Designing your research project

Most of the work required to write a convincing grant application takes place long before you fill out the form. Grant-makers usually demand at least the following information:

  • summary of the application
  • information about the host organisation
  • justification/need/rationale and objectives of the project
  • research questions and methodologies (including ethics)
  • partnerships, capacity, outputs, and impact
  • and budget.

This means that before you even begin filling out the form, you need to develop and plan to address questions in these areas.

The most vital questions to consider when designing research tend to be:

  • Your question: What is the puzzle, gap or searching question that you will address and why? This may have emerged out of previous research, in which case you can refine your question reasonably quickly. Or it may arise out of a thorough survey of the literature or discussion with a group of people that you are interested in, in which case time is needed to work out exactly what your question is. The philosopher John Dewey calls this your ‘animating question’ – it should be difficult enough to justify research but not so difficult that it is impossible to answer with rigour. How you conceive of rigour will depend on your discipline (see below).
  • How will you do the research? To answer this, you will need to think about methodologies (including ethics), capacity and management. Your design will vary depending on your discipline/s, your capacity and the research. The more detail you can work out with other researchers and stakeholders the better, even if you have to make adjustments during the research. You need to design methods that match your question. Quantitative methods tend to be better for finding out what and how (e.g., how MPs vote and changes over time), while qualitative methods are often more effective to asking why (e.g., why do some MPs vote against their party and why is rebellion increasing in the UK Parliament?). Your methods will need to take account of diversity among informants (as examples, age, gender, income, ethnicity, nationality, rural/urban, race, caste, disability, profession) and how much it is possible to generalise your findings.

The rigour of your research will depend on your discipline. As examples:

  •  Scientific validity might depend on sample size and selection, replicability of your method and the researcher avoiding their bias affecting the research
  • Ethnographic rigour is about taking account of diversity and plurality, historical developments and the impact of the researcher through reflexivity
  • Humanities research may achieve more reliable interpretations by ensuring the use of multiple sources and contextualisation
  • Using creative arts in the research process usually depends on long-standing professional skills and experience

If you are aiming for inter-disciplinary research, or including a coalition of scholars and artists, then you need to allow plenty of time to discuss your shared methodology. Inter-disciplinarity requires in-depth conversations about different approaches, assumptions and methods, and how to combine different ways of doing research without compromising on ethics or rigour. If insufficient time is given during the design stage to collaborative planning then the project is doomed from the start. You will need sufficient resources – staff time, equipment, research costs and communications – and if you over-budget specific items, or under-budget areas of activity, then you will weaken your application.

  • What will you achieve?  Whether you need to specify your ‘objective’ depends on the grant-maker. Some will assume that addressing a research question and attaining high standards of scholarship are the only requirements (e.g., European Research Council or Leverhulme Trust). Others will also expect capacity development or impact on society in which case you need to develop an objective that links the research to social impact (e.g., for the UK’s Global Challenge Research Fund or US Ford Foundation). For those who require impact on society, you will need to develop realistic and measurable objectives and explain how you will achieve them (that is, ‘pathways to impact’ or strategies to achieve your objectives) and often how you will measure, attribute and learn from positive and negative change.

In addition to showing a good knowledge of the scholarly literature in your area, the more you can consult with stakeholders during the design stage the more realistic, worthwhile and exciting a proposal you are likely to develop. This consultation can be important for various reasons:

  1. To take account of plural views
  2. To test out ideas to ensure that your assumptions are well-grounded
  3. To find out about other researchers and research initiatives in your area
  4. To encourage a wider ownership of the research which might help with participation during the research and amplifying impact as well

It is advisable to design your project first before you consider how to convey your plan to grant-makers by submitting your application. However, once you have the design, and before you apply, it is a good idea to consider carefully whether it is worth applying for funds at all as there can be disadvantages to applying for grants. Applications and reporting requirements are time consuming, grant-makers often impose conditions that can deflect you from your own priorities, and your independence or freedom to inquire into, write or say what you wish can be compromised by external funding. Many successful research projects have been undertaken without any external funding. What is special about this project that means it requires funding?

Writing your application

It is vital to read the guidance of any grant-making scheme with great care. This guidance is usually written to assist in the preparation of applications and reveal what the grant-maker is expecting and how they make decisions when selecting which projects to award or reject.

The first rule is to consider concerns eligibility. Are you (and your collaborators), your organisation/s, your country/ies, your discipline (or collection of disciplines) and your topic eligible for this grant? If you are not, then it is not advisable to bend your research to fit the requirements of the funder: this will be obvious to the assessors and you are likely to get turned down. Or, if you are lucky and get through, a project designed to please the grant-maker rather than your own/your organisation’s interests, or those of people you are working with/for, will have a poor chance of attaining quality and impact.

Even if you are eligible, it is worth checking that your research is the kind of work that this grant-maker is likely to appreciate. Study their mission, strategy, and priorities and work out whether there is a good match. Many grant-makers upload past funded projects on their website, which often reveal the kind of research they are interested in. 

Read each question carefully and answer it as concisely and directly as possible. Often grant-makers will ask for a summary at the beginning; this is not usually an introduction, it is an abstract or summary of the whole application they are asking for. It is important to write an excellent summary as assessors will be strongly influenced by this. It usually makes sense to write the summary at the end when all the details of your project have been clarified.

You have to keep reading the guidance as the application develops as some details in the rules and priorities of funding will only become relevant mid-way through the process. If anything is unclear, you can often email or phone the grant-maker and ask for clarification or advice – this is always worth doing.

Other suggestions that may improve your chances:

  1. Ask for advice where possible, including from the grant-making organisation.
  2. Aim for quality not quantity. Don’t be over-ambitious – if you need to scale down to make it realistic, think about reducing the geographical coverage, the time period, or the number of research questions.
  3. A focused research project will impress. At the same time its importance and significance for a wide audience needs to be clear. Explain how you will be able to challenge established assumptions, develop new methods/theory, or relate your findings to a body of research beyond your own project.
  4. Don’t under-budget – most grant-makers prefer realistic budgets.
  5. Give plenty of details about your methodology; this is the section that reveals how carefully you have planned the research.
  6. Keep it simple – don’t use complex language in an attempt to impress. Use your own words not those of the grant-maker. If English is not your first language, get someone to proof-read your application.
  7. Keep within boxes or word limits.
  8. Show your draft to partners, colleagues or stakeholders and get comments and suggestions.
  9. Make sure you have included all the documents they require (e.g., supporting letters from host organisation, budget justification, CVs etc).
  10. Don’t leave submitting online until the last minute. Some grant-makers are very strict about deadlines, so any last-minute problems can jeopardise your application

Why do people get awarded or turned down?

Good applications tend to have:

  • An alignment with the grant-makers’ priorities
  • A clear focus but strong argument for significance (to theory, to other locations/disciplines, to the groups being studied etc)
  • Embedding of gender, class, age and ethnicity
  • High quality including a detailed, realistic methodology (with ethics and risk)
  • Plans for communicating with others throughout the research
  • Good value for money
  • Strong capacity of the applicant(s) and/or plans for support for the scholars (e.g., through training, mentoring, or advice)
  • Consideration of lasting legacy ensuring benefits extend far into the future

If you get rejected, do not be put off. Most applications to grant-makers are turned down, sometimes as many as 9/10 or more. Study the feedback, if they provided comments, and try again – with the same grant-maker if eligible and allowed or with another if that might give you a better chance.

The main reasons why grant applications get turned down is in the area of research design:

  • The research is not addressing the grant-makers’ priorities, or only indirectly so, or looks as if it has been adjusted to please a particular scheme
  • Sometimes the research questions are unclear, too ambitious, or unfocused questions
  • The review of literature and other research in the area is insufficient
  • There is not enough detail about the methodology, it does not appear to match the research questions or fails to account for the diversity of informants
  • Outputs are not specified

This note has been written by the Global Research Network for Parliaments and People. We have awarded grants of between £1,000-100,000 to scholars in Myanmar and Ethiopia to study the relationship between Parliaments and society, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund and Arts and Humanities Research Council. Click here for details of the projects we support.