What do the headings mean?

Beautiful caligraphy being drawn

Complex writing by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

Each funding body uses their own language, but they are all aiming to compare projects to find the best ones. Because of this, they often use relatively similar headings.

Here is what I think some of the more common headings on funding application forms are asking for.

Title: This is the first thing anybody will see. It should be a concise, memorable summary of your project. Don’t be too clever. If your title has a colon in it, that generally means that one half of your title is superfluous. Clever, but superfluous.

Research design: The funders want to be able to get a quick sense of what sort of research you are doing. Is it a clinical trial with 4,000 double-blind randomly selected men between the ages of 42 – 46? Is it a sociological inquiry into the epistemology of depression as expressed through the works of Goya? Provide one or two sentences that describe both the methodological field and the scope, preferably in numbers.

Project synopsis: This will be the blurb that the funding bodies put into the media release when they announce all the grants. It should build on the title to give a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve. Think like a copy-editor for this one.

Role and contribution of chief investigator (CI): Why are you there? What will you actually be doing on the project? You should talk about your intellectual contribution, as well as your role in managing the project. For a simple project, you might be creating the guidelines for the research assistant, then supervising their activity. For a larger project, you might be validating a design that is implemented by your research team, or taking the lead on the majority of the fieldwork.

Research aim: What is the overall aim of the project? The funding body will be looking for projects that align with their priorities. Once you have written your aim, compare it to their priorities. If they are not closely aligned, you might want to adjust your project, or look for another funding body.

Background: This section is generally written like a literature review. It is the only part of the application where you get to talk about what has happened in the past. You need to give a background to the theories and research terrain as it pertains to your project; the basis for the situation (which hopefully, has been influenced by some of your previous research); the emergence of new strands of thought in this area; the progress of the pilot study (if there has been one). It should all be fully referenced back to the literature in this area, with an attached list of references. Ideally, you will build a story that moves from the broad area of research and narrows, inexorably, to the specifics of your previous work in developing the research field. This story will provide a bedrock for what comes in the next sections, which will focus entirely on what will happen in the future, if the grant is successful.

Research question: Your research question is the one question that will guide your whole study. When things get black and confused, you will be able to come back to your research question and use it to shine a light on the project and get you back on track. It can have sub-questions, but doesn’t have to.

Often, the best way to draft it is to turn your aim into a question.

Methods: What are you going to do, in detail, over the funding period, to answer the research question? That is what funders are looking for when they ask you for your methodology. If you want your assessors to approve of your methodology, give them as much detail as you can. Don’t just show them the landscape – get down and dirty. Show them the grit.

This topic deserves a post all by itself, which is lucky because I’ve written one already! “The nitty and the gritty” describes, in detail, the level of information that you need to put into your methodology section.

Ideally, your methodology provides a road map and timeline for the project. It is a document that you can revisit and see if you are still on track and on time. If not, you can deviate from the plan, and you will have a reason for doing so. Deviating from a known plan is better than trying to make it up as you go along. The best time to think about these issues is now, when you are planning your project. If you try to work them out as you go along during the project, you will fail.

Significance: How will this change or progress the relevant field of research? What real world impact will it have? You need to address both these questions.

Theory: If there is a particular branch of theory that deals with your particular topic, then talk about that. If not, where does it fit in with the body of theory overall? Is it pushing on the edges somewhere? Generally, this will be dealt with either in your background section, or in your methodology section. However, some applications ask for a separate section on theory. This is nice, because it allows you to talk about where your theory has come from, and where you are pushing at the boundaries of that theory – where the theory is going.

Application: Given that you have demonstrated the evidence base for your idea, how will you get it translated into reality? You don’t need to do all the work here, just indicate where your idea will go next, and what impact it might have. For example, it might inform government policy and its changes, or transform how certain groups are represented in society.

Partnerships: Partnerships are particularly important for industry-related grants, but they can also be useful in theory-based projects. Who are you working with and why are they supporting you? This can indicate how strongly connected you are with the people who implement your project. Describe where they fit in the project, which might be the steering committee, as part of the actual research team, or as partners on the side, taking the journey with you and showing their commitment by providing resources and additional funds.  If they are direct consumers of your research (i.e. they can implement it themselves) or if they will carry it forward to other stakeholders, it is important to make this clear. Don’t forget to describe any other support, such as funding, expertise or in-kind support, that they might be providing.

Consumer involvement: Will you have representation from people who have been affected by this problem? This is really important. If your funding body has asked about this, then they value it highly. Good solutions come from the people with the problem. It keeps it ‘real’.

Practical outcomes: In the significance section, you made some claims about how this could change current practice. In the application section, you described how these would be applied. In this section, you should talk about what things your project will produce.  Will it be a report or a refereed journal article, or a framework or a training program, or what? But don’t just provide a list of things – you need to describe how these artifacts are the best way to move forward to your overall goal. It is no good publishing a report if nobody reads it. You need to place these objects on your roadmap for getting your findings into the hands of the people who can make change.

Project timelines: Go back to your method section and map out, month by month or quarter by quarter, how it is all going to play out over the years of the project. If you want to draw it up as a Gantt chart as well, that might help. Feasibility is becoming increasingly important and can be specifically assessed.

Budget: If you have a clear project plan, your budget should be pretty straightforward. In your budget, as in your methods section, you need to provide clear details. I’ve written a post about constructing your budget that describes the level of detail you need. 

Budget justification: Your methods section can describe many types of activity. The budget justification links that activity to the budget and timeline.

For example, where you have a research assistant doing the survey over 9 months, the budget will have one line for ‘research assistant’. Your budget justification should say that you will be hiring someone with particular skills, for a specific amount of time and at a specific rate, so that they will be able to do that survey. You need to describe the skills required, why the time is appropriate and what you think that rate of pay will attract that level of skilled person.

If you have said that you will travel to interview your people, the budget will have one line for ‘travel’. The budget justification will make it clear how you arrived at that number: how many trips, with what airline, how many nights in three star accommodation, etc.

Publications: Usually a straightforward one! In general, you should either stick to the last ten years, or just provide the publications that are relevant to this project. If you have space, think about adding  30 – 50 explaining why each citation is significant to this project. Don’t forget that all investigators should be providing their publication list, not just the chief investigator. For more detail, see our advice on pruning your publication list.

Track record: As well as your research projects and publications, talk about how you have contributed to the profession so that the grant assessors can see that you have some weight in this space. I think that it is worthwhile to talk about teaching, and shaping the curriculum, as one way to solve this problem in the future. However, I know that a lot of senior researcher warn against talking about teaching in research applications because it is often seen as irrelevant. List your involvement in the education peak body and your teaching awards. Again, this section should cover all investigators, not just the chief investigator.

PS: Most of this will be explained in the guidelines. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.


About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

One Response to What do the headings mean?

  1. Pingback: Unread | Annotary

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