Working Scientist podcast: Grant application essentials

Expert advice on how to get the details of a grant submission right, and planning for "curveball questions" if you are asked to deliver an oral presentation.
Julie Gould is a freelance science writer in London.

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It's the details that make a difference in a grant application and follow-up interview, Julie Gould discovers.

In the third episode of our series about funding, Peter Gorsuch, Chief Editor at Nature Research Editing Services, tells Julie Gould about the all-important details to include in your grant application.

Jernej Zupanc, who runs visual communication skills training for scientists, talks fonts, colours and other ways make your application easier to navigate.

And Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of UK and Europe Research Landscape at Wellcome Trust, London, describes how to prepare for a grant application interview presentation , including answers to some difficult questions.

Paid content: European Research Council

Alina Bădescu describes her research at the Faculty of Electronic, Telecommunications and Information Technology, University of Bucharest, and her experience of successfully applying for an ERC grant. Bădescu, an associate professor at the university, was invited to the ERC's HQ in Brussels for an interview as part of the application.

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It's the details that make a difference in a grant application and follow-up interview, Julie Gould discovers.

Julie Gould:

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the third part of our series on funding. And as with episodes one and two of this series, at the very end of this episode we'll also conclude with a third sponsored slot featuring the work of the European Research Council.

In the second episode, we heard from Anne-Marie Coriat and Peter Gorsuch on how to best prepare for writing a grant proposal, and the conclusions were: plan ahead, ask questions and get feedback. And these are a great starting point, but I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of the grant writing process, and as luck would have it, during one of our conversations, Peter talked about just that – the nitty gritty details that the grant reviewers will want to see in a proposal.

Peter Gorsuch:

They certainly need to know what you’re planning to do. That seems very obvious – that’s the whole point of the application is to say this is what I’m going to do – but actually some applications that I see succeed in this more than others, and there are certainly applications that are like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this and that and we’re going to learn to study that,’ and how are you going to do these things, and are you proposing work that’s feasible? Is this something that you’re capable of delivering? And those questions sometimes remain unanswered, simply because of a lack of detail. And most funding bodies, if not all, expect quite a lot of detail about actually how you’re going to do this in practice, so what machine are you going to use for things that require specialised machines, the analyses that are particularly difficult. There might be some, you know, you’re going to apply machine learning approaches to some things. Well, do you have the expertise to do that and if not, who are you going to collaborate with, or how are you going to obtain the skills and the tools necessary to do that? So, it’s that kind of really practical sort of down-to-earth thinking that the funding panel would be looking for because if you’ve got great ideas and great objectives but it’s out there in terms of the practicality, then actually that could be something that would worry the panel.

Julie Gould:

When we’re talking about specifics and practicalities, you’re talking at a granular level, really going down to the details of, I’m going to do this experiment three times, and I’m going to run it twice a week for x weeks. Are you talking that level of detail?

Peter Gorsuch:

Exactly that level of detail.

Julie Gould:


Peter Gorsuch:

And also, another thing that ties in with that precisely is the idea of risks, the idea of back-up plans. What happens if, for example, you’re doing some fieldwork that’s in extreme conditions or that kind of thing, that it’s tricky to do or you’re planning to produce a mutant that has such and such a quality as part of your work. What do you do if that doesn’t succeed? I don’t think you need to do that for every single step of the work, but you need to think carefully about what is the thing about this which is most likely to not go the way that I’m planning because the panel will know that as well, and they’ll be looking for a plan that accounts for those risks and that minimises them where possible but comes up with back-up plans.

Julie Gould:

Once you’ve got the grant written, the next challenge is to make sure that the reviewer reads more than just that all important abstract. Jernej Zupanc is the founder of Seyens, a company through which he runs visual communications workshops for scientists. On top of that, he’s also been a consultant for small businesses applying for Horizon 2020 funding, and he said that when you’re writing the grant proposal, you really need to put yourself in the shoes of the reviewer and think about what it is that they are seeing.

Jernej Zupanc:

Well, the most important thing is that whenever you are writing a grant proposal, you have to understand that on the other side of the table there is somebody who is also a human being, which means that they have their subjective ways of determining wants to fund and what’s not to fund, which means that you have to prepare the proposal in such a way that that person is not going to struggle with what you’re trying to explain, so you have to present it in such a way that is going to be understandable. They shouldn’t think more than necessary about what you’re trying to explain. So, I think that that would be the first thing to discuss with people who apply for grants. Then the second thing which is I think is more of a visual nature, is that you have to enable what is called skimming or scanning, which means that a person can look at your page and they can go over it in let’s say less than half a minute and they have to understand which topics you’re addressing on that page, what the main messages are. And then if there are visuals, when they see the visual, they have to understand what the main message of the visual is, what the purpose is, which means that when a validator is reading through the proposal and they can come, for example, to a paragraph, if it’s just completely dense, flat text, then they will have to read every word of it. But if you, for example, use approaches such as topical sentences, which means that the first sentence of the paragraph actually states the message which that paragraph then develops, then the validators will be able to read the first sentence, they will see whether there is something already familiar with, and then in that case they might skip it and they will focus on the parts of your proposal which are things that are of higher importance to them. Then the second thing I think is of fundamental nature is that you have to get to the point as fast as possible. If the validator is looking at your grant and then for the first three pages they just understand the background but they have no idea about what you’re going to do about it, then they’re in a way losing interest into it. So. what I usually propose is that if the grant applications allow you a format where it’s not so strict, that you start with something which is called a graphical abstract and make an executive summary, which means that the validator can just on one page go through the most important things about your proposal and they get this kind of walkthrough, they get this overview, this big picture about what’s going on. And then once they have that big picture in their mind, then they can use the details you provide in the following pages to somehow fill in all the questions they might still have to answer, but in general the big picture should always come before the details.

Julie Gould:

So, one thing that many people I have spoken to in the past have commented on, especially when I’m discussing this idea of skimming when it comes to a CV, is that people aren’t keen on using things like boldface type or colours in their CV. What is your perspective on using that type of tool for a grant proposal?

Jernej Zupanc:

When I’m writing grant proposals for businesses, those are not as conservative documents as we are used to in science, which means that in scientific grant proposal writing I think the approach would be a little less modern or a bit more traditional. However, if there’s one thing that I think can be introduced into scientific proposal writing really cleverly, it’s bold text. Of course, not overwhelming amounts of bold text, but just here and there, some things that should just not be skipped, I think that’s okay. When it comes to colour, it’s much more difficult. If I really, really summed up, use colour to add meaning, use colours to amplify and not to fancify because usually people just pick colours so the colour makes everything colourful, but this is really a waste of colour. It is in a way too overwhelming for people when they’re reading, so if you’re using colour it has to be really, really meaningful.

Julie Gould:

Can you go into a little more detail about the use of colour when it comes to graphic representation and font and texts and things like that for scientists who might be wanting to use that in their funding proposal?

Jernej Zupanc:

This goes across all types of applications, but one thing that you can do with is colour is that if there is a concept or something that you’re dealing with in your research that’s going to appear constantly, you can associate the colour with that, and then you use the same colour in your schemes, you will use the same colour in your gantt chart, you will use the same colour in the bar chart, then use the same colour in, for example, the charts like data visualisations which means that when somebody is going over 20 pages of your proposal, whenever they come to a colour they will have already associated that concept with that colour.

Julie Gould:

So, fingers crossed, all these tips combined will improve your chances of getting that funding proposal accepted, but something else to think about is that some funding bodies will actually need candidates to give an oral presentation as part of their application. Anne-Marie Coriat from the Wellcome Trust said that these are actually a really great opportunity for a candidate to update the review panel on any work that has been done since the grant proposal was submitted.

Anne-Marie Coriat:

It can be 3-6 months before an interview takes place, especially if there’s a triage process involved. So, there is an opportunity to see fit and update, and then to also provide some of the richer narrative around the application that you weren’t able to put in either because the page limits were restrictive or because actually you hadn’t covered that when you were thinking about putting your application together. So again, the key for any interview process is know what you have flexibility to do and practice, and practice with people who are used to doing this themselves. So, often in the institutions you will have people who are on panels that do interviews themselves. There will be people on promotion panels, people who do all sorts of interviews. Very often, universities will have the chance for individuals coming for interview for a grant application to have mock panels. There are some lovely little resources on the internet – Medical Research Council have got one, as have others – where they show physically the process of an interview. So, get to know what your funder is after and what they’re offering you, and then the critical thing is practice, practice, practice. And think of the worst questions you could possibly be asked and try and answer them as succinctly as you can. If you’re given the opportunity to present a slide or more than one slide, make sure that it is clear and that it isn’t cluttered – the usual advice that you get – and if you’re given the opportunity to provide a bit of richness around the proposal, make sure that you tackle those, ‘I realise that stage x in my proposal will make or break the direction in which I travel’, ‘If it works this way then I will be fine, if it doesn’t then these are my back-up plans.’ So always anticipate the worst thing that might happen in your own research proposal, don’t wait for somebody else to tell you because then you’ll be on the backfoot. Try and anticipate where people might think your research could fail or could be derailed potentially, and think about how you might respond to that so that essentially what you’re doing is you’re giving a very clear view that you not only understand the field, you understand what others are doing globally and you know how the experimental approaches that you are proposing might work or might not, and what you might do if there’s a problem.

Julie Gould:

At this point I want to thank our experts Elizabeth Pier, Peter Gorsuch, Anne-Marie Coriat and Jernej Zupanc for speaking to me for this series on funding. From them we’ve learnt that it’s really important to perfect your grant writing skills. But it’s equally important to understand the funding landscape within which you are working. So, stay tuned because that’s exactly what we’re going to be exploring in the next few episodes of this funding series on the Working Scientist podcast.

So that’s it for this section of the podcast, but we’ve now got a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

Alina Bădescu:

So I am Alina Bădescu and I’m an associate professor at the University Politehnica of Bucharest, and I’m working in the Faculty of Electronic, Telecommunications and Information Technology.

I am a radio engineer. That is my bachelor degree that I obtained, after which I did a Master's in Sweden in Chalmers University. I received a scholarship from the Swedish Institute whom I thank right now. And after the masters, I returned to Romania and I did my PhD in the same university where I currently work. Since then I have been working here in the Telecommunications Department, continuing in the radio field.

So, the science world in Romania is progressing and when you live here, you can see year by year things are improving. Of course, one has to be realistic and if you look, for example, at the ERC results, the grantees, you’ll see that eastern Europe is still far away from western Europe when it comes to results, but things are really beginning to change right now. I would say the scientific world is going on the right way. We are hopefully improving and I think those results will show up in the near future.

ERC grants are very hard to obtain, as you know. I mean the success rate is very, very small. I would say that I was kind of worst to apply for an ERC grant in the sense that in Romania, the grant competitions are sparse so when I applied actually I had no other choice but to go for the ERC grant because I really needed the money and the equipment to do some projects, some work, that I was really interested in. So, this is how I got to apply for the ERC grant.

Okay, so the ERC grant that I received is a starting grant for two years, and the amount was €180,000, and it concerns detection of cosmic neutrinos in salt mines. It’s a subject that I started working on in my PhD, and I got to a point where I needed to do experimental work. The grant has a very long name. It is ‘Radio wave propagation in heterogeneous media: implications on the electronics of Cosmic Neutrino Detectors’. We are a team of six, out of which three are postdocs and one a PhD student, and the salary covers our wages and also I have purchased the equipment necessary to do measurements in a few Romanian salt mines and that’s it. I mean we are a small team.

So, the ultimate goal of a neutrino detector in a salt mine would be to trace the highest energetic sources in this universe, which could be supermassive black holes or gamma ray bursts or anything extremely energetic. As a general comment, you can do that by observing the source, well let’s say pointing your radio telescope towards that source or you can observe it indirectly. And one such method to study energetic sources is to observe and measure what they produce. One of the products that we are interested in our neutrinos, and why is that? Neutrinos are some particles which can travel the universe without being deflected by the magnetic field. So, if they travel in a straight line, let’s say, if one detects a neutrino on Earth and reconstructs the direction, we will know for sure that in that direction we have a high energetic source. So, one needs a huge volume of high density material just to enhance the interaction of the neutrino. One such medium is salt reservoir, salt mines. But when a neutrino will interact in a salt mine, it will produce a radio wave because salt allows propagation of radio waves on large distances. And we need that, we need propagational large distances because we need more detectors to measure the same radio signal, and once we have more radio stations which detect the same radio signal, we can reconstruct the direction where a high energetic source is, so location of a supermassive black hole. So it’s kind of astronomy done with detection of neutrinos, and nowadays, as far as I know, we are the only group in Europe which is studying the effect of cosmic neutrinos in salt mines. The universe is formed by many black holes and very massive black holes are of interest because people are ultimately interested in the evolution and what the universe is made from.

So, I wrote the proposal in 2015, and I think in April 2016 I received an email in which I was informed my grant passed to the first evaluating stage and that I will be invited in Brussels for an interview for the second step. I think it was in June when I went to Brussels for the interview and I had to present my project to the reviewers. And after that, I waited for two more months I think, and in August I received a congratulating email in which it was announced that my grant will be financed. I read the email and I couldn’t believe it. It was really, really good. I mean I was more than surprised. To be honest I didn’t expect to receive the grant because of the high competition so anyway I was very, very happy.

Well, as I always say, if you don’t apply then you won’t get the grant. Well the first step in obtaining the grant is to apply for a grant. And as hard as it may sound, it’s not impossible. I mean if I could do it, anybody can, so I would advise as many researchers to apply for it. I would advise Romanian researchers to apply for it, and in Romania, for example, if you pass the first evaluating stage but your project is not financed, the Romanian state will give you I think half of the money that you applied for initially, to do this project and of course this is a measure to encourage applications for such grants. So, good luck everybody.