Applying for Research Funding: Four Key Principles

Throughout September we will be publishing articles detailing the experience and advice from winners of a number of grants and awards. In our first post, Dr Nick Witham introduces four key principles of applying for research funding.

Access to research funding is a vital part of academic life, especially in early career, when routes to funding are not as clearly defined as they are for those in more established posts. The importance of funding is twofold. First, money to access archives or go to conferences is always useful, especially if, as an Americanist, you need to visit places that are far removed from where you live and work. Second, success in applying for funding is a valuable measure of professional esteem that will serve you well in the future: employers want to see that you can think – and raise money – outside the box.

I have had some success in this area, having raised funds during my PhD and the first five years of my career from the AHRC, BAAS, the British Academy, Duke University, the University of Edinburgh, the Fulbright Commission, and the University of Nottingham. I have also served on the committee of HOTCUS, for which I have judged postgraduate travel awards on several occasions. In this post, I will reflect briefly on four key principles of applying for research funding, which are rooted in common sense without, I hope, being too banal.

Apply for anything and everything

When you apply for research funding, no matter what the money is for, you must expect a relatively low success rate. This necessitates using all available resources to locate funding opportunities. So, pay attention to those annoying and spammy funding bulletins that are circulated by your institution, even if they are usually made up of a bleakly disproportionate number of advertisements for funding in STEM subjects. Keep an eye out for calls from institutions that offer funding for PG and ECR researchers: particularly fruitful examples for Americanists are the Rothermere Centre at Oxford, Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, Nottingham’s Centre for Advanced Study, UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies, and Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Study. Check regularly the websites of the major UK funding bodies (the AHRC, the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust), as well as subject associations like BAAS, the Royal Historical Society, BrANCH, HOTCUS and the Fulbright Commission. Also remember that a whole host of libraries, archives and state historical societies offer opportunities to apply for funds: the Eccles Centre at the British Library, the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg and the JFK Institute in Berlin are just three examples that are on the doorstep.

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‘…there is a certain truth behind the idea that one funding success can lead to more funding successes in the future. ‘ Image Credit: Brad K., Creative Commons

Be accurate and reasonable with your plans and budget

Are you applying for a smaller, short term grant for travel to a specific conference or archive? If so, provide a succinct rationale of what the project that you are working on is, and how the funding you are applying for will help. Make sure this is accessible and interesting to non-specialists, and try your hardest to answer the “so what” question. Just as important, if not more so, is providing a detailed breakdown of the full cost of the trip, and explaining how you will make up any shortfall. For research trips, be realistic about what it is possible to achieve in a short space of time. Do not plan to visit multiple archives in one trip unless you are sure such a plan is reasonable. For conferences, think hard about what attendance will give both you and the organisation you are applying to. Is this a chance to present research for the first time? Will the experience provide visibility for you and the funder? Answers to these questions are essential.

Are you applying for a larger postdoctoral grant (i.e. from the British Academy, Leverhulme, or an Oxbridge JRF) that will fund a project in a variety of ways over a long period of time? If this is the case, think about institutional support: do you know people at the university, will they be there when you are, is it likely that the School or Department will match funding if that is required? It is also important to plan your project in detail and have a specific set of outcomes listed, even if, in the case of a postdoctoral project, these are only based on preliminary research. In other words, you will need a coherent rationale for the project, a set of research questions, a chapter structure, a literature review, and a list of planned conference presentations outputs.

In all cases, know what individual funders are looking for. For example, understand that the Fulbright Commission focuses on future “leadership” potential (whether in academic life or elsewhere), whereas traditional academic funders will be more interested in the intellectual qualities of your project. Be sure that your referees or any other sponsors know the specific project and can comment on its viability. Finally, be thorough and accurate with estimations of cost. Do not estimate “£500 for a transatlantic flight” in your budget. Instead, include a quote for “£538.45 for flight from Heathrow to New York with British Airways, price sources from Skyscanner”. Attention to this type of detail is essential.

When you are successful, reflect on what you have achieved and how you can use it to demonstrate “transferable skills”

Research funding is not just about getting to conduct research (as nice as that is), and it is a good idea to think hard about what other benefits the money you raise might have on your professional development. Questions to ask are: How might the funding demonstrate that you will be able to generate more money in the future? Will a smaller grant lead into a larger one? Have you identified a specific need for a small sum of money that would dramatically help your larger funded project? In seeking to answer these questions, do not always think about “research funding” as money you have generated specifically for your own research. If you have raised it for a conference, or for a network you are part of, this is still excellent experience and is something to foreground to future employers.

When you are not successful, do not be disappointed and/or discouraged

It is important to realise that when funding bodies say that prizes were “incredibly competitive”, this is not patronising, nor is it evidence of a conspiracy against you. There is nowhere near as much money for humanities funding as there should be, and a negative outcome is not a condemnation of your project. Do not think that lack of success means that the project is inherently unfundable and therefore not worth bothering with. The internal politics of funding bodies, and the sheer competitiveness of the process, make it something of a lottery. More importantly, do not be fooled by “Facebook syndrome”, in which you find out about others’ successes and then negatively compare yourself. The vast majority of us have far more “failures” when it comes to research funding that successes: this is natural and should not lead to discouragement.

Much of the above will probably seem like common sense, and to a large extent it is: there is no particular secret to getting funding, just a lot of thinking to do and a lot of boxes to tick. But there is a certain truth behind the idea that one funding success can lead to more funding successes in the future. So applying for as much as possible is really important: once your research is on the radar and flagged as “fundable”, even if you have only raised a very small amount of money, you are well on your way… Good luck!

Nick Witham

Nick Witham is a historian of the twentieth-century United States. He is Lecturer in US Political History at the UCL Institute of the Americas, where he also serves as Programme Director for the MA in US Studies (History and Politics).

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About Nick Witham

Nick Witham is a historian of the twentieth-century United States. He is Lecturer in US Political History at the UCL Institute of the Americas, where he also serves as Programme Director for the MA in US Studies (History and Politics).
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