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Staying ahead of the game

How to prepare a research proposal to obtain a grant

Ursula Kirchmayer

Department of Epidemiology, Lazio regional healthcare service, Rome 1 Asl (Local health authority)

By October 2020April 26th, 2022No Comments
finanziamenti ricerca
Photo by Lorenzo De Simone

“It is evident that one cannot start preparing the project proposal only once the tender notice is published; instead one should have a project in the pipeline that is perfected based on the specific requirements of the tender”.

I believe that this statement- which was pronounced during a research conference in the healthcare sector organised by the Ministry of Health a few years ago- represents a key point in the preparation of research projects: it is possible to put into practice the indications of the flow chart only by staying ahead of the game.

Therefore, in an ideal world, by the time of the tender notice publication one should already have an advanced draft of the project, where points 2, 6 and 8 of the flow chart have been applied. The limited time between the tender notice publication and the submission deadline would then be invested to better target the specifications, confirm the (previously identified) partnership and take care of the admin and financial aspects.

Unfortunately this ideal modus operandi is not always applicable in the working reality. Often the researcher has to deal with all the aspects- even the admin ones- of the project, which are not within his/her direct competence. This not only risks compromising the scientific side (due to lack of time) but also the formal part (as this is managed by someone who is not trained to do it). On the other hand, though, there is a further reflection that emerges with the fast turnaround of topics of interest. A project that has been in the pipeline for a while might be focused on a question that is no longer “hot”. Furthermore, the waiting time to get a response and funding in case of success can sometimes be long. The moment a researcher should decide, after a rejection, to submit the project again for another tender, what might realistically happen is that the topic is no longer current or that in the meantime another research group already published related results.

In regards to failure, even before participating to a research tender, the researcher should be aware that when there is a limited budget and a high number of competitors there are low chances of obtaining the funding. Therefore there are two options: getting discouraged by that awareness or experiencing it as motivation to prepare a new high quality proposal aiming to rank among the winners. A researcher, in the true meaning of the word, is a curious person, who always seeks out new targets. Research is based on trial and error, which implies carrying on despite, but also thanks to, failures. Accepting failure and transforming that into an opportunity to grow are then intrinsically part of research. Indeed, the more “serious” research tenders provide feedback to the researcher, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of every proposal (regardless of the outcome), thus offering the researcher the possibility to improve and get better over time.

In the most fortunate cases a research project that did not obtain funding manages to take place anyway, possibly utilising different funding, which is a preferable scenario than having to invest further time and energy towards participating in another tender. However, this is not really a failure, all the opposite. The researcher can pursue research questions that are not necessarily funded, following a larger utility criterion for the society we live in, only by picking up on the insights matured through unsuccessful tender applications.

10 tips for academics


    1. Funders, suitability and guidelines. First of all, it is crucial to study the funding source and understand whether it is the right one to apply to. What grants were approved in similar specialisations? Does the research correspond to their priorities? Underline how the project meets the tender criteria, also in terms of legibility.
    2. Do not rush. Give yourself a lot of time before the submission deadline. Each section requires care and attention as well as the time necessary for colleagues to review and provide feedback before the submission. It is helpful to emphasise what type of impact- academic, social or economic- this work might be able to have and how it will advance research.
    3. Request feedback and be clear. It is crucial to be clear on the meaning of the project when addressing a lay public, as some referees might not be specialists in that field. It is useful to get others to read the application, such as colleagues from other sectors, or those who successfully applied to the same funder, but also family and friends, who might be able to ask questions you did not think of before.
    4. Value the research team. It is necessary to include details of the research team, including all the researchers and specifying their individual contribution to the work. Avoid giving importance to a well-known name without highlighting the role it had.
    5. Rigor, quality/cost ratio, impact and scientific interest. Start by choosing the right scheme and reading carefully the application guideline. Ensure to indicate exactly how your idea fits within the application. It is useful to highlight all aspects of a good proposal such as rigor, the quality/cost ratio (a high cost might lead to exclusion), impact and scientific interest.
    6. Clear methods. It is important to explain and refer to the details of the methods and the experiments. Make sure to include the methods for analysing the data, which are sometimes requested in the form of a data management plan, and avoid being vague.
    7. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You can always get in contact with the funder. That way any queries you have about the suitability of your idea can be answered.
    8. Interdisciplinary proposal: talk about it with your partner. You should make sure that the partnership is reliable. It is necessary to be intellectually interested in what the others are working on. If you meet someone that you might want to work with make sure to dedicate the time necessary to formulate a solid idea and to plan its application.
    9. Concentrate and stay positive. Usually we get less space than we would like so it is important to focus on what really matters and to be clear. Write positively, without any incomprehensible language, and with enthusiasm about what you intend to do and why you believe you are the right person to do it.
    10. If you get rejected, try again. Responding to the referees’ suggestions can add value to an application and, once adjusted, some proposals obtain funding. Being rejected does not necessarily mean that it cannot be funded at all; it might just require some changes. Do not just resend the same thing, but respond to feedback and try again.



Defeo C. How to write a good research funding application. Mendeley blog, June 15, 2017.
Lock H. How to apply for research funding: 10 tips for academics. The Guardian, May 10, 2015.