Finding the time – Tackling the no time conundrum in grant writing

Throughout the work I do with universities at Cloud Chamber the single most common barrier preventing academic researchers from writing research proposals is time. This  issue comes up over and over again and usually is most prevalent in smaller and specialist institutions which are often teaching heavy and have less of a research tradition. I thought it might be useful to get a perspective from some academics who, like their colleagues, have heavy teaching and administrative roles but have managed to write funding applications (and be successful some of the time!). What was their secret? Well it turns out that there isn’t a secret but there are some tools, techniques and approaches that they employ which help them along the way. These different ideas can be broadly placed into two categories. Firstly there are the broad approaches to grant writing and the thought processes behind them and secondly there are practical things you can try which aim to help carve out time for grant writing and research more generally. Finally I have added some other tips at the end that may be worth doing if you are going to take the first steps into grant writing.

The right frame of mind

Being from a small institution can feel daunting, it feels daunting enough if you work at one of the larger research intensive institutions, especially if you are at the start of your research career. Even though the research funding world can look daunting experience tells me that it will get easier as you learn about it, write applications and become immersed in it. We know that the odds of getting research funded are small (can vary anywhere from 5-25% for most schemes) but without putting yourself forward you certainly wont secure funding. So what can you do?

  • First up you need to consider what research drives you? What are you interested in? Why did you get into academia? Was it to do research, was it to teach, was it something else? Be aware of what motivates you as this will help you identify what (if any) research applications are right for you. Once you know the answers to this you need to think more carefully  around the specifics outlined below.
  • It is really important that whatever your research idea is it must interest you. The research should build on your passions, on what really interests and engages you. Remember, if you secure the grant you will need to deliver the project. This sounds flippant but it is a reality that can easily be forgotten (I’ve seen it happen!). If your heart is not in the application process then delivering the research will be even more problematic. Make sure that your heart is in it, the research will drive you and your curiosity will be sustained even when other things may get in the way.
  • If you are from a small institution you may believe that nobody from small institutions ever gets funded. It may feel like this but it isn’t the case. Yes, it is tougher submitting from a smaller institution but funders are very concious of ironing out biases in the research review process. In all the applications I have supported and got feedback on in the last three years never has the institution been raised as an issue. Indeed on some occasions the institutional support and environment has been praised in the feedback, in part due to the extra mile some smaller institutions go to when supporting an application. Remember that one of the reasons that smaller institutions receive less funding is because they put in far fewer applications. Browse through previously funded projects on funder websites, you may be pleasantly surprised.
  • When approaching grant writing you need to accept that you probably won’t get it right the first time. Perhaps not the second time either but each time you write a grant you will learn knowledge and skills that will support you in other parts of your work as well. Grant writing is a great way of enhancing clarity in your writing, understanding issues around value for money and budgeting and most importantly it can develop problem solving skills as you put the jigsaw of a research project together.

Practical tips and approaches

When you have a great research idea and what to turn it into an application you may still find yourself looking at your diary and wondering how you will write it before the deadline hits. There are some things that you can do, some easier than others but in the experience of academics I’ve worked with they are all achievable in time.

  • All academics will generally have research time allocated to them as part of their institutions workload planning systems. This can vary by institution. What ever your allocation is (let’s say it is 10% of your time and you work full time) then work out what this means in hours. In our example 10% would normally equate to about 4 hours in a week. To use this effectively some researchers look for a consistent spot in the diary (perhaps a morning or afternoon where you don’t teach) and then block that out for the whole semester / term or year. This protects your time but you do need to be vigilant about it and not let meetings creep in. If people request meetings at that time then explain that you already have commitments. During that time don’t check emails or only check them at the start or end – allow yourself a fixed time to do it. The advice I’ve had is that you must be disciplined. It isn’t easy but if you build it into your routine it will get easier and easier. As one academic said to me “It’s amazing how easily things can be rearranged and then we realise the world will not end if we say ‘no’ or ‘no yet’. No really, it won’t.” Nobody will automatically protect your research time for you, you need to make it a priority for yourself.
  • Set up funding alert emails using whatever resources your university provides (this may be Research Professional or Research Connect – or something else, check with your research office.) Build some research thinking and browsing of research opportunities time into a Friday afternoon (or whenever suits). Browsing the funding opportunities can be a good (and hopefully low stress) way to complete a week. Even if none of the opportunities are relevant or right for you at the moment you are keeping abreast of what is happening in your field/discipline or areas of interest.
  • Build a relationship with your research office. Drop in or arrange to see the team. Get to know them and make sure they know what your interests are as well. That way the advice they provide will be as accurate as possible and they, in conjunction with you, can make quick assessments as to whether a particular call is worth pursuing or not.
  • Network, network and keep networking. Get yourself known both on-line and in the real world. Make sure you engage with debates and questions in your area of interest. Make sure that when other people have a research idea and are looking for a collaborator that you are one of the first people they think of. Being a co-investigator or collaborator on a research proposal takes some of the hassle and stress out of writing an application. And it can be a great way of increasing your chances of securing funding, especially if you are collaborating with someone with a good funding and research track record.

Other ideas

One thing worth bearing in mind as you go through the grant writing process is that it does get easier. It is amazing what you learn along the way and how you can easily apply this knowledge to future applications. To support this learning you may want to also try the following ideas.

  • Sketch out your whole research idea as early as possible. Don’t start by trying to write the whole application from beginning to end. Get the outline down on a couple of sides of A4 first. This can quickly help to establish the viability of your research proposal and can be shared with others quickly and easily for initial feedback. There are a number of good templates out there, one of my favourites can be found here and is reproduced below.


  •  Break the bid down into achievable chunks, working backwards from the deadline (whether self imposed or funder driven). It is always useful to do this with research office staff as they can make sure that the time-line also fits in with any institutional sign off requirements. It also means they can draw on their experience to help ensure it is achievable, including pointing you to other internal resources that may help.
  • Whether you are ready to write an application now or at some point in the future you may want to consider mapping out a 3 or 5 year research plan to help guide your thinking. I have outlined on a previous blog what this might include. It is worth doing this with a mentor, trusted colleague or research office staff who can help you think through how this will work best for you.

So there you have it, some (hopefully) helpful and relatively simple ideas to help you find the time you need to write a funding application. I’m sure there will be other tips from other researchers and it would be great to him them. Cracking this nut can be hard but I know it can be done.

A special thanks to Dr Stephen Pihlaja (@mysonabsalom) and Dr Helen Hanna  (@DrHelenHannafor their ideas in preparing this blog. Apologies in advance if I have misconstrued your thoughts, tips and hints!