Million Dollar PhD

Application writing

There are many obvious ways to promote success when writing award applications: start early, write clearly, and polish carefully. For general proposal writing advice, I would recommend Chapter 6 of The Writing Workshop,1 a free book on academic writing. Here we will focus on some of the less intuitive ways to enhance your application.

Write for the evaluation

There are two ways to win any competition: the first is to be the best; the second is to tick all the boxes on the judging criteria the best. These two methods need not align.

My applications are far from literary masterpieces and I find the idea of grantsmanship as an art to be somewhat distasteful. I suspect that many people are similar: they just want to get the funding and then to get back to the research.

So, “write for evaluation”: find the evaluation criteria and tailor your application to tick every box. Reviewers read applicants in a hasty and cranky state at the end of the day, and they only care about scoring the application and then moving on to the next one. Make it easy for them. If they evaluate based on the Background, Methodology, and Novelty, break your application into those exact sections, in that exact order. Copy the criteria and instructions into your initial document to form a template before you fill in the blanks. Emphasise clarity and ease of scoring above style or anything else.

Government agencies often list the criteria on their website; for other awards, find a colleague who has applied before and ask if the funder sent feedback. Otherwise, you could ask the funder, “What are the evaluation criteria?” If they reply that they judge applications “holistically”, strap in for a heavy dose of noise.

You can also add sections when appropriate. In more flexible applications, I like starting with a few-sentence Overview before going into the first suggested section (e.g., Background). Sometimes I also add a Conclusion section that emphasises the importance and implications. One of my colleagues even appends a section titled “Why you should fund this research”, demonstrating a level of shamelessness most of us may never reach.

Give your draft to a previous reviewer

Some universities host one-on-one sessions in which you can get specific and candid feedback on your own proposal from previous tri-council agency reviewers. My alma mater, McGill University, has such a program called “Would You Fund It?”. Seeing what reviewers focus on — and ignore — in your own application is invaluable and sometimes unexpected. One of my applications proposed using simple statistics in a sleep study. The reviewer asked me, “Any way you can use ANCOVA [a more complicated technique] for this?” When I asked him why this would be more appropriate, he mumbled a bit and then blurted, “No reason honestly, but reviewers love seeing that ANCOVA stuff.” I followed his advice and the application was accepted.

If you cannot find a previous reviewer, try another professor in the same field, otherwise a postdoc or a more senior grad student. Trust them on anything they say is unclear. Universities also have writing centres that can additionally provide feedback on your applications.

Nominate your own reviewers

Sometimes agencies allow you to nominate your own reviewers for your application. Usually these would be arms-length researchers who ideally know of (and like) the research you and your supervisor do. Always nominate as many reviewers as you can rather than letting the agency choose their own. Researchers Jerrim and de Vries explain why:

Around 60% of nominated reviewers award the highest possible score, compared to only 17% of independent reviewers. Having one’s grant reviewed by a nominated reviewer consequently dramatically increases the chances of receiving funding. Correlational analyses also show that the scores awarded by nominated reviewers bear no relationship to those awarded by independent reviewers.2

In the land of noise, nominated reviewers give more consistent, though heavily biased, reviews. This promotes another rich-get-richer effect: winning more awards allows you to publish more manuscripts, attend more conferences, and meet more people who later become your nominated reviewers.

Share applications and copy structures

My colleague got the Michael Smith Foreign Supplement, a $6,000 award to visit and collaborate with any lab in the world. It sounded like a fun experience, so I asked to see his application. I followed his structure, tone, and formatting when writing my own proposal. I submitted mine and got the award. Our other colleague heard about both of our successes and also thought it sounded fun, so he wanted to apply. He read both of our applications, followed the same process, and also got the award. Then another colleague wanted it and we forwarded the applications again. Labs become strong by leveraging the successes of colleagues.

Try to never enter an award “cold”. Some departments will send successful examples of applications if you ask, or you can search for examples online. These will be easier to find for typical governmental agency awards. It is even acceptable to (cautiously and graciously) reach out to previous winners of awards who are listed on the funder’s website. Here’s an email snippet:

I saw your name listed on the [award] website — congratulations on receiving the award! I’m a PhD student at [university] and plan to apply for the award this year so am looking for example applications to learn from. Would you by any chance be comfortable sending the project proposal for me to look at?

Ask for more than you need

Agencies will often request that you cut back your budget but they will never ask to expand it. Asking for more than you need has two benefits. First, if the budget is cut, you still have enough to comfortably run the project. Second, your project will always take longer and will cost more than expected anyway. Leftover money is either returned to the funder or can be used (with approval) on related expenses. Some of my colleagues always add a few thousand extra on top of the budget for additional conference travel or open-access publication fees to act as “padding”.

  1. Barbara W Sarnecka, The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia, 2019,↩︎

  2. John Jerrim and Robert de Vries, “Are Peer-Reviews of Grant Proposals Reliable? An Analysis of Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Funding Applications,” The Social Science Journal, March 2020, 1–19,↩︎