Top tips for writing grant application forms

Man on laptop computer at his homeApplying for funding is an important task for any medical professional looking to develop a brilliant research idea.

In the UK we’re lucky to have the opportunity to apply for a variety of grants from forward-thinking organisations.

With this in mind, it’s crucial that researchers give themselves the best chance of being awarded a valuable financial lifeline.

The initial application form is the gateway into your research, and therefore a vital part of the process.

Below we’ve collated a list of top tips for completing forms, using advice from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

Seek advice

Before you dive into an application, take the time to think about what you want to be know for as a researcher, and what you want to achieve through research. That will help you position yourself clearly as the right person to fund, and help you plan the research you want to deliver and decide where best to start.

Take advice from academic colleagues and professional services to do that. UKRI highlights the importance of creating a collaborative network in your organisation, saying: “The wider the range of ideas you can expose yourself to, the more interesting concepts you’ll come up with.”

Clinical academic trainees within King’s Health Partners can contact King's Clinical Academic Training Office (KCATO) for initial conversations with mentors and support services.

King’s College London staff can contact the Research Strategy & Development team for advice here.

Details for the King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (NHS FT) research office can be found here, and research information for South London and Maudsley NHS FT here.

Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS FT offers a range of research and development services, all the details here.

The research and development teams can also review your proposal and provide feedback. UKRI recommends asking a peer who has not been involved in the application process to read your proposal, as if they struggle to follow the key objectives, it’s likely the reviewers will too. Not everyone who reviews your proposal will be an expert in your field, so make sure you ask experts and non-experts to do this.

Your research question

The NIHR says that for most research programmes, your question should:

  • be in remit for the research programme;
  • be clearly defined in simple terms;
  • clearly show the potential benefit to the target patient population, public group and/or the NHS;
  • ideally summed up in one sentence.

You should consider whether the research will still be relevant by the time it is completed, and whether it is already being answered by ongoing research elsewhere.

Does your application meet the assessment criteria?

Your application should address an important and enduring research gap, and be scientifically sound. Each funding opportunity will have specific criteria which you should read thoroughly before applying. For advice, people can directly contact the NIHR research programme here. UKRI adds that researchers should choose their funders and schemes carefully – it doesn’t want people wasting their time applying for an inappropriate opportunity.

Allow plenty of time

Everything takes longer than you think it will so plan your application and don’t rush it, UKRI advises. No matter how simple it may seem to pull together a project, there are lot of different steps involved in submitting a proposal, some more time-consuming than others. The NIHR says the application must be well presented and concise, using visible headings, white space and flow diagrams. Allowing more time than you think will help the application’s presentation, and allow the busy experts reviewing the document to easily understand your aims.

Involve the public and collaborate

Good public involvement can lead to better designed research and improve participant recruitment. Always consider equality, diversity, and inclusion in your process, with the NIHR highlighting that opportunities to take part in research should be part of everyone’s experience of health and social care services.

Research team

Does your team have the appropriate expertise including project management, patient and public involvement, statistics, academics, and health economics? Are research staff of the appropriate level/grade for their role? UKRI advises applicants to choose the right partners – the people involved are just as important as the project you’re proposing.

Include relevant preliminary data and justify your methods

UKRI recommends providing enough preliminary data to validate the approach you’ve selected and reassure the panel you’ve identified a signal that’s worth pursuing. And get your sums right – justify sample sizes with power calculations.

Seek regulatory approval

If your study is led from England or Wales, and involves the NHS, you need Health Research Authority and Health and Care Research Wales approval, and to ensure that it is registered. Find out more about regulatory approval and registration here.

Plan for impact

UKRI wants applicants to explain the intended consequences of your work. Who would benefit in the long term? The NIHR says that research impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy. It’s important to think about who the end user of the research will be, how you will reach them, and how you think the research will change practice.

Sign a contract

The NIHR funds research by contracting researchers’ organisations on behalf of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to perform individual research projects. It uses contracts that differ slightly depending on what sort of organisation the lead researcher is based in. Read about how the NIHR contracts with researchers on its contracts page here.

To read UKRI’s ‘12 top tips for writing a grant application’, click here.

The NIHR’s ‘tips for making your application’ article can be found here.