My best tips for writing successful proposals for ECRs

Eva Lantsoght
2 Apr ’20

Getting funding is hard. Receiving rejections for proposals is more common than receiving positive news - as many researchers are trying to go after the same funds. As I've been able to get some funding over the past years, both in Ecuador and the Netherlands (as well as a fair share of rejections), I wanted to share with you my tips for writing successful proposals. I've also been on the other side, as I have volunteered as a reviewer for Fulbright post-doc applicants.

1. Focus on the outcome for every day life

Especially for proposals that are open to all fields (and where you may be competing against public health issues and cancer research), try to build rapport with your reviewer by focusing on how your research could improve every day life. What are we going to learn from your work? As a reviewer, I can say that I will rate your proposal more favorably if your work triggers my curiosity. You may think that your work on medieval history may not impact society, but the opposite is true - understanding our past is an important way to understand our present and try to grapple with the future.

2. Avoid jargon

If you are submitting your proposal to a broad call, then make sure a reviewer from a different field can understand what you are actually going to do. You may be very used to the technical terms of your field - but in this case, take a step back, and explain in plain English what you want to do, how you will do it, what you will deliver - and why your work matters.

3. Get help

Virtually all universities have an office dedicated to supporting their researchers applying for grants. These people are there for a reason: to help you. Take advantage of their knowledge. Don't assume you don't need their input. Start writing on time so you can actually let them review your proposal and have time to improve your proposal afterwards.

4. Develop (international) collaborations

Typically, you can apply for larger funds in collaboration than on your own. Look for collaborations with the industry or government, where appropriate. Find international partners if possible. Reach out to other researchers nationally to team up.

5. Build a strong resume

For personal grants, you and your resume will be evaluated as well. Build a strong resume. It may be hard to keep publishing as you are low on funds or with a heavy teaching load. Manage your time so that you can keep doing research on your own, and so that you have the time to develop your publications. Volunteer for service appointments.

6. Read the instructions

Maybe this should be my first and foremost piece of advice... While it may sound very obvious, you should read the instructions for applying for the grant. Most reviewers grade based on a rubric, addressing different elements that you are required to address in your proposal. If you don't address these, the reviewers can't grade you for it.

7. Start small

Do you have an idea that needs further exploring? A small exploratory study may be a good starting point. You can then use the momentum of the funding you gained to shoot for a larger grant.

8. Dream big

On the other hand, don't shy away from the big grants either. Apply for them. Bring your bold and big ideas forward. Take a step aside from the work you did during your PhD, and propose to start working on a different topic (after having done the required literature review to be able to write the proposal in the first place).

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