The fine art of writing funding applications

With the Academy of Finland’s latest funding call announced, it’s time to whip your application into shape

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the queues at the campus restaurants are getting longer, and the University’s researchers are starting to compile their Academy of Finland funding applications.

The Academy of Finland is the country’s largest research funding body. It invests €320 million per year in research projects, and around 5,000 researchers are currently working on projects funded by Academy grants.

For reasons ranging from the impact of the new higher education funding model – with its heavier focus on external funding – to the seemingly endless economic downturn, competition for research funding is getting tougher. Therefore, it has never been more important to ensure that your grant application stands out from the crowd. Below are eight tips to help you produce the best possible grant application.

  1. Read the instructions carefully, and follow them!

This might be stating the obvious, but it really is worth keeping in mind. Just as a student might write a brilliant essay but fail to answer the question, an exciting and original research project can fall at the first hurdle if the funding application is not completed as instructed. The Academy of Finland website offers a very clear step-by-step guide to applying. Familiarise yourself with the guidelines and check them again once your application is ready to ensure that everything is in order and that you have all the required appendices. It might even be wise to write yourself a checklist.

  1. Ensure the different sections of your application work together as a whole.

The grant application is composed of numerous sections, each of which is somewhat self-contained. Bear in mind, however, that although you might write each of these sections separately, they will be read together. For this reason, aim to make your application as coherent as possible. Avoid repetition wherever you can and ensure that any unfamiliar terminology or acronyms are explained as early as possible in the first parts of the application. This is especially important when an application has numerous authors. It might be a good idea to choose one of the authors to be the chief editor; he or she can then keep track of any additions, deletions and changes to the application. Finally, be sure to read the application thoroughly at the end of the drafting process to ensure that it has a unified voice.

  1. Think about your reviewers, and make their lives as easy as possible.

The Academy of Finland uses international reviewers whose first language will certainly not be Finnish and may not be English. Keep your readers in mind when writing and do not assume that they know the same as you. They may know little about Finland or Finnish culture, so if your project will involve domestic social science research, for example, be prepared to provide the relevant background information. In addition, while the reviewer may be an expert in the same field as you, it is unlikely that their specialism is precisely the same as yours. You should by all means avoid patronising your reviewers, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to offer clear explanations of anything that you think might be confusing.

  1. Ask for feedback, more feedback, and even more feedback.

Your first port of call should obviously be your peers, and, if applicable, your academic superiors and mentors. Don’t be afraid of asking more than once: every draft of your application may throw up new challenges, and your repeated requests show that you value and respect your colleagues’ input. Once you think you might have something close to a final draft, let someone who isn’t familiar with your field read it. As an expert in your field, you may take certain things for granted that are not immediately clear to others. If your non‑expert reader can grasp your intentions and the implications of your research, you can be highly confident that the reviewers will be able to do so too.

  1. Be explicit about why your research is good value for money and deserves to be funded.

Again, this might seem obvious, but explain clearly the scientific and/or societal impact your work will have, and why it is timely. The Academy of Finland is government-funded, and as such it has a duty to distribute its budget wisely. This means that it must get the most value for its money. When completing your application, consider making an elevator pitch about your project to a friend or colleague. If you can succinctly and eloquently explain the importance of your research to another person in a short space of time, writing a convincing rationale for your grant application will be a lot easier. The elevator pitch should also help in writing the popular description of the project. This section is worth spending extra time on, as the Academy is most likely to use it in communications to the general public concerning your project.

  1. It’s not (just) what you say, it’s the way that you say it: invest in a professional edit.

As mentioned above, many Academy of Finland reviewers are not Finnish, and applications are therefore requested in English. Writing an application in your first language is challenging enough, but your task can be even harder when you have to write it in your second, third, or even fourth language! Fortunately, help is at hand. There is a range of professional editing services available, including the University’s own Language Services. A professional edit of your application will improve your language by making it more fluent and idiomatic, thus making it easier for the reviewers to read. Your application will naturally be looked on more favourably if the reviewers understand exactly what you mean the first time without having to read and reread your text. Furthermore, a good editor will also be able to offer advice on improving the structure of your application, so even if you have native‑level English skills, a professional edit will bring noticeable improvements to your application.

  1. Don’t leave it to the last minute.

This tip applies both to the writing of the application and to any further follow-up work that the text may require – for instance, asking for feedback or submitting your application to an editing service. Reviewers will see very many applications, and it is extremely likely that they can spot a rushed, hastily written one. Given the importance of the grant application, it’s worthwhile making it your chief priority in September. An added incentive to get your application finished ahead of the deadline is the fact that the Academy website has been known to crash on 30 September due to so many researchers trying to submit their applications on the final day!

  1. If at first you don’t succeed…

Research funding is a buyer’s market, and there is a significant chance that your application may be unsuccessful. If you don’t get funding this time, don’t be discouraged. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and acknowledge that despite not succeeding on this occasion, you have learned some valuable lessons and are now more experienced in dealing with grant applications. Take on board the feedback that you receive from your reviewers, and use it to hone your next application to perfection. After all, 30 April, a supplementary deadline for Academy funding, is only around the corner!

So, make a note of this date in your diary: the Academy of Finland’s deadline for funding applications is 30 September. That might seem quite far away, but remember – the early bird catches the worm!

Do you have any additional tips to share? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

Good luck with your applications!

This blog entry was written by Matthew James, the English-language editor at Language Services, which is based at the Language Centre. At Language Services, we provide copy editing services primarily for the University of Tampere and its researchers, but we also serve the needs of other academic institutions and wider society as a whole. If you have a grant application, journal article or doctoral dissertation that needs editing, please visit our webpages or get in touch at kielipalvelut@uta.fi.

Vapautuneena oppimaan

Viiden kuukauden opintovapaa on takana ja töiden uusi aloitus vielä tuoreena mielessä. Mitenkäs opintovapaa sujui -kysymyksiin on ollut helppoa vastata, että oikein hyvin sujui. Hyvän tunteen aiheuttaja vaatii jo hiukan pohdintaa. No ensinnäkin oli hienoa saada vetää välillä henkeä, kuten sanotaan. Ottaa omaa aikaa, ladata akkuja. Kun työvuosia on niskassa jo reilusti enemmän kuin niitä todennäköisesti on edessä, ei lepohetkeä pidä väheksyä. Mutta muitakin syitä myönteiselle kokemukselle on. Merkittävää oli ainakin rytminvaihdos. Opiskelijaelämässä aika kulkee jotenkin eri tavalla ja se tihenee eri kohdissa kuin työelämässä. Myös vapaus lisääntyy, kun opiskelijana sitä on vastuussa oikeastaan vain itselleen. Muutos tuntui virkistävältä, nosti pois totutusta ajo-urasta.

Opiskeleminen antoi hyvän kehikon vapaalla olemiselle. Tuskinpa aikani olisi käynyt pitkäksi muutenkaan, mutta nyt ainakin tekeminen oli strukturoitua ja eteenpäin kuljettavaa, ja ennen kaikkea palkitsevaa. Osa tästä vapaalla raatamisen nautinnosta selittynee luterilaisella työetiikalla, mutta suurimmalta osin kyse on siitä kutkuttavasta tunteesta, että saa kehittyä ja oppia. Varsinaisten Kohama-kurssien sisältöjen lisäksi aivoportfolioon tarttui paljon muutakin, erityisesti sen onnekkaan olosuhteen johdosta, että sain opiskella yhdessä kansainvälisen MARIHE-opiskelijaryhmän kanssa.

Käsitin esimerkiksi jotain olennaista digitaalisuuden globaalista olemuksesta ja nuorten tavasta olla siinä maailmassa. Maailmankarttani tarkentui, kun monet maat, kaupungit ja kulttuurit saivat opiskelutoverieni kasvot. Vaikka itseäni alkaa ahdistaa väenpaljoudessa, oivalsin, että maailman megapolisten kasvatteja voi puolestaan pelottaa se, että täällä ihmisiä on ympärillä liian vähän. Opin tervehdyksen Habari za azubuhi. Sain nähdä, että yliopiston käytävällä voi harjoitella salsaa menettämättä yhtään arvokkuuttaan. Ja aivan erityisen opettavaista oli katsella yliopiston touhua vaihteeksi opiskelijan silmin.

Töihin palaamisen hetki oli etukäteen mielessä jonkinlaisena möykkynä paitsi sen suhteen, miten itse onnistun pääsemään taas työkartalle, myös sen suhteen, mille mallille asiat ovat työmaalla poissa ollessani menneet. Oma tekeminen jatkuikin suunnilleen kuin olisi polkupyörän selkään hypännyt, ajotaito ei liene juuri ruostunut. Paras havainto oli kuitenkin se, että kielikeskus toimi aivan mainiosti ilman minuakin. Se kertoo avainhenkilöiden onnistuneesta suorituksesta, mutta mielestäni myös ryhmiin perustuvan toimintatapamme vahvuudesta. Olemme todennäköisesti tehneet tässä organisaatiossa jotakin oikein, kun henkilövaihdos johdossa ei hetkauttanut tekemisen tahtia. Tästä rohkaistuneena onkin hyvä suunnitella seuraavaa opintovapaan jaksoa.

Antti Hildén, Kielikeskuksen johtaja