What I wish I’d known: Grant applications

This is the inaugural post in VIDA’s new advice series, which aims to offer practical advice to postgraduates and emerging scholars, and foster conversations within the community. If you would like to contribute to this series, or respond to any advice offered here, contact the managing editors

Susan Broomhall – a recipient of many competitive grants including Australian Research Council fellowships, and in the Discovery, Linkage, Linkage International, E-Research and Centre of Excellence schemes – shares her tips for writing competitive grant applications.

There’s no magic to competitive grant applications, but there are things you can do to put yourself in the best position to advance your research career.

1. Have a research plan

This might sound obvious, but having a five-year plan for what you want to achieve in your research, both conceptually and practically, is vital. What are the key research questions in your field that you can contribute to? What will that contribution look like? It might include original research, articles, a monograph, and/or public outreach activities. Any grant applications should respond to that plan. It should help you to advance the plan and its component parts, but it shouldn’t be essential for its success.

When you write a grant application, you are not really writing ‘from scratch’ but from a thorough knowledge of the scholarship and with a clear eye on the ideas and outcomes you want to develop. Some researchers ask me if they should downplay feminist approaches or a focus on gender or women’s history. I’ve not knowingly experienced disadvantage in assessments as a researcher in these areas. If your research concerns feminist, gender, or women’s history, then that’s what your application should be about. An excellent project is an excellent project.

2. Start early

Grant applications can’t be written at the last minute. Even when they are developing your plan, every grant body has different conditions and criteria that you need to pay attention to. I aim to start a very first draft of the project description many months out from its closing date. You need time to order and read any materials you have identified so as to present your ideas as well as possible. In particular, grant applications involving other partners and/or industry representatives will often need this level of lead-in time to develop and negotiate through their institutions.

3. Find role models

Understanding who has won grants in the particular scheme can be very useful. Research previous winners and look at their track records as a comparison to your own. Find out if your institution holds a list of applications from previous grant winners that you can look at. More broadly, identify the top people in your field who you really admire, and research their career trajectories and successes. It can be a powerful motivation to know that others ahead of you have succeeded in your chosen field.

4. Address the ‘why’ questions

Make sure that your application addresses some key questions. Why does this research need to be conducted? Why does it need to be undertaken now? Why are you the best person to do it? It’s important to present yourself confidently, something that female applicants often find challenging. But this is not, and should not be, the same thing as being arrogant or exaggerating. Ask yourself, if you don’t have confidence in your research abilities, why should others?

5. Be prepared to do many drafts

Have a relatively final draft application read by a range of people from a variety of different disciplines. This helps to test your ideas against not just other experts in your field, but the intelligent lay reader. You cannot assume that an assessor will be in your precise field (in fact, this is probably quite rare), and many applications are subject to more than one level of assessment. More importantly, be prepared to listen carefully to all the feedback that people have taken their time to offer you.

If you feel a reader has not understood your aims or arguments when they provide feedback, then it’s your application that needs to change to make those points clearer. The same goes for any rejoinders or responses that the grant system allows. These need to be written with the same degree of thought, and review, as the application itself. Re-drafting also helps to remove any frustration and anger that you might feel from the final version that you submit.

6. See winning as the cherry on top

Accept that you won’t always succeed with grant applications, but you will always benefit from the process and the formal and informal layers of feedback along the way. If it sharpens your ideas, refines your plan and advances your thinking, then the application process has been helpful. Remember: CVs only show the wins but not the many unsuccessful applications that informed them.


Susan Broomhall is a historian of early modern Europe at the University of Western Australia and ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her research explores gender, emotions, material culture, cultural contact and heritage in the early modern world. In 2014, she was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship to examine emotions and power in the correspondence of Catherine de Medici. Her recent publications include Gender, power and identity in the early modern House of Orange-Nassau with Jacqueline Van Gent, and Police courts in nineteenth-century Scotland with David G. Barrie.

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