Category Archives: Describe the Research Project

ERC Grant Interviews: Recipe for a Good Talk

EurosI have a number of clients who are applying for European Research Council grants, mostly starter grants. Those who have reached the interview stage this year have been notified and are now getting ready. The interview is short, typically 25-30 minutes, and begins with a talk of about ten minutes. The exact timing of interview and talk varies and candidates have yet to be notified of the exact timetable of their interviews.

Most people give pretty bad short talks, so this seems like a good time to give you a recipe for a good one. This recipe works for any research-based short talk.

Choose a Suitable Message

The recipe is based on a very simple principle. You must decide on a suitable message that you want the audience to remember at the end of your talk, and you must structure the talk so that they remember that message.

The message must be short. A sentence, or possibly three or four short bullet points is ideal. If the message is too long the audience will not remember it.

Before you decide on your message, think about your audience, the interview committee. The committee will include one or two specialists in your subject but most of them will be specialists in something else. You want the whole committee to understand your message so make it broad, and don’t use overly specialised language.

The ideal message for an ERC interview talk would say what the project will deliver and what makes this deliverable important. If there is time you might try and say something about the research approach and something about your qualifications to use the approach. Even if the research approach and your qualifications aren’t part of your main message you should certainly touch on them during the talk. It is no coincidence that my recommended message matches pretty closely the first two key sentences of the case for support, as described in this blog post.

Structure of the talk.

My recipe prescribes a very simple structure for the talk.

  • Start by stating the message.
  • Break the message down into components.
  • Explain each of the components.
  • Resynthesize the the original message to close.

I would use the 3 components of the project as the 3 components of the talk. I recommend the same structure for the case for support, as you can see, here, here and here.


It is easy to get hung up about slides and to trap yourself with rules that don’t always work – such as ‘no writing on slides’. But I do have some recommendations:-

  • Don’t have too many slides. I will usually have no more than 6 for a 15 minute talk.
  • Use each slide to make a point. Know what point you want to make with it. Design the slide so that it makes its point. Sometimes I will write the point as the slide title and I will always state the point of the slide when I first show it.
  • Make everything on your slide legible. You should be able to read everything when the slide is displayed on a standard size phone screen and held at arms length.
  • Make the slides self-explanatory: if you show data you must label the axes and have a key. When I listen to a talk I usually flip between listening to the speaker and reading and analysing the slides to check whether I agree with their interpretation.
  • When I show a data slide I start by saying what point the data make, which will usually be a question of interpretation. Then I explain how the data are plotted, the axes and so on, then I then interpret the slide by explaining which features of the plotted data make the point.
  • Don’t have so much text on the slides that your talk consists of just reading the slides.

Practising, notes and scripts.

You should practise your talk several times so that you know that it fits within the time limit. Try to practise with an audience. Most people speed up when they get nervous, so when you get to the interview, remind yourself to slow down so that you remain intelligible.

I would never read a talk from a script, nor would I learn a script word for word. If I am very nervous I will learn the first sentence of the talk, and repeat it many many times, so that when I start the talk that sentence comes out automatically. That gets me started and usually settles my nerves.

I may also learn the sentences that state the points from each slide, although I usually write the point in short form as the slide title and I use the list of slide titles as notes.

Finally I will learn the last sentence of the talk, so that I can ‘bale out’ if I have to end the talk in a hurry because I have run out of time

Don’t Create Hostages

Some people think you should plant obvious questions in the talk by making some of your explanations incomplete, or that you should use the talk to repair any weaknesses that you can see in your application. I think both these strategies are risky.

Planting questions is risky because although the committee may ask you the questions that you have planted, if you make it obvious that you are hoping for them to do so, they might feel that you are manipulating them. Equally, you may make it too subtle and they might not ask the question you have planted and simply decide that you aren’t very good at explaining.

Using the talk to repair weaknesses in the application is risky because by doing it, you draw attention to the weaknesses. Your application was good enough to get you to interview, so they may not have noticed any weaknesses.

Of course, if the committee have noticed weaknesses in your application then they will ask you about them in the interview. Consequently, analysing your application for weaknesses is an important part of your preparation for the interview. I will write about preparing for the interview in a future post.

The Importance Proposition

ImportanceIn the Research Funding Toolkit we explain that funding decisions depend on whether the case for support makes four propositions. It has to convince the reader that it is important, that it will be a success, that the team are compentent and that the grant will be value for money. We refer to the four propositions as importance,  success, competence, and value for money. In the next few posts I want to deal with the four propositions in turn.

I begin with the importance proposition because it is where funding agencies begin. If a grant application doesn’t make the importance proposition, nothing else matters. It doesn’t get funded. Period. The other propositions will not even be considered.

As with so many writing problems, addressing the propositions is easier if you consider the reader’s perspective. There are three aspects to this.

  1. You can think of the reader as having questions in their head as they read your grant application. In the case of the importance proposition, the main question is “How important is this?” 
  2. The reader’s definition of terms like “important” is not necessarily the same as your definition.
  3. The reader will want to formulate their own answer to their questions, rather than to accept your answers. They will not be impressed by an assertion that your proposed research is important, rather they will be looking for evidence.

So let’s consider how the readers of your grant application might define importance and how you answer the questions in their heads.

It’s a question of priorities.

Every funding agency has a distinctive mission, from which they derive a set of priorities. Large agencies often have such a complex mission that they will have a range of different schemes, each with a different set of priorities. The priorites are quite carefully defined and usually very well publicised. It’s helpful to separate those related to direct research outcomes from those related to indirect research outcomes.

Direct Research Outcomes

Most agencies set the highest priority on the kind of knowledge the research will produce. Academics tend to emphasise outcomes that contribute to knowledge and understanding. Most research funding agencies also set a high priority on outcomes that advance our understanding of the world from a particular set of subject perspectives. However, this is rarely the only, or even the highest, priority.

Agencies that get their funding from national governments often set a higher priority on outcomes that contribute to health, the economy and society. All the UK Research Councils now require you to list the non-academic beneficiaries of your research. When Amanda served on the BBSRC Animal Sciences Committee the Chair would often ask “How is this going to contribute to UK plc?”

Research charities can be very narrow in their focus. Many medical charities limit their interest to a single disease. This kind of focus can help charities to raise funds from public donations. Clarity about their priorities makes it easy for them to ask for money, as well as dispense it.

Endowed charities often have a very broad mission that reflects the intentions of their original benefactors, see for example the Leverhulme Trust, which supports research across all academic subjects.

As a rule of thumb, evidence about the importance of direct outcomes goes in the background to the case for support. This is the main purpose of the literature review and you should use it as a criterion for whether or not you cite a piece of literature there. You should cite the literature that makes it clear that the outcomes of your proposed project meet the priorities of the funder. When you do this it always helps if you can refer to the priorities in the funder’s own words by quoting from the guidelines for the scheme that you are targeting.

Indirect Research Outcomes

Many agencies have priorities that relate to consequences of doing research, rather than direct research outcomes. Training and career development are common priorities, which sometimes have their own schemes. See for example my post about the NIH K99/R00 scheme. Fellowship schemes  and career development schemes such as Marie Sklodowska-Curie and the European Research Council  prioritise the career development of individuals above direct research outcomes.

As a general rule, evidence about indirect outcomes is requested explicitly as part of the application. Most fellowship schemes will require statements from the host organisation to reassure them that the prospective Fellow will be supported, mentored and provided with appropriate facilities. The complex application forms for schemes like  Horizon 2020 reflect the fact that European research funding has priorities connected with the development of a European research community that brings together international teams that span industry and academia.

In conclusion, if you want to make the importance proposition you should do two things.

  • First, for every research outcome, ask yourself “Where in the background do I make it clear that this is important and what evidence do I cite?”
  • Second, no matter how bizarre and irrelevant the requirements of the application form might seem to you, follow them to the letter.

A simple answer to a simple question astrophysicsmadesimple

Try to write a simple answer in one sentence

Last week I was a rather noisy fly on the wall in a workshop run by Sara Shinton to help  post-docs prepare for fellowship interviews. Sara pointed out that many institutions, including Glasgow University, which is where the workshop took place, have developed extensive support programmes for would-be fellows and will arrange a mock interview if you give them sufficient notice.

We also worked out a simple 10 minute exercise you can do to set yourself up to perform well in the interview. The key, if, like me, you have a tendency to be nervous, is to prepare and to learn a really good answer to a question that almost always crops up at the start of the interview. The question is very simple: Could you tell the committee a little bit about your project. Preparing a good answer to this question is a bit more difficult, but the exercise helps a great deal.

It is best to work with a colleague, someone who is preparing for an interview or writing a project grant themselves is ideal. It’s best if you don’t know too much about their research. The exercise is very simple. Spend exactly 4 minutes asking your friend about their project – you need to find out

  • What will the project try to achieve?
  • Why would that achievement be important?
  • How will the project try to achieve it?
  • Why is your colleague a good person to lead the project?

At the end of 4 minutes switch roles so that your colleague questions you about your project. Then you both write one sentence about each project. Spend 1 minute on the sentence and try to  give a simple overall statement of what the project will achieve, ideally you will relate that achievement to a big important problem and will also include something distinctive about how the project will achieve it in a way that will make it clear that the PI is a suitable person to do the project.

The sentence you need is something like key sentence 1.  You probably want the language to be a bit less formal than you would write in an application because you want to speak it. An ideal sentence would have a structure like this one:- “I’m going to identify potential treatments for stroke by testing compounds that we have found to inhibit brain metabolism in tissue culture”. It does 3 things.

  1. It says that you are working towards something pretty important, a treatment for stroke. It makes it clear that you don’t expect to get there by saying ‘potential‘. Everyone knows that the road from ‘potential treatment’ to ‘treatment’ can be a long one.
  2. It uses the phrase ‘we have found’ which says that you are working with compounds that you have worked with before. This establishes that you have credentials to do the work.
  3. It says that you are going to be testing metabolic inhibitors in tissue culture, which gives a sense of the kind of research you will be doing and the kind of drug that might be developed as a result.

The ideal sentence will have about 30 words. The example I have given has 23. We discovered that some of the workshop participants can write very long and very complex sentences in a minute. We also found that it’s often easier to write a good and convincing sentence about someone else’s project than about your own. Often you can make a really strong sentence by combining phrases from your sentence with phrases from a sentence produced by someone who knows much less than you do about the technicalities.

How to Deal with Rejection 1: What could I have done better?

Are you driven by the question or by the project?

Did you design a project that will answer your question? Thanks to Nick Kim,

Getting a grant application rejected has three things in common with other rejections.

  1. Rejection is slightly less painful if you have other applications still being considered.
  2. Regardless of how painful it is, rejection is an important learning opportunity.
  3. Regardless of the pain and the learning, you need to make sensible decisions about whether, and how, to try again.

I know – believe me I really know – that getting grant applications rejected is painful. In my experience the combination of pain and humiliation can make it impossible to think analytically about the application for weeks or months. However, unless your desire to do research is completely extinguished, sooner or later you have to come back. When you do, it’s really important to learn as much as you can from the rejection and use it to plan the best way ahead.

If you are still consumed with the pain of rejection, you might want to bookmark this page and come back when you feel able to be analytical. However there are three practical  reasons you might want to work through the pain and deal analytically with the rejection now.

  • Dealing constructively with a rejection helps to draw a line under it and resolve the pain.
  • The sooner you start, the better will be the outcome for two reasons.
    • You will do a better job on the analysis if you do it while your memory is fresh.
    • Any plans you develop as a result of the analysis are more likely to be successful if you can implement them before they go out of date.
  • The more times you deal with rejection, the easier and the quicker it gets. I can remember once  (admittedly it was about my 20th rejection) I was able to deal with it in less than a day, rewrite the grant in under 3 weeks and get it fully funded.

If you have got this far I am assuming you want to be analytical. There are four separate steps.

  1. Work out why your grant application was rejected.
  2. Work out how you could have made it stronger.
  3. Salvage useful components.
  4. Get back on the horse.

I’ll deal with the first two in this post and the other two next week.

Work out why it was rejected

Usually the reviews you get back will  say lots of good things and it can be hard to understand why an application with so much going for it could have been rejected. Rejections usually boil down to:-

  • the committee thought the research question wasn’t important enough or
  • the committee couldn’t see how the project would answer the question.

There are three things you should consider here.

  1. It only takes one hole to sink an otherwise perfect boat. It might make it easier to find the hole if you filter out the negative comments and look at them separately.
  2. In most cases the committee discussion is more important than the referees reports but the description of their discussion is likely to be both short and vague. So the hole in the boat my not be very well defined.
  3. Funding rates are falling and sometimes perfect grants, grants that propose well-designed projects that will answer important questions, don’t get funded because there just isn’t enough money.

Don’t be too eager to assume that your grant was perfect. If the funding rate was 30% or better then it’s very unlikely. In fact, most grants that get funded could be improved significantly.

Work out how you could have made it stronger

Regardless of why your grant application was rejected, you should look to see whether it could have been improved. This is particularly important if the reason for rejection is not apparent from the comments: a badly written grant simply fails to convince the reader – the reader may not know why.

You should look separately at four elements:- the description of the project, the background, the introduction, and the summary. There’s a checklist here but as a rough guide you should be clear on the following questions:-

Description of the project

  • Is it clear what you will do?
  • Have you explained the steps that will take you from starting research to having a set of findings that are written up and disseminated?
  • Is the project divided into three or four (i.e. more than two and fewer than five) phases?
  • Is it clear what will be discovered by each phase of the project?

Background to the Project

  • Have you given a good reason why you should do your project? Have you linked it to an important question?
  • Is your link direct (your project will completely anser the question) or indirect (your project will take some important steps towards an answer to the question)?
  • Has the funder stated explicitly or implicitly that this question is important? This is probably worth a whole post. I’ll get around to it.
  • Have you linked the question clearly to each phase of your project by showing that we need to know what each phase of the project will discover?
  • Do other authors agree with your specific ‘we need to know’ statements or are they individual to you?
  • Have you cited publications that demonstrate that your team are competent to produce new discoveries in this area?
  • Have you overstated your contribution to the field?
  • Could other people think this area is a backwater rather than a niche?


  • Does the introduction make all the statements listed in the ‘key sentences‘?
  • Does the introduction state every thing that  ‘we need to know’.
  • Does the introduction state  every thing that the project will discover?
  • Are these statements in the introduction clearly the same as the statements that begin the corresponding sub-sections of the background and the description of the project? They should be recognisably the same statements although they don’t have to be exact copies.

Summary (I mean the summary of the Grant Application)

The summaries of most successful grant applications are appallingly bad. You can see this if you look for the details of successful proposals from the UK research councils or from the European Research Council. However, a good summary helps the funding agency to choose more appropriate referees and it helps the referees and the committee members to understand the research. You should check the following:-

  • Does the summary make all the statements listed in the ‘key sentences‘?
  • Does the summary state every thing that  ‘we need to know’.
  • Does the summary state  every thing that the project will discover?
  • Are these statements in the summary clearly the same as those in the introduction? They should be recognisably stating the same thing although they don’t have to be exact copies.

What Next?

It’s very likely that these two exercises will give you a clearer sense of how you could have given your application a better chance. Next week I will discuss what raw material you can take from a rejected grant application and how to turn it into the basis of future success.

Reshape Your Draft Grant Application

20005338_sLast week I explained how to tell if your grant application is misshapen. This post is about how to get it into shape.

Let’s start with the most difficult kind of draft to deal with, one in which it’s hard to tell the shape of the proposal because it’s written in such a way that you can’t tell what a paragraph is about until you have analysed its meaning. Last week I described this kind of writing as zombie text.

The first step with zombie text  is to identify the topic of each paragraph. The next step is the same with zombie text and with text where the paragraph starts with the topic. It is to find the best grouping of paragraphs into larger subsections.

Dealing with Zombie Text

The first step with zombie text is to use the reverse outlining  procedure described on @thesiswhisperer’s blog about the zombie thesis to identify the paragraph topics. There is another description of reverse outlining on @explorstlye’s blog, Explorations of Style.

  1. Number the paragraphs in your draft. Open a new document, give it a different title and copy the whole text of your draft into it.
  2. Replace each paragraph in the new document with a single short sentence that states its point. Keep the numbering so that you can copy across the remaining text from the original document when you need to.
    • If you can’t state the point of a paragraph with a single sentence then you probably need to revise your approach to paragraphs. There is good advice in the explorations of style blog and also here. For this exercise just split the paragraphs into smaller chunks that canbe summarised with a single sentence and give them compound numbers (2.1, 2.2 etc).

If your draft is written so that the first sentence of each paragraph states the topic of the paragraph then you simply number the paragraphs and create a new document containing just the first sentence of each paragraph, still numbered.

In the reverse outlining process you rearrange the order of the topic sentences until you find the best structure for your document. With grant applications we already know what the best structure is, so the task is to arrange the text in that structure. We start with the largest component of the case for support, the description of the project.

Description of the project: key sentences and topic sentences

The next step is to sort the topic sentences of the paragraphs on the research project into five or six sections. In order to do this you will need to have worked out the main details of your research project. At the very least you will have divided the project into three or four sub-projects and you will know what outcome each sub-project will produce.

ZombieGrantWarningIf you haven’t done this then I am afraid I have bad news. This post will not help you: you have a zombie grant. There is no point in rewriting it until you have designed a project.

I’m sorry if this is disappointing but I can’t change the facts of life. The best I can do is to help you deal with them. A grant application is a marketing document for a research project. Without a research project, it can never be more than an empty shell, a zombie.

The best help I can offer is to say that the text you have written may be useful but you need to design a project  in order to use it. This post tells you how to design and catalogue sub-projects and  this post tells you how to check whether a particular group of sub-projects makes a viable project. I will deal more specifically with zombie grants in a future post.

So, if you have a potentially viable grant application you need to sort the topic sentences into five or six sub-sections as follows:-

  • a general introductory section,
  • three or four sections describing the specific sub-projects, and
  • a section saying what you will do with the overall results of the project.

You should now select, or draft, a key sentence that will be the first sentence for each of these five or six sections.  This post tells you how but here’s a rough outline.

  • The key sentence for each sub-project should say something about what the research activities are in the sub-project and it should say what they will discover or what the outcome will be. It has the form [Very brief descripton of research activities in the subproject] will [show, discover, reveal, or other suitable verb] [whatever the outcome of the research in that sub-project will be]. If you have written such a sentence, by all means use it, but if you haven’t, you need to write it now.
    • As you write each of these key sentences you should write a corresponding key sentence for the background to the project and paste it into the corresponding sub-section of the background of the case for support. This sentence states that we need to know whatever the corresponding sub-project will discover. The general form is We need to  know [or discover, understand or similar verb] [the outcome of the research in the corresponding sub-project].
  • The key sentence for the introductory sub-section on the research project as a whole should say what kind of research it will involve, something about the facilities it will use – especially if these are distinctive in some way, and what it will discover.
  • The key sentence for the sub-section on what you will do with the overall results may be about publication or about dissemination or exploitation of the results in some other way.

Once you have the key sentences in place you should copy each numbered topic sentence into the section where it fits best. Then arrange them in the best possible order. Now you are ready for the detail.

Final shaping of the description of the project

Once you have the topic sentences in the right order you  should take text from the body of each original paragraph and edit it so that the paragraphs flow internally and from one to the next. The introductory subsection should contain a description of your general research approach together with any necessary preliminaries. The sub-sections corresponding to the sub-projects should contain  a coherent description of your intended research activities that makes it clear how they will lead to the result mentioned in the introductory key sentence.

This is the point at which you adjust the length. Remember, the full description of the project should be at least 50% of the case for support. If it is more than about 65% then you either have too much detail or too big a project. Keep adjusting and trimming until you have a description of your research project that is the right size.

The next step is to produce a background section that convinces the reader that we need to know what your research project will discover. You already have key sentences that  define three or four of its five or six subsections. I will tell you how to produce the rest of it next week.


Aims and Objectives, why the world needs your research.

the-mountainAims and objectives provide an excellent framework for the case for support in a research grant application.

A well-written case for support states an overarching aim based on a big research question. It shows how this big question gives rise to three or four smaller questions and then describes a research project that will answer those questions. The compelling logic for the reader is that the project deserves to be funded because it has been intricately designed to answer the big question. The truth may be that the intricacy lies more in the writing than in the project’s design. Matching sets of aims and objectives can be crafted to link a pre-designed project to a pre-existing big question.

Before we consider how to do this, let’s be absolutely clear about the difference between aims and objectives. There’s an excellent discussion of the difference in the context of a PhD project,  by Pat Thomson. She defines the aim as “…what you want to know…” and the objectives as “…the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim..”  This definition works perfectly for our purposes and is consistent with other web sources such as

We can apply this distinction more or less directly in a grant application as follows.

  • Aims are the knowledge and understanding that you need in order to answer your research question. Well-designed aims create clear links between your research project and the big, important question that motivates it.
  •  Objectives are specific research actions that you plan to carry out in your research project. The objectives define the structure of the research project.  This means that if you design your project carefully, it will be clear that your research objectives will fulfil the aims defined by your research question.

The easy way to link up the aims and objectives is to start by describing the research that you want to do and what it will find out. You should divide your research project into (or assemble it from)  three or four sub-projects. Each sub-project will lead to a clear discovery or outcome. Each  outcome generates an exactly corresponding aim. If you want to do a sub-project that will discover how neurones in the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours, you have to have the aim “We need to know how neurones in  the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours”. Working backwards from the objectives in this way means that aims and objectives match perfectly. No skill is required

The place where skill is required is in tying together the three or four aims and making the case that meeting each of them will make a significant contribution to solving a larger research problem that is important to your target funder. That is where the real skill of writing grant applications lies.

For completeness, in addition to this set of three or four aims with precisely matching objectives, I would recommend another four sentences which are a more complex mix of aim and objective and which would be used to set the context in any full statement of the aims and objectives. So a full statement of the aims and objectives would be as follows.

  • The first sentence, which would be the first sentence of the case for support, would be a one sentence summary of the whole proposal. It would state the overall aim of the project, which is to take us closer to solving the larger research problem, and the overall objective, which is to carry out the research project. This is a very difficult sentence to write but a very important one, for two reasons. First, it gets the reader excited about the project by telling them its aim and its objective. Second, because it tells everything in a single sentence, it can afford to gloss over uncertainties, helping the reader to form a positive view of the project.
  • Second, there is a sentence that states why the research problem is important and which may also introduce the specific aims.
  • Immediately after this sentence you would state the three or four specific aims.
  • Third, after stating the specific aims, you need to set the scene for stating the specific objectives with an introductory sentence that describes the nature of the research project.
  • The three or four specific objectives, stating research outcomes that exactly match the specific aims, would be stated immediately after it.
  • After the objectives, there should be a sentence that says what will be done with the research outcomes. In a sense this is an overall objective which should ensure that the overall outcome of the research project  contributes to solving the larger research problem that motivates the entire project.

Finally I should make it clear that, although it matters for understanding this post, for the purpose of grant-writing,  it doesn’t matter that some authorities, including the Oxford dictionary, do not distinguish between aims and objectives in exactly the same way as I do. What matters in a grant application is how you present the argument that links your project to the important question. Whether you call any individual link an aim or an objective is neither here nor there.


Put some meat in your feedback sandwich


Make sure that your feedback sandwich has plenty of meat.

This is one of a series of posts with advice for people who review grant applications for their friends and colleagues. It is also intended to encourage people writing grant applications to review what you have written before you ask a colleague to read it and tell you something you could have worked out for yourself. My last post argued that a quick and easy way of reviewing a grant application is to check its structure. Good structure makes a grant application easy to read.

Most applications will have very poor structure. If the structure is poor, it is not worth reviewing the detailed content. One reason is that it will take too long. Another is that, even if the content is very good, a funding committee’s enthusiasm for the application will be limited because the poor structure makes it difficult to understand.

At this point I feel honour-bound to confess that I have hesitated a couple of weeks before finishing this post because I know that many people find my feedback a bit too direct. They like to soften criticism by constructing a feedback sandwich that smothers useful comments in copious quantities of praise. My view is that feedback should be clear, it should explain how the proposal can be improved, and it should be delivered as quickly as possible. Feel free to cut and paste from what follows and to wrap it up in whatever form suits you.

The application should have an introduction that states clearly:-

  • what goal the project will achieve;
  • why the goal is important;
  • about four aims, which are things that we need to discover or understand in order to achieve the goal;
  • the general research approach;
  • about four research objectives, which are pieces of research that will enable us to achieve the aims; and
  • what will be done with the results.

These statements are what I call the ‘Key Sentences’. They are a distillation of the argument that the project deserves funding. If the grants committee believe the key sentences, they will almost certainly award a grant. So the rest of the case for support should be designed to make the reader believe the key sentences. It does this by repeating them, and reinforcing them with evidence or explanation.

After the introduction, the case for support has two main sections, each of which repeats six of the key sentences and then justifies or explains them. The background section deals with the goal, the importance and the aims. It should explain, with evidence, why the goal is important and how meeting the aims will achieve the goal. The description of the research project deals with all the rest. It should explain in detail the research approach, the research objectives, and what will be done with the results.

The structure allows a reader to understand the message of the grant in 2 or 3 minutes, by ‘speed-reading’ it. This is very important. The committee that decides whether or not to award the grant will have dozens of other applications to read and discuss. Most members will have a limited understanding of the detailed argument. Some of them will still be reading the application during the final discussion about whether to fund it. All of them will have a say in whether it gets funded. They will be much more enthusiastic to fund an application that they can understand and remember.

The structure also helps the referees who will read the proposal thoroughly and write an evaluation. Each key sentence leads directly to the detailed argument and evidence that justifies and explains it. It is not quite as important to make referees’ task easy because each referee typically only deals with a small number of proposals. Moreover, their enthusiasm will be based on their evaluation of the detailed argument. But it definitely doesn’t hurt to make their task easy.

Opening sentence

The opening sentence must whet the reader’s appetite. The best way to do that is to say what the project will achieve, together with something about how it will achieve it, ideally with a clear implication that the research team are well qualified to do the work. For example, the sentence “This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke based on a family of synthetic metabolic inhibitors that we have discovered, and synthesised” achieves all this. The reference to discovery and synthesis suggests that the project is a continuation of past work. Of course the suggestion that the project continues previous work does not testify to its importance – that will rest on the opening clause, which states that the project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke.

Draft grant applications quite often have a good opening sentence. But it is not usually in the right place. Usually it is somewhere towards the middle. Skim through the whole case for support to see if there is a suitable opening sentence that can be moved to the opening position.

It is useful to repeat the opening sentence at the start of the background section, which usually follows after the introduction. It is also useful to open the summary with the same sentence. Repetition of this kind is very good: it helps the reader to remember the essential message. Unfortunately most academics don’t like to repeat a message unless they can confuse readers by using completely different words.

Importance sentence

It’s useful to have a sentence explaining that what the project will achieve is important and to have it follow the opening sentence, which says what the project will achieve. Health, social, or economic benefits are usually, depending on the remit of the funder, good reasons that something is important. Solving a major theoretical problem may also be a good reason. Being the next logical step from the applicant’s previous research is typically not a reason for importance, although mentioning this kind of progression can be a useful way of supporting what  we refer to in the book  as the ‘competence proposition’, which is the proposition that the applicant has the necessary skills to carry out the research.

The importance sentence should also be repeated in the background section and in the summary.


The aims of the project should be stated immediately after the importance sentence. If you don’t know the difference between aims and objectives (surprisingly, the Oxford Dictionary is rather little help: its definition of ‘objective’  is ‘thing aimed at’), read this excellent post on Pat Thomson’s blog.

I suggest that there should be about four aims. I also think that because funding agencies often ask you to state aims and objectives, you should use them as key parts of the structure. A good way to state an aim is to say that “We need to know” something. There are three important things to check about each stated aim.

The aim should be restated, word for word, in the background section, where it should be followed by a few paragraphs that convince the reader that this is an important aim. Usually they do this by citing appropriate literature. Stating and justifying the aims like this is a device to create a direct link between what the project will do, and an important underlying question that the funder will pay to have answered. It’s also a way of papering over the cracks when the link is a bit tenuous.

The aims of the project should also be stated in the summary. Repeating them exactly, using the same sentences, is a good way of helping the reader to remember them.

Project overview sentence

It is useful to have a sentence that says what kind of research project is envisaged and what the likely outcome will be. It’s often necessary to have something that puts the reader in the right frame of mind for the subproject overview sentences. This sentence should be in the introduction and should be repeated at the start of the section of the proposal that describes the research project in detail.

Sub-project overview sentences (Objectives)

The essential difference between aims and objectives is that, aims tend to be abstract and objectives tend to be concrete. Aims are things that we would like to achieve. Objectives are the concrete things that we will do in order to achieve those aims. Thus the four or so sub-projects that comprise a research project are objectives. Matching the objectives to the aims is a good way of convincing the reader that the research needs to be done: the description of each sub-project should begin with a sentence that includes the phrase “this will tell us” whatever the corresponding aim says “we need to know”.

These sentences should be ‘pre used’ in the introduction and in the summary.


The last substantive sentence in the introduction should say something about what will be done with the results. Again, this sentence should be re-used to introduce the last sub-section of the description of the research project, which should explain it in detail.

So, that’s the filling for the feedback sandwich. How do you wrap it up? I think that it’s up to you to use your judgement. All the wrapping does is to set a baseline. In my view it doesn’t much matter where the baseline is, as long as it is absolutely clear how much the structure of the case for support could be improved.

I should point out that some funders, including several UK Research Councils, require applications to contain a section detailing the achievements of the research team.  That section, which is an excellent way of supporting the competence proposition, is in addition to those discussed in this post.