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How to make a 5-year funding game plan

If you're an early career researcher, knowing which grants to apply for (and in what order) can be a challenge. If you're like me, I used to take a rapid-fire approach, applying for any and all funds that came across my desk. Obviously - this is not ideal - but it is a common approach that ECRs utilise. Given the benefit of hindsight, I can now strongly recommend taking time to consider your 5-year funding game plan - this helps not only streamline your efforts, but it prevents missed opportunities.

An analysis found that postdoctoral scholars who developed a written plan with their advisers were much more productive than those who didn't. They submitted papers to peer-reviewed journals at a 23% higher rate, first-author papers at a 30% higher rate, and grant proposals at a 25% higher rate than those without written plans. (Davis, 2005)

ECRs are at a unique stage in their career where they can benefit from funds designed to specifically support early career researchers - and this represents a competitive advantage. By not having to compete against more established researchers, your chances of funding success improve. However, some funds in NZ are 'first funds' - meaning - they have restrictions on how much funding you can have been awarded in the past to be eligible. Further, other funds have specific timelines on how 'early' you need to be to still be considered an early career researcher (some as short as three years; others up to ten years plus, with added years if you were on parental leave). I have seen early career academics miss out on these type of funding opportunities because their timing was off, or they were ineligible due to being funded through other, less suited grants. By taking some time at the start to map out your 5-year funding game plan, you can take advantage of targeted early career funding without missing opportunities that were designed with your success in mind.

Planning your grant timeline will save you time, help you from getting sidetracked, and will make you more strategic in your research funding efforts. Now, where to begin?

How to Start

If you are a late-stage PhD student, for example, this is an ideal time to step back and look at the bigger picture. What are your career and research goals? This can help provide a starting point to determine what type of funding you will require to support your ambitions and your research.

  1. Read about grant funding (generally). There are a lot of resources online and with your research office. Some examples include:





  2. Take some time to learn about the funding landscape in NZ. It is a good idea to connect with your Research Office, as most (if not all) Universities pay quite a bit of money for funding databases that you can search to find grant opportunities. Subscribe to your Research Office newsletter, which will have key funding dates and opportunities. Be sure to look for niche or bespoke funding - what characteristics are unique to you? Search by your field, your geographic area, and/or the type of role you will hold. For example, are you a woman in STEM, or a minority in your research area, or a postdoctoral fellow? Search for funding besides project grants, such as fellowships, awards, travel grants, etc. Look to your professional body or University for small/internal funding opportunities as well (e.g., conference attendance grants).

  3. Order your plan of attack: small grants go first. Once you have identified potential funding targets, put them in order by your likelihood of success. Generally, it is best to arrange them from smallest to largest. Let's say you have never applied for a grant before (meaning you won't have any trackrecord on your CV to give funders confidence about your grant management skills) - start by applying for a smaller project grant (e.g., Canterbury Medical Research Foundation Grant-in-Aid) or a travel grant (e.g., Maurice & Phyllis Paykel Trust Travel Grant). These smaller grants can be less competitive, and it will help build your track record for larger submissions and make future bids more credible. Also be sure to look at requirements - for example, you should apply for a grant like the First-Fellowship (say it with me now) first.

  4. Be realistic with your timeline: overestimate the time it takes to apply and hear results. Look at funding calendars and start writing down key dates. A good target to have is at least two funding applications per year (however, you may try for more if you are needing to secure funding for your income or if you like the thrill of the chase). Now - don't only write down submission dates - also make note of the dates of results. You will notice (especially if you are new to the NZ funding landscape) that most funders have significant assessment periods (upwards of 6 or 8 months). This is again another reason why planning pays off - especially for those who are depending on grant funding for their salary: knowing these time periods can help you ensure you have a realistic plan (and food on the table).

  5. Plan for resubmissions and use this to your advantage. Many large funders in New Zealand have success rates of around 10%. I don't say this to discourage you - you won't get any grant you don't apply for - but I do mention this to help you be realistic in your planning. Let's say in your timeline, you have a goal of submitting a Marsden Fast-start application. This typically falls early in the year (e.g., February). If you go in to your timeline planning with the possibility that you might not be successful, you can plan to resubmit that same funding idea to two other funders later that year. This helps you be able to maximise the time and work spent on the original grant application for Marsden, so you can just later tweak the application to suit another funder later in the year (e.g., say Health Research Council or Lottery Health Research Grant mid year). By building resubmissions in to your timeline, you won't have 'all your eggs in one basket' and you can use feedback recieved in the case of a rejection to strengthen a resubmission to another funder down the track.

Once you have developed your timeline, socialise this with your mentor or a colleague - get advice and start early. Even better if you build in time to get feedback from peers or collaborators (e.g., statisticians, etc).

What to do next?

Once you have your timeline mapped out, and have begun to discuss this with others, you may have a bit of time before you need to apply for a certain fund. So use this time to your advantage. A few tips here to prompt you:

  • If you know you are wanting to apply, for example, next year to a large funder such as Marsden, think strategically about your research question and area, and develop new collaborations where possible.

  • Reach out to funders and volunteer as an assessor. Many funders need and look for assessors; take advantage of this. By reading through as many grant applications as you can (both successful and unsuccessful), your skills in your own grant writing will dramatically improve.

  • On this same note, reach out to your Research Office as many share successful example proprosals (that have been approved to be released confidentially within a University). There are also other online resources you can check out, such as

Lastly, remember this process is living - Plan - Do - Check - Plan - Do … while the plan itself is useful, it is the act of planning that is most impactful. This aligns well with the circular process of grant funding. From working with some extremely well-funded academics, I have learned that those who are most successful are always either writing a grant, submitting them, revising and resubmitting a grant or using a successful grant to feed into ideas for new funding bids. This shows how they use the funding timeline to their advantage.

Still have questions? Contact me and we can work together to map out your own personal funding timeline. Good luck and happy planning.


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