Improving your Funding Applications

For established academics, writing grant applications is a fairly standard part of the job. While some research is funded by the university, a lot is not; so external research funding is a big part of how research gets done.

Many postgraduate students are funded through their supervisors’ grants (or don’t require external funding at all). But in some cases, you may need or want to apply for your own external funding – particularly if you need to travel or access specific equipment or materials. During my Masters studies, I applied for external funds to cover attending a conference and to cover the flights and accommodation in another city for data collection.

When applying for external funding, it is important to have a very strong application. For the last 2 years I’ve had the great experience of sitting on a review committee for an external organization which provides some project funding, networking opportunities, and mentoring for research students. In both funding rounds, we’ve had the unfortunate instance of some awesome research projects with poor applications letting them down.

This blog post focuses on how to improve your funding applications based on my experience of applying for research funding as a student in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and as a funding application reviewer in 2021 and 2022. The projects I was a student on varied in scope from $2000 to $350,000 and the fund I review for now is up to $5000.


Make sure you’re applying to the right fund

Is what it says on the box. Many times, the connection between a piece of research and a fund is tangential, so be clear that you’ve applied to the right one. Otherwise, you and the reviewers will waste a tonne of time on the application only for it to not be approved because it isn’t within scope.

Answer the question

Funding applications will generally have a cover form to complete which asks for a variety of different things, which (depending on the amount) may include the following:

  • A statement explaining who you are and why you want the money
  • A synopsis of your research
  • Explanation of how you’ll use the funds
  • How you plan to disseminate the research (e.g.: journal articles, community workshops, policy documents)
  • Impact the funds will have on your research
  • Where you intend to take the research in the future

For each of these boxes, focus on the question. In my experience, too many applications don’t focus on the question at hand. As a reviewer, one of the questions asks what the applicant will use the funds and institutional connections for, how the funds/connections will affect the research outcomes, and how this will benefit the host organization. Most of the applications I’ve reviewed have only focused on what their research is and how useful money will be, and not actually covered any of the other parts of the question. This makes it very hard to award them any of the funding.

Use the word limits effectively

Each of the sections in a funding application will typically have a word limit. Review panels will receive a lot more applications than they have funds to distribute, and applications that are over the word limit become tiring and are quickly turned down.

However, writing too far under the word limit can hurt you too. It is possible – although I haven’t seen it yet – to write a good application in fewer words than required. If you have found you’re well under the word limit, then (generally) you haven’t gone into enough detail or answered all parts of the question. You will want to use as many of the words as possible.

Be specific

With everything, be specific. This includes your time frame, what you’ll want to use money for, what resources you’ll want to access, and how you’ll provide the outcomes of your research to the participants (among others).

You don’t have to be hyper specific, but “this research will be conducted between July 2023 and February 2024 and the thesis submitted in mid-2024” is more likely to be approved than “this research will involve several steps. I am in my 4th year of the PhD”. This also means specifying others you will work with: “I will work with the water quality team at NIWA Auckland on modelling applications” or “I will work with the land vertebrates’ curator or similar at Auckland Museum to review collection material” rather than “I will work with non-university researchers on aspects of the research”.

Also be specific about your budget. You may be required to provide exact costings (even if by quote). Many reviewers are also budget holders and will identify vagaries and inconsistencies immediately. On that note…

Review the application before you submit it

Getting the application reviewed before you submit it, even just informally by friends and/or your supervisors, can make a world of difference to the application. They can be a fresh set of eyes to help find mistakes or identify clumsy pieces of writing.

Get them to review all parts of the application, particularly the budget, not just the research content. Nothing sinks an application like asking for $1,000 for equipment time, noting you’ll need 20 hours at $60 per hour. Inconsistencies or mathematical errors can doom an application, so that second pair of eyes is crucial.

Get the right team together

On this note, it is important to have the right team for you and your project. Who else are you working with? Have they looked over the project? Have you consulted appropriately? One of the biggest issues we’ve seen is researchers working on a specific community without authentically and practically consulting with that community or including members of that community on the research team. This can’t just be added in at the last minute and needs to be integrated properly into your research and your funding proposal.

For larger funds, you may be required to submit letters of support or recommendation. Having already worked with these people will help you enormously. I’ll give three examples here to help explain this point:

  • If a project involves a Māori understanding of conservation practices, you’ll need to engage with Māori ecologists and groups
  • If a project involves accessing a museum collection to look for something specific, you’ll need to contact the collection manager or curator ahead of time and confirm that the collection contains that specific thing and that if you received the funding, you could access it
  • If you’re working with your supervisor (or someone else in your department) and will be completing the data collection over the next 4 months, ensure that your collaborator is available to collect the data during that time period

You’ll also need to be clear with your collaborators what your timeline is for commenting/reviewing your application and what your expectations are. You’ll still need to do this in a respectful manner, but you shouldn’t hold everything up for someone who can’t get back to you in time.

Do your homework

Find other previously successful applications, especially if they were for the same fund. Ask the person submitting for advice. What feedback did they get? What questions did the committee have? This can be one of the most powerful steps in improving your funding application.

Get the application in on time

Nothing tanks an application faster than applying after the due date. Also beware as sometimes you and the organization you’re applying to are in different time zones. Don’t get caught out!

Be aware of factors external to you

Sometimes your application will be unsuccessful for reasons entirely not to do with you. There could be internal processes at play, or subject-specific quotas. Also, many funds are oversubscribed; acceptance rates of 5-20% are not uncommon. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done something wrong; so dust yourself off, identify another relevant fund, and try again!

About Scott Pilkington

Scott is a Postgraduate Coordinator and Health, Safety & Wellbeing rep at the Graduate Research School. His hobbies include museums, campanology, history, anthropology, cats, dance, fibre crafts, science communication, and gin. He’s a graduate of University of Auckland, University of Otago, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, and of course AUT. His current research projects include how we use museums to communicate science, and the form and function of doctoral academic dress at New Zealand universities. Past research includes the Albert Park tunnels, taphonomy of burnt human skeletal remains, and the sex-politics-law dynamics of 13th C England. He is weirdly passionate about palaeoecology and urban spaces. He uses the pronouns he/him. You can often see him at GRS events being our resident photographer.

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