New grant opportunities can emerge when you’re stretched thin. That’s a fact of scholarly life. When I started in my first faculty position, a grant opportunity came up while I was preparing a new course, hiring research assistants and unpacking furniture. I pursued the grant to establish collaborations at my new academic institution and develop a line of research. But is it worth expending considerable effort when there are many other demands on your time?
This is a question I hear often as a faculty member and while writing my book, The Grant Writing Guide: A Road Map for Scholars, which is due out next year.
On one hand, grants take responsibilities off your plate and give you stability to concentrate on your work by paying for your research time and equipment, and supporting your collaborations.
On the other hand, writing a grant proposal takes a long time, and success rates are low. For example, I submitted an application last October to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Rockville, Maryland, part of the US National Institutes of Health. This application took me 68 hours and 11 minutes to write at a computer — time I was careful to track exactly. This was less time than usual, because I had a few advantages: previous research in the area, experienced collaborators and pilot data. You might not have pilot data if you’re branching out into a new research area. It took me eight months to receive a decision on that grant. Success rates for this type of grant are currently 24%. At the London-based funder Wellcome, success rates are around 13%, and at the European Research Council, success rates are an estimated 16% for starting grants.
Whether you should pursue a grant depends on your priorities and bandwidth. Here’s how I decide whether to go ahead with an application. Look closely at the grant-funding announcement and run through the questions below. This simple list will help you to rule out opportunities that are not a good investment of your time.
Are you eligible?
Check the eligibility criteria first. It’s not worth going any further unless you know you qualify. The funder might have residency or degree requirements, or require you to hold a certain type of position. For example, the Australian Research Council Discovery Project requires that the person leading the grant resides in Australia for at least 50% of their time during the project.
Do you do the kind of work the funder wants to support?
Funders aim to be clear in their announcements about who and what they want to support. They are most likely to fund grants that align with these goals. For instance, the American Educational Research Association‘s call for research grant proposals wants to fund “rigorous quantitative methods to examine large-scale, education-related data”. Suppose your interview-based research builds qualitative tools. You could argue that your research is appropriate for the grant. But it will be especially difficult to secure funding, because your work is a poor match for the funder’s goals.
How much work will this require?
A one-page submission will be less work than a 50-page submission. Although this might seem obvious, scholars jump into submitting ‘less competitive’ grant applications. They forget to check submission requirements because they assume a less competitive grant will be less work. This is not always true. Application requirements for these can sometimes be more intense than what’s required for a ‘highly competitive’ grant. Check requirements early. If you need to, log into the funder’s portal to see submission requirements (which are not always in the announcement). Assess the potential award amount, documents required for submission, time until submission and your current workload. There is no perfect formula for considering these factors, but use your intuition and experience to weigh time investment against potential reward.
How competitive will this be?
Check the funder’s website to see whether it publishes submission and success rates. Examine how many awards are given and whether there will be more than one submission cycle. Search to see whether you are connected with anyone who has received funding in the past. If there are award recipients in your networks, reach out and ask about their experiences with the funder. Sharing experiences is an important way in which scholars help each other to navigate the grant-writing world.
Does this announcement fit your priorities?
Your priorities might include working on certain types of idea, funding your position, supporting trainees or reaching the next career stage. Invest your grant-writing efforts in areas you want to prioritize. To demonstrate, I want to focus on partnering with schools at this stage of my career. So my collaborators and I submitted a grant application in February to the Spencer Foundation, an education-research funder in Chicago, Illinois, to support our partnership with a school district in Massachusetts.
Does this budget match what you’re interested in doing?
Consider whether the grant would support the level of work you want to do, the resources you need and the collaborations you want to form. In February, a colleague and I applied for a grant worth US$15,000. In my field of psychology, $15,000 is relatively small. But this budget matches what we hope to do: we want to collect pilot data in an area of research that is new to both of us (scientific communication). Scoping out this work, we knew we’d need money for focus groups and support for summer research time for two investigators and one graduate student. This $15,000 would help us to meet these goals.
Will this be a learning experience, even if you’re not funded?
Most grants aren’t funded on first submission. A report on funding practices across 21 countries shows that success rates across funders hover between 10% and 20%. At the US National Science Foundation (NSF), principal investigators submit about 2.3 proposals for every award they receive. Evaluate whether this line of work is compelling enough for you to be willing to submit, and then submit again. For instance, in 2019 I submitted a grant proposal on how natural disasters affect higher education to the NSF. It was not funded, but because I believed in the importance of this work, I rewrote the application in 2020 and submitted it to the Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Award Program. The Natural Hazards Center, based in Boulder, Colorado, funded the work. My initial unsuccessful grant helped me to crystallize my ideas and write a stronger second grant application.
Asking yourself these seven questions matters because you are a busy researcher with limited bandwidth, and it’s important to use your limited time wisely.