Writing grants is the worst. There is no point beating around the bush. It’s a long grueling process that commonly ends in devastating rejection. If you have experienced this, you are not alone! You just have to get back on that horse and keep trying. In the meantime, we have put together a few words of wisdom from someone who has had a plethora of grant writing experiences – Reader in developmental biology, Grant Wheeler.  Grant has had a long successful scientific career working on everything from intercellular desmosome junctions to drug discovery. We asked him to give a few grant application tips for scientists at all stages of their career – everything from PhD to PI.

Grants for PhD students


Grant Wheeler

You might think being a PhD student means you don’t have to worry about writing grants. However, like anything in life, it’s good to get ahead of the game. Start writing small grant applications as soon as possible. It looks great on your CV and it’s all good practice. We asked Grant what advice he would give to new PhD students.

“Join societies and apply for travel grants. There are a lot of great societies out there that will almost always be happy to help PhD students with funds to attend conferences. For example, the BSCB and BSDB are great societies to join and they both offer very generous travel bursaries for their members. If you can show that you can get your own money, your PI will be much more likely to let you apply to attend a conference.”


Join societies – get on that gravy train now!

Apply for a fellowship

If you are reaching the end of your postdoc and you are worrying where your next paycheck will come from, start thinking about fellowships. These can be highly competitive and the application process can be tough. However, if you think your CV is strong enough and you’re super passionate about your research, applying for a fellowship is a no-brainer. If you don’t ask you don’t get.

“There are a lot of great fellowship schemes out there that you can apply to. There is the Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie fellowship if you are keen to move around Europe. Within the UK there is the David Phillips fellowship offered by the BBSRC. This helps young scientists start up their own groups. The Wellcome Trust also offer their own postdoctoral fellowships to help scientists start their own independent research. When you are applying for any of these it is important to have a mentor who will help you through the process. Get in touch with the PI you want to work with and ask if they would be able to help with your application.”

Make sure if you apply for a fellowship in a new lab that you are a good fit for this lab. And equally, make sure that the lab is right for you.

Getting your first project grant

If you are a new group leader you are probably finding yourself worrying about getting your first project grants. Getting the idea for your grant is half the battle! The other half is getting it written up into a perfect, flawless application that will win you the big bucks. We asked Grant for his advice to help with this whole ordeal.

“When you get an idea for a project grant it is important to plan in advance. Know where you are going to apply for your funding and know the deadlines and timelines you will need to keep to. Before you even start writing, discuss your idea with some colleagues. Get a feel for what other people think of your project plan and try to get some feedback so you can develop and refine it. Have collaborators in mind. If you can name your collaborators on your grant it will strengthen the application. Reviewers will always see this as a positive.”

Get an outline together well ahead of the application deadline

“Make your objectives clear, try not to make it too complicated. A reviewer is not going to favor your application if it’s a real slog to get through. Get other people to read your application for you and make sure that they can understand it and found it easy to read.”

“Use preliminary data, this is very important for project grants. However, the data needs to be presented well. Have it laid out like a proper figure panel. Make sure the data is clearly showing what you are trying to say. Having questionable data in a grant application will do you no favors.”

“Make sure the application is not too ambitious. The project needs to be achievable within the given timeframe of the funding. Have 1 or 2 ideas for which feasibility is high and then 1 bigger idea which will be more ambitious to give your project its novelty. Try to find a good balance for this. Finally, have a plan B! What if the project doesn’t go to plan? Show that you have thought of all possible outcomes and have a backup plan ready.”

Leave those dodgy, messy in situs out! They look terrible.

Grant application success rates

It’s well known that most grant applications have a very low success rate. Funding is limited and most calls will receive hundreds or even thousands of applications. The competition is tough. So, you are going to have to be the best of the best leaving no room for error.

“Travel grants for PhD students have a very high success rate. Not many applications will be rejected. Some fellowships can have an extremely low success rate, somewhere in the region of 10% will be funded. Project grants depend on where you apply but some can have success rates of around 20%. Don’t feel disheartened if you apply for this type of funding and don’t get it. It’s extremely tough and does not mean that your project is a bad idea.”

“A lot of the applications the funding bodies receive will be fantastic and easily fundable. To cut the applications down to the very best of the best, reviewers will need to start considering very tiny details in the application. It’s important that you make sure your application is flawless. No spelling mistakes, no formatting issues. Make it perfect. Also, pay attention to all aspects of the grant including the sections that ask you about the impact of your research and the outreach you will do. Take these sections just as seriously as the rest of the grant.”

Don’t ask for too much money. And don’t come across like you’re God’s gift to science!

Grant’s top 5 grant writing tips

  1. Think and plan well in advance
  2. Discuss your ideas with your colleagues
  3. Consider collaborators to add to the grant to strengthen the application
  4. Keep it simple and easy to read
  5. Don’t ask for too much money – especially if you are a new group leader
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