5 pitfalls to writing a winning grant application for your research

Get tips to secure your dream grant from two Reaxys PhD Prize winners and a research funder

Grant application webinar
The advice in this story is from a Researcher Academy webinar. You can find a link to the free webinar below.

Today’s researchers are under increasing pressure to find and secure sufficient funding for their projects. This process is especially challenging and time-consuming for early- to mid-career academics. While most existing resources focus mainly on analyzing successful applications, few focus on recognizing common pitfalls to help researchers learn from their mistakes.

Acknowledging this shortcoming, Researcher Academy addressed this issue in a recent webinar. Reaxys PhD Prize winners Dr. Jamie Hicks and Dr. Andrew Jupp share their experiences as early-career researchers applying for funding,  and Dr. Annalisa Montesanti, Lead Programme Manager for Health Research Careers at the Health Research Board, gives tips from a funder’s point of view. They to hone in on common mistakes that are not always obvious – and how to avoid them to secure your dream grant.

So, what makes for a weak grant application?

1. Failure to demonstrate importance of the topic or research ideas

Your grant’s judges consist of not only international peer reviewers who are experts in your field but also the funding panel of people from various scientific backgrounds. This means that not all of them will easily understand the meaning of your research topic and idea. Highlighting the significance of your research in layman’s language, therefore, is very important to boost your chance of being accepted.

2. Project is overly ambitious

Being ambitious is good and desirable. But if you plan to develop a striking method to cure cancer in just a few months or run a project that needs a huge investment of resources with a very limited budget, your ambition can quickly turn into infeasibility. Such infeasibility will ensure your grant application a prompt rejection as no funding body will want to fund a project that is not practical. Therefore, make sure the outcomes you want to deliver with your research fit well within the timeframe and available budget.

3. Inappropriate balance of researchers’ expertise and project’s complexity

If your research project is so complex that it will need a postdoc or even clinical fellows to be successfully completed, proposing only PhD students as researchers may not be enough. Though it sounds obvious, it is actually one of the most neglected mistakes applicants make. Making sure the proposed research staffs have relevant and appropriate expertise level for the complexity of the project will earn your application a plus point in the selection process.

4. Applicant team is missing critical skills or expertise

Another popular pitfall is the lack of critical skills that are essential for the success of the research project. The most common omissions include statistician, clinical trialist, qualitative researcher, behavioral scientist and health economist.

In this case, sometimes the applicant is funded anyway but with recommendations or advice from the selection panel to include an additional expert in the team. However, this omission will likely affect the overall assessment of your application negatively, so make sure to avoid it to maximize your chance for success.

5. No discussion of possible problems or limitations and no contingency plan

Many applicants perceive grant application as a selling proposal and avoid mentioning any potential negative aspects of their research ideas as they are afraid that will make their idea seem weaker and lower their chance of being accepted. However, this assumption has proven to be a misperception.

Funding bodies expect to be informed of not only the positive side of your research idea but also its potential problems or limitations and how you plan to address them. For example, if plan A does not work, are there any other plans and what do they look like? Discussing these details will show your risk-anticipating and problem-solving skills and capabilities, which will definitely earn your application extra points and raise its chance of being funded.

Watch the webinar

These are just few of the many the common pitfalls that can guarantee a failing grant application. You can learn more about these mistakes and how to avoid them in the full webinar in the Elsevier Researcher Academy.

Check out a tool to help you with your grants

You can increase your grant success rates with insights from Funding Institutional. If you have questions after doing so, you are welcome to post in the associated Mendeley Group, where the Research Academy team will try to find experts to advise you.



Written by

My Pham

Written by

My Pham

My Pham is a Marketing and Communications Intern at Elsevier, based in Amsterdam. Her previous roles include covering economic and political news as a Foreign Correspondent for Reuters in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. She has a master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Globalisation from the University of Amsterdam.


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