Research Funding & Grants 101

For many people, our postgraduate years are our first introduction to one of the more complex aspects of academic life. For some it’s an exciting treasure hunt. For others, a rigmarole. It can boost careers, or bring tears. It’s both a bugbear and a path to bounty.

I’m talking, of course, about the search for research funding.*

If they need money for their research, academics can find it by applying for grants from external funders. These funders are often government agencies or non-profit organisations with a vested interest in supporting research that is related to their missions. Getting external funding is a great way to undertake research projects without being reliant on the university’s resources. But it also means having to spend hours writing detailed grant proposals, with no guarantee of a positive outcome.

Typically, it is academic staff members who do this grant-writing work as the named applicants (‘Principal Investigators’) on a proposal. Sometimes postgraduate researchers may assist, particularly if the grant is intended to fund their stipend. However, even if you’re not writing grant proposals yet, it’s worth knowing a little about research grants at the postgraduate stage.

Those grants, which are collectively called ‘External Research Income’ (ERI) in the lingo of academia, are important for more than just funding research. An academic’s ERI can be used as a mark of credibility. It is often part of promotion applications, and in New Zealand, it is factored into Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) evaluations. Not all types of research require funding, and so the expectations for the amount of ERI a researcher brings into the university vary a lot by discipline; but grants are, in general, highly valued and often prestigious.

Long story short, getting grants is an important part of an academic career.

If you have ever assisted in the grant writing process, you’ll know that it can be arduous; and the competition is often fierce. In New Zealand, many of our major research funders have success rates of 10-20%. That means that, on average, an academic will have to write 5-10 proposals in order to have a reasonable chance of being awarded one grant.

Used with permission from“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Most universities have a team of research funding experts to help with this process. At AUT, we have a Research and Innovation Office (RIO) staffed by experienced professionals with an encyclopaedic knowledge of local funders and grant processes. They have comprehensive resources on AUTi to guide you through the process of writing a grant proposal. We also have Faculty Research Office teams who have more discipline-specific knowledge of funding opportunities.

AUT also has access to Research Professional, an international funding database listing details for thousands of grants, fellowships, and awards. Academics the world over use Research Professional to browse for funding opportunities. The advanced search functions make it possible to find grants that are very well-matched to your particular research project.

You can also use Research Professional to search for travel awards. This is a great option for postgraduate students, because travel awards can help you cover the costs of attending international conferences or meetings.

As a bonus, when you log in with your AUT credentials, Research Professional is configured to show you only those funding opportunities that are open to New Zealand researchers. This means you can conduct a global funding search without having to check individual grants’ terms & conditions to assess whether they are open to NZ applications.

Research Professional also offers a recently revamped news portal and
a global database of calls for papers (i.e. for conferences and special issues of academic journals).

If you are starting to think about grants and proposal-writing, your first step will be to check out Research Professional and talk to your supervisor. You can also contact your faculty research office for guidance, and they will refer you on to RIO if appropriate.

*Note that in this article, I’m referring to funding for research projects (not scholarships).

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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