How to approach funding applications – and deal with rejection

With quality research more important than ever during this year of uncertainty, IPAN Deputy Director Professor Sarah McNaughton is well placed to discuss the often stressful experience of securing funding for research. 

Over the last 15 years, Professor McNaughton, a nutritional epidemiologist, has received more than $8.6 million in grant and fellowship funding as a Chief Investigator, including support from the NHMRC, ARC, National Heart Foundation of Australia, Diabetes Australia Research Trust and Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth).

She recently provided her top tips for writing winning grant proposals and securing more funding:

1.Focus on the most important research questions: There are so many potential research questions out there, but with limited funding, it’s critical to focus on important questions.

​​​​​​​‘Why does your research question matter and why does this question need to be answered now?’ Professor McNaughton said.

2. Develop applications that align to your track record­: You’ll be far more likely to receive successful grant applications if you target those areas where you are an expert. ‘This can be a core topic, key methods or areas of expertise that target particular groups. Particularly for early career researchers, it’s important to produce plenty of papers in your decided area, so the industry begins identifying you as a specialist in that field,’ she said.

3. Aim for different strands of funding: Rather than seeking one grant to fund your entire research project, identify a variety of different funding options. You can apply for other grants while you wait to hear on your initial one.

‘I think about how I can split it up and target it to other organisations,’ she said. ‘Rather than writing eight different projects, you are building an area — calling on the same literature and on your same expertise.’

4. Remember your audience: Remember that it may not be scientists reviewing your grant – it could be a board of directors. ‘And even if it is scientists, it’s often read by someone outside your direct research area,’ adds Sarah. Write your application – particularly your lay summary and overview of the project – accordingly.

‘Consider what you need to say to convince them that your research matters and make their job as easy as possible,’ Professor McNaughton recommends. ‘Limit jargon and write in simple terms, so it’s easy to understand.’

5. Give yourself enough time: It’s important to project manage your application and plan out enough time for each component accordingly. ‘This includes time for reading, writing and reflection; review by other investigators, mentors and colleagues. and time for incorporating their feedback,’ she said. ‘You’ll also need to receive quotes and estimates to inform the budget, along with approvals and sign off from people who are often very busy and are managing competing priorities.’​​​​​​​

6. Prepare for rejection: As soon as the application is in, write a to-do-list for other grants you can apply for and what needs to be done to strengthen your application for next time. ‘This pulls back my expectations. Once it might have taken me a week or two to bounce back from a rejection. Now, it’s 24 hours,’ she said, adding that talking it out with colleagues, family and friends can help.


* Based on an article published in Deakin Network written by Katelyn Swallow