Best practice in preparing a grant application

Writing a grant application is a major undertaking. You are entering a fierce competition for funding. It is crucial to submit a strong proposal first time round since many funders do not accept resubmissions. We offer some guidance on things to think about before you start, what should you include, and tips on writing style and presentation.

Get prepared

  • Guidelines: each funder will have specific criteria for specific schemes. Ensure that you are awaren of the generic and scheme specific application requirements and process. Failure to complete basic information may lead to rejection at the first stage of funder review.
  • Assessment criteria: check the assessment criteria carefully to ensure that you can meet all of the criteria before investing significant time in developing the proposal. Failure to meet the assessment criteria is one of the main reasons why proposals are not successful.
  • Eligibility criteria: check that the University (and collaborating institutions) and all investigators are eligible for the scheme.
  • Registration: establish the funder’s application process and identify / complete any pre-submission registration requirements for online submission.
  • Timelines: develop a feasible timeline with draft application deadlines. Be realistic about the time it can take to write and revise the application. Be sure to build in time for department and University approval of both the costs and the application.

Content of the proposal

You will need to describe the proposed research, stating its significance and how it will be conducted.

  • It's best not to leave it to the peer review panel to ask (and answer) questions.
  • Show that you have thought the proposal through and explain how it will succeed.
  • Remember that the reviewers may not be an expert in your research area.
  • Always keep in mind the published criteria that the reviewers will use to score.

A good research proposal will:

  • Formulate the problem to be addressed
  • Clearly state the aims and objectives (preferably bullet point)
  • Have a clear work plan (what will be done when and how the parts relate)
  • Describe appropriate research design and methods
  • Outline plans for data collection, storage and analysis
  • Justify all requested resources
  • Highlight potential users and user engagement
  • Show that you have considered ethical issues
  • Cite all key publications
  • Outline a dissemination strategy
  • Convey your skills and competencies
  • Convey your genuine interest, understanding and enthusiasm
  • Address any potential difficulties and explain how you will deal with them

In short: What is the story, why does it matter, why now, and why you? Generally reviewers are asked to consider:

  • Research quality and originality
  • Timeliness and context
  • Aims and objectives and their link to methodology
  • Methods (different to methodology but must link)
  • Dissemination of results
  • Impact on academic area, on user community, industry, policy makers
  • Planning and project management
  • Ability of investigator to do the project
  • Value for money

Writing tips

To succeed in peer review, you must win over the assigned reviewers. The following tips will help you write and organise your application so that the reviewers can readily grasp what you are proposing.

  • Use plain English. Always describe your research in terms that are easily understood by peer reviewers who might not be an expert in your research area. Include enough background information to enable them to understand your proposed work, but be clear and concise. 
  • Think like a reviewer. Since most funders impose a word count and ask that materials are organised in a particular format, reviewers become accustomed to finding information in specific sections of the application. They must often read many applications in great detail and form an opinion about each, so organising your application to effortlessly guide them through it will give you a better chance at being successful. Make a good impression by submitting a clear, well-written, properly organised application. Identify weak links in your application so the application you submit is solid, making a strong case for your project.
  • Make one point in each paragraph. This is key for readability. Write simple, clear sentences of 20 words or less.
  • Have a realistic budget. Before you start writing the application, think about the budget and how it is related to your research plan. Remember that everything in the budget must be justified by the work you propose to do.
  • Be realistic. Don't propose more work than can be reasonably done during the proposed project period. Make sure that the personnel have appropriate scientific expertise and training.
  • Why this project? You must capture the reviewers' attention by making the case for why they should fund your research rather than one of the other bids competing for the limited money available. Explicitly tell reviewers why testing your hypothesis is worth their money, why you are the person to do it, and how Sheffield will give you the required support to get it done. Where possible, say how your research project fits within funder's mission and vision.
  • Be convincing. Use the active, rather than passive, voice. For example, write "We will develop an experiment," not "An experiment will be developed". Make your points as directly as possible.
  • Be clear and don't waffle. Be clear and concise, and use sub-headings, short paragraphs, bullets and numbered lists and bold print to make the application as easy to navigate and read as possible. Be specific and informative, and avoid redundancies. Use diagrams, figures and tables, and include appropriate legends, to help the reviewers to understand complex information.

Pre-submission tips

  • Allow sufficient time to put the completed application aside, and then edit it from a fresh vantage point.
  • Ask colleagues within and outside of your department to review and comment on your proposals. Remember that panel members may not be specialists, and clarity and ability to convey your research to non-specialists is crucial. The application should be easy to understand by all. Some schemes (e.g. EPSRC Fellowships) use your ability to convey science in simple language as an assessment criterion. A non-specialist view will help to pick out areas that may not be well explained, but which you and colleagues to not identify due to your closeness to the subject. Your Research Growth Officer will be happy to provide an objective critique of your application.
  • Be sure to leave yourself sufficient time to learn and complete any online submission system. Keep in mind that such electronic systems often 'slow down' in the hours immediately before a deadline. If in doubt, contact the Pricing Team for assistance.

Who to contact

Your Faculty Research Growth Officer can offer advice and support with all aspects of writing a grant application.

Contact us