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Application Tips

The information here is designed to support applicants to produce the strongest and best quality research funding proposals. In addition to the below, funding bodies will often have specific support on their websites, offering application tips to shape strong submissions.

Once you have identified your funding scheme and read the scheme guidance, it's time to start writing. Detailed tips on approaching the application are below and when starting a proposal remember:

  • Allow yourself time to explore different methods and research designs
  • Make sure your research question is clear and well articulated 
  • Log-in to the application portal or download a full application form before you begin writing
  • Every part of the application is important - an excellent application with a poor budget or impact statement will be declined
  • It is never too early to ask someone to review your application, the Research Office, your Head of Research or a colleague
  • Read the scheme guidance: this is the single most important thing you should do before starting work on an application. There is always the temptation to read a short description and then go away and begin writing. The guidance notes are vital to give insight into what the funder hopes to achieve, what themes they are particularly interested in, and what they will fund.
  • Understand the length of the funding on offer: understand the lower and upper limits of the funding in terms of duration aqnd expectation. Is it for a fixed period (e.g. 12 months) or a range (e.g. 18-24 months)? Think carefully about your start and end date. Speak to the Research Officer – Grants with any queries about scope before you put pen to paper on your case for support. It's important not to be over (or under) ambitious. 
  • Be familiar with what is eligible and what isn't: Redesigning a project to fit with a funder’s eligible costs can be hard work – it is much easier to know what you can and can’t ask for from the start. Some funders will not pay for PGRs, others only for new Post-docs. If the guidance notes aren't clear on what is eligible then speak to the Research Office with any queries. 
  • Remember who will be reviewing it: most funders have assessment panels comprised of specialist reviewers for particular subject areas. For others, you might first need to convince 'generalist' reviewers, or those who have no particular subject knowledge. It's always useful to seek early review of your draft from a non-specialist.  
  • And what they are looking for: some funders publish their guidance for reviewers; there is nothing to stop you reading these as an applicant. Understanding the core assessment criteria is very useful. Never start writing until you have a good idea of what the people reading it will be looking for.
  • Be familiar with the submission process: most submissions are via  Ensure you understand all the attachments that are required and that any external or internal partners are registered too. 
  • A case for support or research plan: don't simply describe your proposed activities, you need to make the case about what the research is, why it is important and, moreover, why should this funding be awarded to this project. Remember that nothing is self-evidently worthy of support, however important the work, or original the proposal. You need to be clear on the "so what" aspect of the writing.
  • Research Questions: state your core research question(s) unequivocally and be clear on how you will seek to answer the question. Avoid the temptation to list a number of rhetorical questions that demonstrate engagement with the topic, or your general knowledge. These can risk confusing the reviewer about what your actual project is seeking to ask and answer. Keep the research question clear and lead with it. 
  • Research design: a research design should be as specific and as feasible/achievable as possible. Leave no room for misunderstanding. Some projects require you to submit timelines or Gantt charts that clearly map out work packages, milestones, deliverables and dissemination activities. Address the what, when, where, how, with whom.
  • Appropriateness of methodology: think about the most appropriate methodology for your research question, and whether you require a mixed methods approach. Ensure you explain why you have chosen to use certain methods (e.g. for data collection and analysis).
  • Be clear on your outputs and outcomes: outputs are what you get immediately out from the activity (e.g. a conference; two articles); outcomes are the medium-term consequences of that activity (e.g. new knowledge, method, approaches.
  • Why you? Why here?: You need to justify why you are the most appropriate person(s) to be leading the research you are proposing. Don't just rely on your CV, be specific on your expertise and contributions. In addition, why York St John? Why the partners you have chosen?
  • Avoid jargon: even specialist reviewers are likely to be from within a broad subject area, never assume that the reader knows that you mean. Write with language that is clear, concise and anticipates any queries from the reader. 
  • Avoid acronyms without articulating them fully: remember, while word limits can be restricting, the space you gain by using lots of acronyms is unlikely to win over a confused reviewer. When you use a term for the first time give the full name, then acronyms thereafter.
  • Use a confident tone: project programmes and plans of action should be full of verbs. Consider the following: “this research will address…”, or “this research could address…”. Which would you fund? If you are uncomfortable making such assertions, think about how even equivocal statements can sound convincing, compelling and active: “this research intends to…” still beats “this research could...”  Try to avoid verbs such as ‘consider’, ‘enquire’ or ‘understand’ and instead choose stronger alternatives, such as ‘develop’ or ‘construct’. Similarly, references to your research should use active verbs (e.g. “this outcome will change policy”, rather than “policy will be changed by this outcome”)
  • Break up the text: scheme notes will tell you whether you can include tables and figures. If you can, they can be a useful way to save space and break up long reams of text by presenting in one (easy to understand) image what might take a thousand words to describe. However, not every project is well served by a table, if it isn't clear and simple, write it out instead.

Often when we talk about research impact, our minds go directly to the Research Excellence Framework and Impact Cast Studies. However, funders are focused on impact in every research project and it should be woven in to every aspect of the research we do. 

Impact is a noun – impact is what you get as a result of doing something else. Impact is usually longer-term, and might be academic (e.g. a new method) or might be broader social transformations (e.g. a new policy, changes in behaviour, reduction in public service cost). Impact must be demonstrable and needs evidence that something has changed for somone / something. Acheiving impact often involves engaging with others outside of your project, and the ways in which you achieve this are your ‘pathways’ to impact. 

All Research Council funding applications are required to submit a ‘Pathways to Impact’ statement.

A clearly thought through and acceptable Pathways to Impact statement should:

  • Be project-specific and not general
  • Be flexible and focus on potential outcomes, aiming to show the possibility of the impact of research
  • Identify and detail how users of the research and stakeholders will be engaged and what their needs are
  • Articulate a clear understanding of how the proposed research might meet these needs or impact upon understandings of these needs
  • Clearly project plan the timing and delivery of potential activities including timing, skills, budget, deliverables and feasibility
  • Include evidence of any existing relationships with users or stakeholders

Tips for articulating potential impact in applications:

  • Draft the Impact Summary early so it is thought about alongside your research proposal
  • Don't forget the costs relating to proposed impact activities e.g. engagement workshops
  • Don't be tempted to cut and paste the text provided within the Impact Summary into your Pathways to Impact statement. The purpose of the Impact Summary is to provide a short description of the beneficiaries and potential impacts, which could be used in the public domain. Pathways to Impact should detail specifically what the applicant(s) will do to realise the potential impacts.
  • Think about public engagement and knowledge exchange activities - both of which can be excellent ways to maximise potential impact. For such activities to be as effective as possible, try to think of your research in the context of two-way engagement not just outreach.

A data management plan (DMP) describes how you will gather, manage, store, back-up and, where appropriate, share your data. It will also make reference to data retention. A data management plan should be written at the start of a research project so that secure and appropriate management is adhered to from the start. The earlier you start thinking about managing research data, the easier it is.

Many research funders, including all the UK Research Councils, require a data management plan for each project they fund.

A data management plan will:

  • Support you in risk assessment, allowing you to identify risks to your data early in your research project
  • Ensure compliance with York St John and funder policies, as well as ethics approval requirements
  • Support you in understanding options of sharing and re-use opportunities of research data

Writing a data management plan

Data management plans will be tailored specifically to the nature of the research, and as such will vary, however, you may wish to consider the following:

  • What data will you collect or create?
  • How will the data be collected or created?
  • How will you manage any ethical issues?
  • How will you manage copyright and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues?
  • How will your data meet GDPR requirements?
  • How will the data be stored and backed up during the research?
  • How will you manage access and security?
  • Which data should be retained, shared, and/or preserved?
  • What is the long-term preservation plan for the dataset?
  • How will you share the data or make it open access?
  • Are any restrictions on data sharing required?
  • Who will be responsible for data management?
  • What resources will you require to deliver your plan?

Further support is available in the Research Ethics and Integrity section, as well as from the Research Office:

Many funders will require a referee or nominator statement. Above all, if your application requires this, it's vital to identify your referees early. Some applications will require the referee support letter in advance of submission, however, it's more comment that the funder will have a finite period after you have pressed 'submit' when your referee will need to log-in to the system and complete the reference. So be clear by reviewing the scheme notes what exactly is required and when you contact your referees ensure that they are willing and able to action the reference in the appropriate timeframe. 

Other things to consider when choosing your referee:  

  • What is a reference for? Above all else, remember that any referee statement is a part of the application. The reference is an extension of your case for support; it’s a chance for someone other than you to say why this research is worth funding and to add weight to the arguments you make elsewhere.
  • Who are funders looking for? Funding bodies are seeking references that can give both an appraisal of the proposed research and confirm the PI's suitability to be the one undertaking or leading it. They’re not looking for a character reference, rather an assessment of the proposal, so the referee should have some authority in the field.
  • How to identify the right person: The referree needs to be able to offer an informed comment on the proposed research, and ideally who has some knowledge of the funder or scheme and how your proposal fits the funding scheme criteria.  They should know your track record and know the subject. It is rare for references to be allowed from within your own institution, apart from for early career fellowships.
  • Help your referees help you: Help your referee construct a compelling statement by telling them the things they need to know, e.g. about how the project builds on your previous work, or what you think is particularly innovative about it.
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