An essential element of a grant application is your description of yourself. How people describe themselves differs markedly across cultures and depends on their audience. You won’t know exactly who will read your application and there will be different audiences through the application process, but you may be able to understand their cultural biases in general terms.
If you can, get hold of a few examples of successful applications to the scheme that you are applying to, and see how the applicants described themselves. Note the similarities between the descriptions, as well as the differences. This will provide you with some boundaries to work within. One thing that you can be sure of is that your audience will appreciate the value of evidence. Wherever you can, back up your statements about yourself with evidence. There is a world of difference between these statements:
- I am a genius.
- I am a genius. I have been awarded a Nobel Prize.
- I have been awarded a Nobel Prize.
The first is an unsupported statement. By itself, it offers nothing to help the reader to judge the truth or otherwise of the claim. It is a useless statement as it stands. The second is stronger. It makes a claim – ‘genius’ – and then backs up that claim with evidence. This is a strong statement. Whether it will work or not might depend on the culture that the application sits within. If most applicants are making strong statements, then this is appropriate. The third statement just contains the evidence. It invites the reader to ascribe their own claim to that evidence. If the reader concludes that the applicant must be a genius because they have won a Nobel Prize, then they will hold that belief much more firmly than if they had read the second example. They haven’t been led to that realisation; they have made it themselves. If most applicants are not making strong statements, then you might want to just offer up your evidence and let the reader form their own conclusions.
These three examples are extreme; we don’t expect anyone reading this to have won a Nobel Prize. However, we often see applicants pick up the language of the funder and give it back to them as unsupported statements like ‘I am an innovative scientist’, ‘I have made a great deal of impact through my work’, ‘my work in this area is excellent’ and so on. These are examples of the sort of unsupported statements that are not helpful when you are describing yourself. We have no problem with you echoing back the language of the funder; in fact, we often encourage it. However, you need to be able to provide evidence to back up your claims. For each statement, think about what evidence you can use to reinforce the claim. Sometimes it may be a publication that demonstrates something about your skills, your experience or your expertise. Other times, it will come from a previous project. It may be that you draw on evidence from outside your academic life, such as when a mother describes the organisational skills she has learnt from managing children (Hayes, 2019).
This approach can be turned on its head: you can look at the evidence that you have and work out what sort of statements it might support. This is a useful way to explore how you can use non-traditional indicators. For example, what does it represent if you have 5,000 downloads from your university repository, or if you have 10,000 followers for your research-related Twitter account? The answer might be guided, to some extent, by the selection criteria for the grant that you are applying for. If, for example, the grant application has criteria that talk about open access, then you might use the downloads from your university repository as evidence of your commitment to, and experience of, open access principles. On the other hand, it might be evidence of service to your discipline. If the funder values research engagement, then your Twitter account might be useful evidence of your commitment to engagement. However, it might also provide evidence of your experience in building a community around your work.
Whatever you do, don’t over-claim or lie. Your statements must be credible and believable. When people give you feedback that your application needs to be ‘stronger’, it is tempting to push statements about yourself or your team past the point where you are comfortable. Don’t do that: it is, in the end, your application, and you need to stand behind it. If you feel that someone is providing feedback that pushes you in a direction you don’t want to go, talk to them. Find out if they are talking about something that you can address or something that you can’t address within your current constraints. If you can’t, gracefully let that suggestion go. Don’t push your application so hard that it breaks.
We find that underselling yourself is a much more common problem than overselling yourself. People undersell themselves for a variety of reasons: they believe that their work should speak for itself; they dislike talking about themselves; and then there’s Imposter Syndrome – doubting your own skills, experience and the value of your work. Grant applications require you to talk honestly about yourself and your work in the best possible light. It is a fine tension to maintain: you have to make yourself sound like an excellent choice to give funding to and all of what you say must be backed by evidence. To help you write these sections, it helps to think about presenting the evidence in context. For example, if you won a prize (evidence) and can say that 2,000 people internationally applied for that prize (context), this helps readers of your application understand how much of a big deal your winning that prize might be.
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 who is co-founder of The Research Whisperer and a Senior Research Initiative Coordinator in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne.