This week we’re very pleased to share with you Andrew Derrington’s advice: he takes us through the structure of a research grant application and provides useful links to other content to equip you with the right tools for your grant application writing.
Most of my business involves helping academics to write better research grant applications. Prospects are good because most academics, when they try to write a grant application, write completely the wrong kind of document to solve the main problem that every grant application has to solve. This post explains that the right kind of document will do two things:
- It will get the structure of the case for support right.
- It will match the summary to the case for support.
Why you have to get the structure of the case for support right
Getting the structure of the case for support – the main narrative of the grant application – right, and matching it to the summary are crucial because by doing those two things you can solve the main problem that all grant applications face.
A case for support has two main tasks. It has to convince the committee that your research project is important. And it has to convince them that your project will be successful. These tasks are not the main problem.
The case for support also has to do several minor tasks. It has to make the grants committee think that they understand your project. It has to convince them that you are competent to carry out the project. And it has to convince them that the resources you will buy with the grant are necessary and sufficient to carry out the project. These tasks are not the main problem either.
The main problem is that most members of the grants committee will not read the case for support. They won’t read it because they are too busy. They won’t read it because they don’t really understand your research. Despite this, the case for support has to convince them that your research project is important, it has to convince them that your project will be successful, it has to tell them how the project will achieve its outcome, how competent you are, and how important are the resources you will buy with the grant. It has to do all this without them actually reading the case for support. That is the main problem.
There is a solution to the problem. All the committee will read the summary. Then, during the discussion on your application, they will glance through the case for support. So if you give the case for support a structure that makes the important information visible at a glance, and if you match it with a summary that ’primes’ them for the important information by telling them the main points that they will see when they glance at the document, in the same words, then you can solve the problem. This begs the question, what is the perfect structure?
The perfect structure
As I said, the case for support has two tasks. First it has to convince the reader that your project is important. Then it has to convince them it will be successful.
The sections: introduction, background and methodology
The most efficient way to do these tasks is to divide the case for support into three sections. To do the tasks you need a background section, which makes the case that the project is important, and a methodology section, which describes the project and convinces the reader that it will be successful. You need to precede the background and methodology sections with an introduction, which increases their effectiveness by ’trailing’ the main points they make.
The names you give the three sections don’t matter. Indeed they will probably depend on the funders’ instructions. What does matter is that you have a background section that describes the context of your research project in such a way that it is completely clear that the outcome of your project will be really important, a methodology section that makes it clear that your project will successfully deliver the outcome, and an introduction. The fine structure of these sections helps the reader understand in detail how your research project will produce exactly the outcome that your background section explains is important.
The subsections: 3 aims in the background delivered by 3 objectives in the methodology section
The best way to help the reader is to break your project down into three components, each of which will produce a clear outcome. If it suits you, or if the funder asks you to state aims and objectives, you can call the three components of the project the objectives, and you can call the three outcomes they will achieve the aims.
Breaking the overall research outcome into components like this makes it much easier for the committee to discuss it and analyse it, and it also makes it much easier for you to write the background in a way that makes it clear that your project is really important. If the background convinces the reader that the aims are really important then the project automatically becomes important because it achieves the aims.
Three aims and three objectives is the perfect number. If you have too few aims or objectives it becomes hard to describe them concisely. If you have too many, it becomes hard to remember the list. And if you have different numbers of aims and objectives then you cannot match aims and objectives.
Because each objective delivers exactly one aim it is easy to write the background so that it convinces the reader that each aim is really important. It also makes it easy for the reader to remember the list of aims and to see that by carrying out the objectives you will achieve the aims.
The background and the methodology sections have five subsections each. Three of each set of five are used to link the two sections together, so that the background convinces the reader that every component of the project is important. The remaining subsections have different jobs, linking to the literature that justifies the project, summarising the project and disseminating the results.
- Both sections have three subsections in the core that link the two sections together. The background has three subsections that explain the importance of the aims. Each one of these prepares the reader for the subsection in the methodology section that describes the corresponding objective.
- The background starts with two subsections. The first explains the project outcome. The second gives the evidence that the project outcome is important. These two subsections are essential preparation for the core subsections that explain how important the aims are. The aims are important mainly because they deliver the overall project outcome.
- The methodology section starts with an overview of the project, which leads into the three subsections describing the objectives. It finishes with a subsection describing the dissemination plans.
Structure of a subsection: key sentence followed by justification
Each of these ten subsections has the same structure. It begins with a single sentence that summarises the subsection. These are the ’key sentences’ that are the skeleton of the case for support. The rest of the subsection fleshes out the key sentence, supporting it in such a way that the reader believes that it is true. For key sentences in the background, the ’flesh’ will consist of evidence from the literature. For key sentences in the methodology section the ’flesh’ consists of details about what will be done in the project. You can read more about the key sentences in three other blogposts.
The first draft of the introduction can be done by copying and pasting the key sentences. You may find it necessary to add some linking and signposting, so that they flow together well. Because the key sentences make a good introduction, you can leave the introduction until after you have written the background and methodology sections. See a separate description of how to write the perfect introduction.
The perfectly matched summary
The summary must be perfectly matched to the case for support. This will cause anyone (most of the committee) who reads the summary and then glances through the case for support to feel that they understand the case for support completely. The key sentences make a perfect summary. A separate blogpost discusses the summary.
Image credit: Nick Kim
About the author: Andrew Derrington’s management experience extends across arts, sciences and social sciences. He has led a Department of Psychology and a School of Biology in a Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering. He has been Dean of a Faculty of Social Sciences and Pro Vice Chancellor of a Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.
He has in-depth experience of the research funding process. His first research grant was a Beit Memorial Fellowship for Medical Research, which he obtained in 1978. His research was continuously funded by fellowships, project and programme grants for the next 30 years. He served on research grant committees for several UK research councils and the Wellcome Trust.