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Basics of grant writing

A positive reception of your research proposal lies largely in the way you deliver it. Key to writing a proposal is knowing exactly what is expected, giving them what they want while staying true to yourself, and distinguishing yourself from others. On this page you will find what to take into account when writing a winning proposal.

Information gathering

Once you have identified an appropriate funding scheme for your project’s particular requirements, you will need to write your research funding application. Most funding schemes have their own particular administrative requirements. It is important to make sure that you are using up-to-date application forms and that you prepare the requested supplementary documentation well in advance. Use the funding calendar page of the selected grant to guide you through the process and to ensure that you have everything you need and know what you need to do.

Get feedback and training

To increase your chances of success, Leiden University offers assistance at all kinds of levels. In addition to these pages, institutes and faculties offer peer review services. Furthermore, support staff organise courses and meetings at which successful applicants share their experiences. Check the funding calendar page of the selected grant regularly for events. Use the collective knowledge of Leiden University to optimize your proposal.

Have your idea ready before you start writing

Once you have gathered all the necessary documentation, the question rises as to how to proceed. In general, it is always a good idea to have a small one page proposal ready, in which you outline your preliminary thoughts and interests, and perhaps identify some possible outcomes of your research. Such a document also comes in handy when identifying suitable funding schemes. Test your idea with peers, to see whether it meets the criteria of originality and importance. Once you are satisfied, your main task is to transform this very rough ‘idea’ into a polished, compulsive read.

Write for your audience

Think of whom you are writing for and what the level of knowledge of your readers is. In the evaluation procedure described in the call, you can find out who will be reading your proposal. Describe to them how you fulfill the criteria which they are asked to evaluate. Highlight your project’s importance and urgency, and make clear why you are the person to conduct this research. Above all, do not indulge in irrelevant side-steps or anecdotes: keep your narrative linear and compulsive.

Major aspects of all research grants

Your final narrative should address two main points that will be scrutinized by the funding organization’s reviewers:

1. Academic merit of the proposal

The proposed research is of extremely high quality and stands a reasonable chance to answer an important question in the relevant field. The proposal consists of:

  1. a single overarching research question
  2. a hypothesis that may be falsified or confirmed
  3. a number of concise ‘sub’- questions or experiments that feed into the main narrative
  4. a clear methodology and theoretical framework for each of these sub-questions or experiments  
  5. clear deliverables or outcomes for each of these sub-questions or experiments

This is fairly consistent with what one might normally expect in any research paper. With the clear difference, of course, that a definitive answer to the research question is absent in your proposal. Yet it is remarkable how often proposals are submitted that lack one or several of these aspects.

In addition, you will need to show the quality of the practical implementation of the project, so think of the cohesion between the various researchers or groups that are involved in the project, feasible targets and time-frames and an appropriate management structure for the entire project. Depending on the nature of your project, you may also have to consider what happens to data that you will generate after the project has officially ended.

2. Academic quality of the applicants 

Do you have a suitable background to engage in the proposed project? This is measured primarily by your publication record, but also by other academic activities, such as service on academic boards, as a reviewer for prestigious journals, lectures to significant conferences, and – important if you propose to supervise PhD students or postdoctoral fellows – supervision and managerial experience. It is important to remember that the proposed research should fit your CV, but should not strike a reviewer as a repetition of or add-on to  your previous work: you should be qualified to do this research, but the project should break new ground.

3. Valorisation and impact

Depending on your specific call, valorisation, knowledge utilisation or impact might also be vital to your proposal. The only larger research funding organisation that has no interest in this aspect is the European Research Council. Virtually all other funders require a principal investigator to consider the impact of his or her research beyond the immediate field of enquiry. And identify tangible ways and/or partners to ensure that this impact is achieved within a reasonable period after the research project itself has been concluded. More information on how to achieve impact with your research.

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