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Senior researchers vs. early career: 3 things that set grant applications apart

How to tell an application was written by an early career researcher vs an experienced academic?

  1. Structure: I have written and read a. lot. of grant applications - and the clearest giveaway that an application has been prepared by a more senior academic is it's structure - it will have consistent headers and numbering - consistently numbered Aims with corresponding Research Questions and Hypotheses. Even the outputs and impacts will be categorised according to the Aims. Structure is an easy way to give funder confidence that you have a detailed and organised plan. I have seen many early career researcher applications that have great content but too broad without enough specific detail across the application. Don't be afraid to add headers, bolding, italics and numbering where allowed within a section. It works every time.

  2. Stage-gates: I know from my own idealistic early researcher days that even the best laid plans often go awry. Realistic timelines (accounting for delays in recruiting, equipment repairs, retesting, etc) are something more commonly seen in experienced researcher applications - and the best applications have stage-gates. These are check-in points where you can do a stock-take or pivot if things aren't going to plan. Funders love to see this because it shows you are going in to your plann with eyes wide open - the sooner you catch and correct a problem, the more likely you can salvage their investment. So add some stage-gates (perhaps 1 every 6-12 months, depending on the length of the overall application) and a realistic plan. Capture that risk!

  3. Detailed Budget: This goes without saying - sometimes its hard to accurately budget when you simply haven't had much experience. Reach out to your University research office, or try to get detailed quotes if possible to plan your budget. One of the most common mistakes is not including overhead costings in your estimates - so be sure that you are accounting for this when planning the salary of yourself or your team (e.g., research assistant, etc). While budget templates will vary, its good to show more detail instead of a few overly general categories - for example, instead of listing "Travel - $2,000" - say "Travel for data collection in Ōtautahi - $2,000 (Flights $550 x2; Accomodation $150 x6 nights). Just shows you've thought that little bit extra - and with grant applications, it's those little things that count.


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