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12 top tips for writing a grant application

Sitting down to write a grant application? Recently submitted a proposal or been successful in the last MRC board round? Building grant writing skills is a great way to help secure funding. With experience of working with various MRC boards and panels, Dr David Crosby, Programme Manager for Methodology and Experimental Medicine, has a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for. Here he describes how to master the application process and make your grant stand out from the rest.

A woman typing at a laptop

1. Allow plenty of time

Everything takes longer than you think it will. No matter how simple it may seem to pull together a project there are lot of different steps, some more time-consuming than others, involved in submitting a proposal.

2. Choose your funder and scheme carefully

It’s good to talk! Speak to the funders – we’re here to help. Ask us questions to get an insight into what we’re interested in. Sign up for information feeds, find out what kind of research is in a funder’s remit and read through guidance and eligibility criteria carefully. We don’t want you wasting your time – or ours – applying for an inappropriate scheme.

3. Get advice at an early stage and from a range of sources

Create a collaborative network within your establishment and beyond. Speak with your grants office, mentors and colleagues who have served on funding panels. Getting involved in grant writing at an early stage is a good idea, if only as an observer. Find out how senior colleagues get ideas together, assemble teams and put an application together.

4. Plan, plan and plan some more

Plan your application and take your time, don’t rush it. Go out and look for inspiration to help pull together an idea that’s worthy of being funded. The wider the range of ideas you can expose yourself to, the more interesting concepts you’ll come up with.

5. Get the right partners

The people involved are just as important as the project you’re proposing. Provide evidence that the team is capable of delivering the work and a return on the MRC’s investment. Do you have the right people and representatives from the appropriate research communities?

6. Have well-defined objectives

What does success look like? And how will you know when you’ve got there? Create specific aims and well-defined criteria to quantify success, and keep it concise. What is each experiment going to deliver to help you address that grand challenge?

Watch our video on generating ideas for your research, selecting the right funder, and application process tips.

7. Make your hypothesis clear

What are you doing and why are you doing it? Provide a clear rationale. Feel free to show a little ambition and take on a problem – but make sure you can explain why and then convince us you’ve got a fair chance of doing it. Present the knowledge gap that needs addressing and show the uniqueness of your approach.

8. Consider the impact of the research

So what? Explain the intended consequences of your work. Who could benefit in the long term? How can you increase the chances of reaching those beneficiaries? Even if your proposal doesn’t directly address economic or societal impact you should be able to explain the pathway that links your work to improving human health.

9. Include relevant preliminary data

Provide enough preliminary data to validate the approach you’ve selected and reassure the panel you’ve identified a signal that’s worth pursuing.

10. Tell a compelling story

Be focused. You’re selling an idea to an audience – make sure it’s an exciting idea taking on a serious challenge. Identify a hook, the key feature that your proposal hangs off, and then tell a convincing narrative linking each experiment to your main aims.

11. Justify your methods

Get your sums right! Why have you chosen the sample size? Justify sample sizes with power calculations. Relate the methods to the aims and the deliverables. Use the right tools in the right way.

12. Get your proposal reviewed internally

Get a second opinion from a mentor or a senior colleague. Proofread, spell check and stick to specified formats – remember the little things count! Presentation, punctuation and grammar set the tone for how people feel about your work – they really do matter.

David Crosby

We have published refreshed guidance for applicants in a new format on our website to help improve navigation of the MRC funding application process.

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