How long will it take to write an application?


Attracting research funding is part of the job at most universities. As such, you need to allocate some of your working time to do that job. But how much time is needed for writing applications?

In 2009, Karen Mow estimated that Australian academics spent, on average, 30–40 days per year writing research council grant applications (Mow, 2009). This range was confirmed by Herbert et al. (2013) who looked specifically at medical researchers, estimating that they took 38 working days on average to write a new medical research council proposal and 28 working days to write a resubmitted proposal.

These results might vary depending on the country; a study in Canada, for instance, showed that researchers spent an average of 23 days working on a proposal (Peckham, Bosompra, and Manuel, 2012). But wherever you’re based, the same message is clear: you will have to spend a lot of time on applications that may not be successful.

Can we calculate precisely how much time we should spend on each application, depending on their chance of success? In theory, yes: after all, the cost of writing the application should not be greater than the amount of money that you apply for.

To be more precise, you could multiply the amount you are applying for by the chance of getting the funding. If you are applying for $2,000, and 50 per cent of grants are funded, don’t spend more than $1,000 worth of your time on the application. If you are applying for $200,000 and 10 per cent of applications are funded, then at most you should spend $20,000 worth of time on the proposal.

That’s all well and good in theory but is reminiscent of that scene at the beginning of Dead Poets Society where they try to calculate the value of a poem by plotting ‘importance’ against ‘perfection’ on a graph. Life is messier and more complicated than that. There are other, non-monetary benefits to writing grants. There are also very specific priorities and issues for you depending on your circumstances, your discipline and your institution, and these won’t necessarily be reflected in a formula.

So how can you estimate how long it will take to write an application? As a starting point, you should turn to others, whether they be close colleagues or peers in your discipline. You will, of course, get a variety of answers, and you should always factor in a wide margin for ‘learning as you go’ time.

Once you have a rough indication of the time it takes, think about the amount of time you have. Mow and colleagues, above, suggest that you might need to allow 20–40 days to write a major grant application, but your workload only provides one day per week for research. It would be unreasonable, therefore, to expect that you will get anything more than one application completed in a year. This is particularly true if you have never applied for that funding scheme before.

The best thing that you can do while you write your first application is to keep an accurate record of the amount of time that you spend completing each task, including reading the guidelines before you start. This will give you your best indication of how much time it will take next time. Unlike the stock market, past performance is your best guide to future performance.

Grant applications are generally broken up into discrete sections: title, summary and keywords; project background; research methods; expected outcomes; your curriculum vitae and publications; budget and justification; and administrative details. Each of these sections will take different amounts of time and energy. Some, frankly, will be more interesting than others. There is always a strong temptation to spend an inordinate amount of time on one section (often the methods or outcomes section) to the detriment of all others.

To make sure that you give each element of the application the time and attention it needs, you should bear in mind three things.

First, allow time to write a draft, however rough, of every single section before you start revising any of those sections. It is no good spending all your time on one section if you don’t have a complete application to submit on time.

Second, work out when you work most effectively. When do you feel most fresh and productive? Focus on the most important new material in that time. Play around with drafting different parts of the application when you are in different moods, or at different levels of energy. Some people find that pricing the elements of their budget is a mindless practice that they can do while watching TV. Others find that they need to be fresh to do that, as they need to be careful and accurate. Some find it a drudge and need to be fortified before they plough through it. Some applicants find that the hardest part of the application is the curriculum vitae because they find it difficult to talk about their own achievements. Understanding what type of energy you might need to write the different elements of the application will help you to understand when to draft them, and how much time to allow for each section.

You might also want to understand what sections require uninterrupted concentration, and what sections can be done in short bursts. You might need clear and uninterrupted concentration to set out the rationale for the research fieldwork. Once you know the details of your planned fieldwork, it might be easy to cost flights, accommodation and per diems in odd scraps of time between meetings.

Chris Smith has written about the value of having a writing system. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the system is, as long as it is something that you are comfortable with. It might be writing daily, weekly or doing all your major work over the non-teaching period. Whatever it is, you will be happier and more productive if you know how you write and stick to your system (Smith, 2018).

Third, understand how your collaborators write, and how you are going to work together. Some people thrive in a harsh, critical and competitive system. Others blossom in a nurturing and supportive environment. Given that you are going to be developing most applications as a team, it is important to work out ahead of time who is going to be responsible for what, and how everyone prefers to work.

Once you have a complete first draft, you can think about sending some portions out for review. We are big fans of getting material reviewed early, rather than trying to perfect the draft before sending it out. Spotting problems early will save you time in the long run and lead to a stronger application. It also turns most of the work into re-writing, which most people find easier than the initial writing process.

Author Bios: Tseen Khoo is co-founder of The Research Whisperer and a Senior Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University, Phil Ward is the Director of Eastern Arc, a regional research consortium in the UK comprising the universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent and Jonathan O’Donnell is co-founder of The Research Whisperer and a Senior Research Initiative Coordinator in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne.