The secret to grant writing success – well, a few tips

See, the competition (academia is a cut-throat business) between a DECRA laureate and her not-DECRA awarded peers is like trying to outrace an F1-car in your family-planner. As an ECR you want to be in that F1-car.

That must be the boldest blog-post title I’ve ever used! Let’s see if I can live up to it…

Over here in Australian academia, things are a little stressful for early career researchers (ECRs). The deadline for DECRA applications is looming – mid-March if I’m correct. The DECRA is the Australian Research Council’s (ARC – sorry for all the acronyms) highly competitive Discovery Early Career Researcher Award. Long story short, the DECRA allows an ECR, someone who was awarded her (or his, etc.) PhD less than five years ago (exemptions apply), to fully dedicate her time to carry out research for a period of three years. In other words, she does not have to teach (although the DECRA now allows for some teaching time – and Universities put more and more pressure on DECRA laureates to teach) and has a considerable budget to carry out research. The long story even shorter, the DECRA is the academic sweet spot!

Nothing will launch an ECR’s career as well as a DECRA or a DECRA-like grant/award/fellowship. Imagine, whilst all your ECR colleagues are working their bums off teaching first and second years and trying to squeeze another article out of their PhD thesis on the weekends, the DECRA candidate can spend her full week reading the most recent literature in her field, find the gaps in the current state of the art, design a research project to address that gap, then carry it out, and then even has the time to smack out a bunch of articles and probably a book that can really stir something up. Meanwhile, her colleagues are still marking first years’ essays and having second-year students in their office all the time to explain that the dog of the neighbour from across the street attacked their laptop the day before, which is why they couldn’t finish their assignments on time.

See, the competition (academia is a cut-throat business) between a DECRA laureate and her not-DECRA awarded peers is like trying to outrace an F1-car in your family-planner. As an ECR you want to be in that F1-car.

Of course, the DECRA laureate did not wake up some morning to find that the DECRA fairy had left her an award under her pillow. Nope. Not that easy. It takes a [fill in preferred emphasis here] lot of work to get one – and that’s more than beating the 87% of applicants that won’t get one. This is where the first part of the title to this blog post comes in: I was awarded a DECRA last November (after submitting it in March 2014), so I should know some tricks, right? Even more, I was awarded the DECRA-equivalent grant from the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research in 2011 (a VENI grant) for the research project that I have been carrying out since 2012. So not only should I have some random tricks, I should know the [fill in preferred emphasis here] secret to grant writing success. Or at least, so seem to think a number of people who have been emailing me over the last weeks to ask me how I did it.

And that kept me thinking over the last couple of weeks (one of the reasons why I skipped again another month in writing a blog post): why did I land two of these amazing grants in a row? What did I do that others perhaps didn’t do? It seems rather hard to really get to the bottom of this, but I think I have a few ideas – or tips and tricks, if you wish:

  • The Trick: Start early. And when I say early, I mean [fill in preferred emphasis here] early! I started writing my DECRA in early August 2013 to submit it late March 2014. That’s more than seven months – and honestly, back then it felt as if I started way too late. This really is the trick – and all the tips follow from it. (I did roughly the same thing for the VENI in 2011).
  • Tip 1: Plan the relevance of your topic. That may sound a little strange, but you can actually plan the relevance of your topic – at least, the relevance as it appears on the pages on your grant proposal. If you start early on the proposal (months and months before the deadline) and settle roughly on a topic you will, most likely subconsciously, be more aware of policy and media debates that are slightly related to your topic. Alternatively, you may, by reading the popular media through the lens of your proposal, decide to slightly change its focus. In my case, months before the submission deadline I stumbled on a somewhat strange special issue on urban politics in Australia that brought together four very short (and very light) articles by four Australian policymakers. BAM! I had my policy relevance reference – even in an academic relevant journal. A little later I read a newspaper article (Sydney Morning Herald?) that reported that one of the Australian households’ major fears was rising electricity costs. BAM! I had my societal relevance reference. Too easy.
  • Tip 2: Plan your output. Have a good look at your publication track record… Just do it now… Ok. What is lacking? If the answer is: everything, then don’t apply – see below. If the answer is: a book perhaps, maybe an article or two, it wouldn’t hurt to have some more popular media stuff… See, start early and you will have months and months to get that organised. Just consider the grant application process as your academic year planner. In my case I missed a recent book with a good publisher on my track record (so I smacked out a book for Edward Elgar – and started another book for Cambridge Uni Press, but I like to go over the top), I missed evidence of interaction with Australian policy and media debates (so I made sure to have a few opinion pieces published on topic on popular opinion websites such as the Conversation and the Independent – one of these pieces even led to a radio interview), and I needed some evidence that the “society at large” actually cares about my work (it turned out that the UN and the World Bank cite my work in some footnotes to a few of their reports –check your own work, you will be surprised!– and I was very, very lucky to get an invite from the UN to give a talk at a conference just before the application deadline).
  • Tip 3: Plan your work’s visibility. Make sure to be on SSRN, on and – or comparable websites. These are all websites that allow you to share your (working) papers with the larger academic community. But the really nice thing about ‘m is that they keep track of your downloads, which is a great way for an ECR to highlight that her work is indeed picked up by the academic community. Free, objective and publicly available metrics of your work! Again, I didn’t shy away from mentioning in my DECRA proposal that my papers had been downloaded from SSRN over a thousand times, double that on, and about as often from ResearchGate. Now, I probably don’t have to tell you that if you start your SSRN, Academia or ResearchGate profile in the week before you submit your grant proposal that you won’t get that number of downloads to report on…
  • Tip 4: Plan your project’s visibility. Given that you are reading this blog post, this tip is a bit of a giveaway. But to think a bit further about it: what is the flavour of the day? Yes! Sharing information with colleagues and the general public. Now, what is the easiest and most accessible way of doing this? Hmmm… How do you normally get your first insights into something you don’t know much about? You probably ask Google. And Google then gives you … links to websites! Really, it is that easy. Launch a website on your current project, and build on that example in your research proposal (based on your experience with your successful project website for your current project –state some visitor stats– you will launch a website for the proposed project, if awarded, to directly share insights from your research as well as to invite colleague academics to collaborate, etc, etc). I indeed have launched a website for the research that I’m carrying out on the Dutch VENI grant, which attracts good numbers of visitors (and don’t be impressed, it’s a website template that I bought off the web – only the text is mine). But I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have a blog on which I post the latest insights from my research, among others, every second week – and mention this, with url, in the DECRA proposal. So, by mid-March 2014 I needed a blog up and running, with some decent blog posts, in case a reviewer would check on it. Now, have a look at my first blog post (tada! late 2013). See, start early – don’t wait till the week before the deadline. The DECRA proposal writing process was, for me, a really great incentive to get all those PR things done that had been on the to-do list for a long time.
  • Tip 5: Plan your personal visibility. Go ahead, Google me. Just google “jeroen van der heijden”. See, that’s me. Right on top. Well, no guarantee that I get on top in your browser. I’m on top everywhere in the world, but not always if you google me from the Netherlands. Why? Because “Jeroen” (pronounce as “yuh-roon”) was the most popular name for boys in the year I was born (1977) and, believe it or not, the family name “van der Heijden” is very, very common in the Netherlands. Just google my name, but tell Google to exclude all pages that mention the Australian National University, the University of Amsterdam and Delft University (i.e., “NOT Australian National University”, etc.). See. A lot of Jeroen van der Heijdens who are not me. There’s at least one working on environmental governance too. Way too many guys with my name, I thought some six years ago, and launched my personal website. I registered the url, bought a website template, et voila! I had my website. Ever since it has been a bit of work to keep it updated, and I have to read up on how to improve my google’ability every now and then, but I think it helps in these processes – and again, it takes time to boost your google’ability, so start early! After all, you don’t want your browsing reviewer to find someone else with the same name – or worse, a hidden picture of you swinging the bottle with your mates.
  • Tip 6: Plan your friendly peer reviews. I often get people who approach me a week or sometimes a few days before the deadline of their grant proposal submission and then expect that I will drop all my work to review a 40 page proposal, come up with friendly but helpful comments, and that all in time so that the prospective applicant has time to rework my comments well before the submission deadline. I think the key reason why I started so early was that I wanted to have the first set of reviews back by Christmas 2013, so that I could change the proposal and send it to other academic friends early 2014, which then gave them enough time to reply and me enough time to take up their comments before the deadline (mid March 2014). Starting early also doesn’t hurt in getting support from your research office – most of your colleagues will be absolutely stressed out in the days before the application deadline (both those applying and those supporting applicants) and that normally results in tensions. Just be on time so you don’t have to deal with all that.

On top of this, be very, very (extremely!) honest with yourself. Are you DECRA (or whatever grant) material? If you even have the slightest doubt (and check this with your senior colleagues) then don’t apply. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t want to waste your time. These grants are cutthroat, and look for excellence (I have my issues with the system, which I will vent some other time). Much depends on your past performance (at the end of the day everyone should be able to write a good proposal – that’s why we see DECRAs awarded to people who are going to cure cancer as well as people who are going to improve our understanding of why Ovid was or wasn’t a funny guy if you look at his work from a mid-16th Century perspective, using a post-Dante’esk lens). When I applied for my DECRA I had published 27 articles in peer-reviewed journals, 4 scholarly books, 4 for chapters in scholarly edited books, and some 50 entries such as conference papers and non-academic output. On top of that I could evidence that not only had I published a lot, this work is actually well-received in the academic and policy circles (Tip 7: cite your h-factor, your i10-factor, the big name profs and organizations who/that have cited you, the policy conferences where you have given invited key-notes, etc – make sure to have a Google Scholar profile, it will give you all the metrics…but again, it takes some time for it to pull the metrics together). My track record was probably a bit over the top, but if you do not have half this output when you are five years out of your PhD then I would advise against applying. Waste of time. (But check with your senior colleagues and your research office.)

Ok, that’s all I have to say about it. One trick, seven tips, and some sage advice – this is what comes up when I compare my DECRA and VENI applications. I may come up with some more over the next weeks, so stay tuned. I still haven’t decided whether to put my (successful) DECRA application online before this year’s application deadline or not. We have to fine-tune some things with the ARC (starting date among others), and somehow I prefer to have this sorted before I start sharing the proposal. I hope you understand.

Good luck. I hope this was helpful – particularly for 2017’s (and beyond) applicants. And thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “The secret to grant writing success – well, a few tips

Add yours

  1. Thank you for posting very useful information on an important topic. I am writing to you after reading your blog post on grant writing which I found while searching for similar content.I recently finished my postdoctoral research from KTH Stockholm and Ph.D. from the Eindhoven University of Technology and trying to learn about the process of writing grants.

    Your blog post was quite useful for me in this respect. I would like to know if you have some sample grant proposals written by you or others which I can access and read particularly in the areas of low carbon transitions, sustainability transitions, and urban sustainability.

    As I work in similar areas, it would be easy for me to understand how a good proposal is written and framed.

    I look forward to a response from your side.

    1. Thanks Suyash. I hope your application is going well. For all others interested in a sample grant proposal: I sent Suyash my VENI proposal (see elsewhere on this blog) after he PM’ed me. Drop me a line and I’ll forward it to you too.

      1. Thanks for this excellent post Jeroen. I am planning to Apply for DECRA in the field of Electrical Engineering. Not sure if am a DECRA material.

        My Background:
        Unfortunately, I donot have more than 4 publications in the IEEE’s. As there are several patents which are still pending; hence I cannot publish papers.

        However, I have 1 US patent and 8 Korean patents, all these 8 are under processing for international patenting.
        My Professor and I launched a University supported Company based out of my PhD thesis ( PhD awarded in February 2016). This company has attracted funding from Korean Ministry of Industries and Research.

        US homeland security is also interested in using the outcomes of my thesis in their ship container security initiatives.
        I also won URSI Young Scientist Award 2016 for my work. It was about bending a two century old faraday shielding law. I just was fortunate enough to find a way to bend that law, to send Wireless Power (90 watts across 80 mm thick metal walls)and data across the world’s largest oil rig and LNG Carrier ship.
        My PhD was spent on a shipyard aboard several marine vessels of Hyundai and Samsung. It was a real-time development project kind of a PhD.

        I also served as an Assistant Professor in one of the Indian Institutes of Technology for an year. Then, I quit my job and came back to Korea with my Professor and now I am a principle Engineer in the same company which I helped in co-founding ( Korean laws donot permit a Non-Korean to own a business in Korea, unless they have a Korean Entrepreneur Visa).

        Based on the above provided information, I thought the following are the most logical premises around which I might write my proposal:
        1. A Proposal based on the continuation of my work for Australian corporations dealing with a high revenue generating commodities. They have a similar problems of faraday shielding on their on site area; which seriously jeopardizes the lives of their workers and progress due to lack of reliable communication network.
        2. A research approach to enable an Australian Startup based out of the University. Thus generating Engineering and non engineering jobs.

        I for sure know, that a startup enabling research proposal wins you a grant in Korea. I am not so sure about the Australian Flair. I would be glad to get some pointers from you.

      2. Thanks Sai, it sounds like you’re in a completely different field than I am, so I won’t be able to provide advice based on the content of your grant. Best thing to do, I guess, is to get in touch with a Australia based university and see if they wish to support you with this.

        That being said, you are aware that you can apply for a DECRA only twice in the first five years post PhD? (Check the latest rules.) That means you will be more competitive closer to the end of that period than right now at the start. Surely something to keep in mind.

        Good luck!

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