UKERC workshop for Early Career Researchers: getting started with grant applications

09 Apr 2024

On 13 March 2024, UKERC hosted a free online workshop for Early Career Researchers (ECRs), introducing the grant-writing process and setting out recommendations on how to improve the chances of a successful application. The event attracted 60 participants from the UK and further afield, with researchers from various early career stages, from PhDs to postdoc. Among them, there was a mix of grant-writing experience, from those with an initial conception of ideas to those who had completed an application. The event was hosted by Elizabeth Adams, from the Centre for Facilitation, whose expertise in research culture led us to understand more fully why ‘it takes a community to write a grant proposal’.

The session was split into three, with break-out rooms for some informal networking. The first break-out allowed us to introduce ourselves and chat about why we were applying for funding. Discussions in our group revolved around applying for fellowships or grants, and how you need to craft the application for the funder rather than your own interests. It was agreed that this can be discipline-dependent, with many differences between the physical, social and natural sciences.

Returning to the main session, Elizabeth spoke about the different writing styles that may be required by various funders – from simple bullet points to a more narrative style – and asked us to think who we are writing for. An internal expression of interest will be different to writing for an external reviewer with a panel. We were advised to remember that panels are multi-disciplinary, and therefore to make an application accessible and engaging for all audiences. It was also suggested that we speak to a peer group and ask to see unsuccessful applications, which could be useful to understand what makes a successful application. Approaching peers for this information is also a good way to start building a network of people.

Elizabeth Adams, Centre for Facilitation

Elizabeth Adams, Centre for Facilitation.

Next, we learnt that what you are applying for is also important. In our break-out group, we discussed the differences between writing a grant and a fellowship proposal: grants tend to focus on what the funder needs from a proposal, whereas fellowships are more about independent work, and will need support from an institution.
Our second break-out session gave us the opportunity to discuss how we would assess the type of funding we were looking for, and how we would approach internal and external people to find out about possible funding opportunities. Our group discussed the value of the Research Office in this regard; we also discussed how, since lockdown, it has been harder to find out who to approach within our schools or colleges.

For ECRs who have moved institution, and with many of us now working from home and having minimal visits to a ‘home’ institution, it can be hard to make connections. There are fewer opportunities to listen to discussions between other academics, and therefore to learn about the funding landscape. Early career networks have become more valuable in filling some of this gap, and approaching people via email and starting discussions were recommended. Social media and networking at events are also good ways of meeting and discussing research and funding with peers, thereby becoming part of conversations around research and further growing your research community.

Our final session was about how to structure a research proposal, particularly thinking about how to ensure that the first sentence ignites interest in the rest of the proposal. PhD students were recommended to enter a three-minute ‘thesis competition’, as these were ideal for thinking more concisely about research. We were also given a sentence structure of ‘and, but, therefore’ and, in our final break-out rooms, to come up with a ‘golden’ sentence using this structure that encapsulated our research. We then took our sentence back to the main room, where we were encouraged to create a ‘mind map’ of people who were in our research network:

  • Who would know the funding and political landscape?
  • Where could we take our ‘golden sentence’ to test it out?
  • Who could act as a mentor?
  • How does the proposal align to your department strategy?

All these questions would help us plan who to contact when we were ready.
The workshop was incredibly useful in getting us to think more concisely about research proposals. It brought home why building a community of people to help us may allow for more successful outcomes, and provided some useful tools to accomplish this aim. For any ECRs who have the opportunity to attend a workshop like this in the future, I would strongly recommend signing up; it has really helped me think about how to plan more for my academic future, and to understand the benefits of creating an academic community.