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First time writing a big grant

Notes from a total noob

Today I submitted my first grant as a principal investigator. I'm very nearly at the end of my PhD and still very keen to stay in science and it seemed like a great option. The chance to create your own job, study the things you are most interested in and seek out new and exciting projects. It's certainly a lot more involved than applying to do a postdoc for someone else and with that in mind, I've jotted down a few of my thoughts regarding my first go at writing a major research grant (from my own experience and advice I've received)

1. Time management is critical

I know, right. This gets said A LOT in virtually any job but I still think it's worth stressing here. Think of it like writing a paper - you will obviously lead it and so do most of the writing but you need to give others enough time to review it, write letters of support, and to work out your ideas in terms of what's feasible at this moment in time. You might need to access field sites that take years to plan (e.g. research cruises) so you'll need to know well in advance what's actually achievable.

 I started writing my fellowship application (in it's earliest form) in January, and I only just finished the complete document (8-9 months writing and a major focus for the last 3 months). It's incredibly time consuming - you need input from collaborators, reviewers and administrators and you need to know that you'll be able to give them enough time

2. Go big or go home

Writing a big grant is a balancing act between plausibility and wow factor. The research councils want to know that a) it's brilliant, frontier science that's never been done before; b) No one has ever done it (but that it's also definitely going to work) and c) it's going to have big impacts, both in your research field and in the wider society.

This means that you need to shout about every positive outcome your project will deliver, and acknowledge the risks. Don't be embarrassed to think big, you need the peer review council to know that your work is important. Take into account who might review it. Does it make sense to an atmospheric scientist and a geneticist? It needs to.

3. Why you? Why now? Why this?

Particularly for early career programmes like fellowships, which is probably similar to what your first grant will be, there's much more emphasis on you as a person. If you're like me, you have to choke down positive comments about yourself but there's no place for that on a grant. Why should you be doing this project? What is it about your experience and interests that makes you the best person to deliver? (other than that you've had the idea and the time to write the grant)

Research is basically always some extent, if it's been done before, then it's not really research. However, you still want to emphasise the timeliness of your project. Given how competitive these awards can be, it might not be enough for it to be a great project written by a great researcher. If it could be funded next year instead, then you might still get overlooked. Urgency is key here! "_____ is important and I need to study it now"

Obviously your project is important but the research councils want to know to whom, and the more groups it's important to, the better. Spend time thinking about how your project connects to different disciplines, non-academic groups. Even having only informally reviewed a few proposals, it's clear that lots of people treat non-academic engagement as an afterthought. Statements like "The public will be interested in this research" won't wash - why will they be interested in it, and how will you engage them. There's lots of platforms to do it, so pick one or more that work for you and give details of how you'll do it

4. Keep sight of the £$€

At some point you're probably going to realise "Hey, I'm applying for some serious cash here". I found a good way to think about writing the grant is to think "I've got ___ pages to explain why ___ years of my time is worth £_____". Make it value for money. Seek out collaborators who can provide added value to your proposal (equipment/ facilities etc.) that strengthen the economic case for funding your proposal. You almost want to make the funding body think it can't afford not to fund your proposal.

Everyone will tell you it's good experience, and it is...but you need to be realistic. Consult with as many people as possible and bounce ideas around to get a feel for what's going to be a cogent, competitive proposal. It's a big investment of time and if it doesn't stand a fighting chance, then there's an argument for focussing on other work. A paper is virtually guaranteed to be of value, whereas a grant is something that takes months to write that could be worth nothing or everything. That said....

You can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket

Good luck! I hope this has been helpful

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