We have asked grant holders across the HES-GEO teams about their experiences with grant writing. Read their answers by following the article.

Grant writing, together with publishing, are essential parts of academia. It is no surprise that both of these issues are taken seriously for the HES-GEO project that aims to build a research centre of excellence.

As you might have read, the early career researchers participated in an intense grant writing course in February. Although the training was complex, it has focused mainly on practical examples showing the best and worst what to avoid while crafting the proposal. After some time, we have asked the successful grant holders across the HES-GEO teams for little reflections on their own experiences.

A common finding is that all of our researchers submitted and received their first grant during PhD studies. While some have been successful for the first time, others had to re-submit the proposal. Noteworthy is that the work on the proposal during the PhD studies helped our respondents clearly identify the research aims with a sketch of specific methodology. Having such a well-prepared “script” is an asset as it allows students to leave the “having an idea” phase and move on to the actual research.

“Writing an grant application during my first year of PhD studies was a step forward.”

When it comes to the challenges of grant writing, the biggest one is finding the appropriate writing style that will catch the readers’ attention. Keeping in mind the word count while being creative and clearly explaining the research problems and how to achieve them so out-of-the-field experts would understand it seemed impossible by the time of writing. Some respondents had to draft the budget for the first time, which appeared as a completely new science written in a language one could hardly understand.

Luckily, no one is entirely alone while writing a proposal. Other PhD colleagues, supervisors or university administration and funding institutions were of great help crucial for finishing the call. PhD students could contribute with concrete dos and don’ts. The supervisors are usually the first and the best reviewers, helping reduce the unnecessary and highlighting the fundamental elements of the proposal. The university administration (or funding institution) has its place in question of the application’s sneaky budget or official jargon.

“By the time of writing I’ve really appreciated the conreat advices from my colleagues.”

And what does it take to be successful in the grant call?

Our respondents agree that it’s a mixture of various elements. Naturally, a clearly presented topic of the research with its scope and RQs is essential. When it comes to writing, a certain level of creativity and novelty is needed to distinguish the proposal from the others. Unfortunately, this is easier to say than do.

Julia Staykova-McKinnon, who led the grant writing course for HES-GEO, adds that the proposal shouldn’t be only about the research itself. The applicants should frame the research proposal around their professional development and not show only how the study will benefit the academic community but also the very candidate. For example, experiment with various ways of telling the story, including visual elements or wordplay within the titles of sections. Besides that, the younger applicants might turn their disadvantages, meaning the lack of experience compared to senior researchers, into their advantages. This means adopting new writing practices.

“Placing the proposal within the proffesional development plan of the early carrer researcher shows the motivation to fully focus on the academia.”

How could universities foster such competencies?

Keeping in mind the grant application positively support the PhD students, joining any grant call should be a compulsory element of PhD studies. This should be supported with specific training focusing on young researchers that would address writing skills and graphic content and help students keep up to date with current trends. Another possibility to support researchers applying for a grant is to provide them with needed support during writing. It includes financial rewards before and after the submission and the possibility of reducing teaching activities or organising them differently for the time of the proposal writing. A grant application is a demanding discipline as the research itself and thus should not be treated as something extra to be done in after hours. If a university or any other scientific institution aims to be a research centre of excellence, creating a system of support for grant applications is inevitable.

“Comprehensive system of support for grant application is a must, otherwise the proposals would be seen as something extra.”

Especially having pieces of training with experts from various funding institutions who knows the current trends is crucial. When we asked our researchers how they saw their work after the HES-GEO training, they all agreed it showed them new ways of writing and provided the courage to try new things.

“It is not about the fundamental changes, but more about leaving the common type of writing, narrating my personal story around the proposal and using visual content to not waste space on obvious things,” wraps-up one of the respondents.

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