuatu and so I can anticipate what some of the problems are, that sort of thing. You just got to think about what are the questions that are going to come up? You’ve got to get someone else to read your application and talk with you about it.

Jen (00:16:41)
I’m just sitting here listening to you. And I just feel like you are one of the strongest advocates out there for why learning to be a good communicator is just so important. Because so much of what you’ve said is you need to understand your audience, you need to pitch really carefully and in a really targeted way to that particular audience. Then, you need to be clear, you need to be concise, you need to be persuasive.
I’m sure I’m not putting words in your mouth to say that writing a well-written document, assuming that the submission you’re putting in is a written document, I just feel like everything you’re saying speaks to the fact that if you’re not a good communicator, it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are, it’s going to be harder to get funding. Is that a fair thing to say?

Jonathan (00:17:20)
Yeah, we absolutely see people, applicants or academics who have English as a second language, who are getting their applications edited by a colleague, right? And I think that’s a good thing to do. It’s a tough thing to do because it adds to the workload and adds to the length of time to do things. But you’re applying by and large to an Australian, mostly white, mostly middle-aged, mostly male audience. And they have a low tolerance for not being able to understand what you’re talking about. And that varies slightly across funders, but not a lot. Mostly it varies in terms of equity issues and you get a more balanced board where you get male and female.
But they still need to, to be clear about what you’re doing and about how you’re going to do it. And it’s, it’s surprisingly difficult to sit down and say “I’ve got this idea. How am I actually going to make it work? How am I going to make it work over a two year or a three year period?” I know what I’m going to do in the first three months. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do in the first year. But as I go forward, it get fuzzier and fuzzier. And you’ve, you’ve got to be able to present about… Everyone understands that it’s research, and then it will vary from the plan, right? If you’re not changing what you’re doing, then you probably knew the answer already. But you’ve got to have a plan to be able to demonstrate that there’s a coherence to this that, that will work.
The other thing I see in terms of kind of not being able to put the message across clearly is I haven’t written about a research project, I’ve written about a program of research. So this is like you’re applying for three years’ worth of funding, but you’ve put 10 years worth of ideas in, right? It’s an open bounded ‘Ah. If we had but world enough and time’. And I see that a lot. Where it’s just like actually, I haven’t thought about this as a project that has a start and an end. I just had this idea and I’ll keep working on it until it’s done. And your funder’s not going to buy that either.

Michael (00:19:33)
Yeah. Jonathan, I’m curious about some of the changes that might have been occurring in terms of what funding bodies really are looking for. And are you seeing a shift in what they’re looking for?
So I’m thinking about things like engagement and impact, techniques like co-design of research, you know? And we’re a science communication podcast and I know dissemination plans are also a part of a lot of applications. How do funding agencies think about those things?

Jonathan (00:20:06)
Yes and no. Like we’re seeing them yes, but we’re also not. So across the board — I have a T-shirt. I haven’t worn it today, but I have a T-shirt that says ‘Read the guidelines’, right? Funding agencies are a very special audience in that they try really, really hard to tell you what they want. Most audiences don’t do that. They give you a written documentation that says here’s what we want, do this. So the Australian Government absolutely is trying to emphasise impact beyond academia, so impact real world, if you like, impact, and demonstration of value for money. That’s… yes, there’s already a whole bunch of funding organisations that emphasise that already, right?
In terms of dissemination. Again, there’s a lot of people that want that already, mostly through partnering with people. So they’re saying, they’re saying in their guidelines either you must have a partner or you are encouraged to partner with someone not in academia. And that builds in that kind of dissemination angle. Where we’re seeing it most strongly is in really big grants. So I’m thinking about the Centres of Excellence. These are 35 million dollars over what, five years. They will often have someone on the team who is explicitly an expert in research communication. And they will often hire someone specifically to do engagement with the public. But you’ve got to get to that level before you can afford that, right?
So what we’re seeing… And a way to answer your question Michael is, are we seeing the people who have the most Twitter followers get funded? No, we’re not. So it’s not having an effect at that level. Where we are seeing it is where, where we’re seeing guidelines that say: How are you going to get this message out? What’s going to happen beyond the project? And that’s really hard because a lot of researchers, not just scientists, social scientists as well, they absolutely know what’s going to happen during their project and how they’re going to get to the point they’re trying to get to in their project. What happens after the project? That’s not in their control. And so they feel really anxious about writing for something that they you know, there’s a great paper where they interviewed people about this. And one said, I can verify that everything in my application is true and correct up to the point where they’re asking me about impact and dissemination. And then I feel like I’m making stuff up, right? And research is not about making stuff up.
So it, it’s hard. We’re seeing it, but we’re not seeing it to the point where it makes a difference whether you get the money or not. I know you would love that but it’s not the case. It’s an important part. A bad idea communicated well will not get funded. A good idea, even if it’s probably going [to be] communicated badly, will get funded, right? What we want to see is good ideas communicated well, but that’s, that’s a different issue.

Michael (00:23:21)
Hmm. And I think that’s a great segue to something else I wanted to ask you about Johnathan.
I wanted to ask you a bit about the work you do with the Research Whisperer. How did you get involved here and what is it that you do?

Jonathan (00:23:33)
Sure, so Tseen Khoo and I both started in the same role in different parts of RMIT at the same time. And we met one another and we just went ah, this is fantastic. We really liked working together and we were looking for opportunities to work together. Inger Mewburn was just publishing The Thesis Whisperer and having a great time doing it and we went we could do that, but we could do it for grants.
And so if, well… since COVID we haven’t had a regular publishing schedule, but up until COID every Tuesday we would publish 1000, 1500 hundred words on doing research in academia, sometimes very prosaic, how to write a budget, how to write a research plan. Sometimes much more kind of about the spirit of things. Katie Mack, @AstroKatie wrote a piece for us on just how hard it was to form a relationship when you are a postdoc ’cause you’re moving to a different state, to a different country, to a different continent every three years, until you find where you settle down. So stuff like that.
So we do the blog and we love Twitter. So we’re very active on Twitter. And we just basically talk about what it’s like to do research in academia. What the problems are, what the good thing are.

Jen (00:24:55)
And we love you, as does your enormous audience. Jonathan, we’re so aware of your expertise in this space, and I’m pretty sure we’re gonna ask you back ’cause I’d actually like to do a whole episode on crowdfunding at some point.
But we do need to jump on. What we haven’t warned you about is that at the end of all of our episodes we do a little, a section on rapid fire questions.

Jen (00:25:24)
So we just have a couple of quick questions for you, quick answers.
So I’m gonna start with: If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?

Jonathan (00:26:07)

Jen (00:25:35)
Love it, love it.

Jonathan (00:25:38)
Either that or I just update Wikipedia forever.

Michael (00:25:44)
Next question, Jonathan. What is your proudest professional moment?

Jonathan (00:25:50)
Ah, that’s a bit tough. No, it’s not tough at all. One of those Centres of Excellence that I mentioned.
Just before I left RMIT, they’d never applied for one before. I helped them do their bid, and it wasn’t me that won it, but I was really proud when they got it.
I was really, really proud, and it’s about, it’s a centre to, to look at the effect of algorithms on our life. How do we regulate them? How does society deal with an algorithmic world? It’s a great issue.

Jen (00:26:24)
Hmm, I can understand a huge amount of reward coming from being involved with that.
Next question I think you’ve already answered to be honest. Twitter or Instagram?

Jonathan (00:26:34)
Twitter. I’m on Instagram. I’ve done Instagram.
But I just… Twitter. Even though sometimes it’s a bin fire.

Jen (00:26:43)

Michael (00:26:46)
Jonathan, what’s your favourite science related movie or book?

Jonathan (00:26:51)
Probably… What’s the one where Jodie Foster goes in the, the ah god…

Jen (00:26:58)

Jonathan (00:27:00)
Contact. Contact, yeah.

Jen (00:27:02)
Excellent choice.
I think Michael we’re going to have to start sharing all of these great tips we’re getting from guests.

Michael (00:27:08)
Yeah, we should compile a list, yeah.

Jen (00:27:11)
OK Jonathan, last tip.
You’ve already given us so much great advice in the last half hour or so.
But if you had to narrow down to one tip for somebody who needs funding, wants funding, what is your top tip to help somebody get funding for their research?

Jonathan (00:27:27)
Read the guidelines, to read the guidelines, to read the guidelines.
It’s the one space where you are writing where you will get very clear advice about what your audience wants.
Just give them what they want in spades, as much as you can.

Michael (00:27:46)
Sounds like we should be going around with that printed on our T-shirts.

Jonathan (00:27:50)
I have a T-shirt already. If you look on, on … (RedBubble)  you’ll be able to find it.

Michael (00:27:27)
Oh brilliant.
Well thank you so much Jonathan, that’s been really great advice and much appreciated.

Jonathan (00:28:03)
Thank you, it’s a joy.

Jen (00:28:05)
Thanks Jonathan.

Scarlett (00:28:15)
Hi, I’m Dr Scarlett Howard. I’m an early career researcher in the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University. I’m also the head of the Integrative Cognition, Ecology and Bio-inspiration (ICEB) Research Group, where we look at insect behaviour, the impact of environmental change, and the application of bee learning to bio-inspired technologies.
Now let’s talk about applying for funding. At this stage of my career, which is 3 years out from my PhD, I’ve applied for fellowships, postdocs and grants such as ARC funding and various public and private foundations. My top tip would be to let your enthusiasm shine through. There’s something to be said for showing your deep love for a project and the motivation to do research. Having been successful and unsuccessful at different positions and funding, I know that the projects which I was most passionate about and wrote with a little bit of love sprinkled in there were the ones that got funded.
I can’t say too much for the assessor side of things as I’ve had limited experience in assessing applications for funding. But speaking to mentors who’ve read my funding applications, the thing that gets pointed out time and time again to me is that you can feel my love for the work that I do through the application. And they said to never lose that.
I would say that where I’ve been unsuccessful, it was often projects that I had researched deeply and written perfectly, but that I had less enthusiasm for. I can only assume that the assessor can feel that when they read through my applications. The way to do this is to be fairly positive in your writing, even if it’s a challenging topic where you do have to point out the negative consequences of not acting to justify your application, but just don’t overly dwell on the negative things. And I’ve been guilty of this in the past. So let your enthusiasm come through and enjoy the writing process.

Andrew (00:30:06)
Hello, my name is Dr Andrew Katsis and I’m a behavioural ecologist who studies songbirds.
When I submitted my first ever grant application as a masters student, I made a rookie mistake. I had slaved away at this proposal. The prose was well written and nicely organised, with a detailed budget that listed every predicted expense. But in my excitement, I forgot to specify exactly how much money I was asking for. I know, a very rookie mistake. Because of this, the grant reviewer assumed I was demanding $7000, five times the average grant amount and rejected my application with all the contempt and indignation of a cornered honey badger. In a nutshell, my mistake was that I made my reviewers join too many of the dots themselves.
A good student grant application should make it seem as though your project is already a done deal. Everything is accounted for, you’re ready to start collecting data and the only thing that’s holding you back is that final $1500 that you need for camera traps or lab supplies. If some aspects of your project are already funded, then highlight that in your budget. That’s not a weakness, that’s a strength. And if you don’t have any other funding yet, be sure to explain how you’re planning to cover the rest of your budget. For example, mention the other grant program that you will apply to.
Because your proposal will go up against dozens of other excellent research projects, you also need to join the dots about what makes your research so important. Your project must include answers to both of the following questions. (1) What gap in our knowledge is your research filling? And (2) What are the practical applications of your findings? These answers shouldn’t be buried in the subtext. They should be your main point, the grant equivalent of shouting from the rooftops. Look at this important and vital research! Your reviewers will say, “And would you believe it. They only need $1500 to make it happen”. Happy grant writing everyone.

Michael (00:32:35)
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