The Genre Games

In a recent coaching session, one of my Granted students described her anxiety about having weak grant writing skills. She said she was motivated to improve, but that everyone she’d turned to for help on the subject so far had been unhelpful. I asked her what she meant.

Everyone’s response, she explained, had been the same: ‘you’ll be fine, you’ve written a PhD thesis! This will be easy’.

Trouble is, that advice wasn’t helping her. And I could understand her anxiety and frustration entirely.


Because writing a PhD thesis gets you good at just that – writing a Ph.D. thesis.

And if you’ve ever read (or written) a research grant or Fellowship proposal, you’ll know that it’s a genre in its own right. It is an art-form, with a certain style, common ingredients, and so on, no matter which funding body you apply to. In short, grant writing is fundamentally different from PhD thesis writing.

So why would anyone think that completing a PhD thesis would make easy (or equivalent) work of the ‘post-PhD’ writing skills you need to survive in academia – like writing a competitive grant proposal?

I tend to think that the advice my client had received from senior colleagues is well-meaning. It’s to encourage an ECR to give grant writing a shot, that the ‘hard work’ of academia lies in having the grit and the smarts (and more grit still!) to deliver a PhD thesis into the world. And it’s true, while the number of PhD graduates is growing in Australia, PhD ‘completers’ remain a rare breed.

But, having been on both sides – PhD candidate, and postdoc fellow – I can tell you that grant writing is harder in different ways, as is working in academia post-PhD.

In my client’s case, there were two key activities I suggested she regularly pursue, now that Granted had taught her the key elements of grant writing, and given her the opportunity to produce – and get feedback on – a full draft proposal. Let me share them with you:


1. Regularly write grant proposals for ‘real’ funding schemes (not just internal ones), and get someone more senior (not necessarily from academia) to work with you to revise your drafts so they read more tightly and take on a more compelling pitch. Getting this help when I was first learning to write grants was transformative, and quickly changed the way I wrote. The help/feedback you don’t want is of the ‘it’s fine’ kind. ‘It’s fine’ is feedback that teaches you nothing.

What you’re learning to do with this activity is to talk about your work for an audience you’ve very possibly not had to consider – the lay public. People who don’t know what on earth you’re talking about, or what your funny terminology means, or why it’s so important that we know more about it in the way you suggest. Finding that ‘touch point’, and being able to talk in a way that connects your story with theirs, shares little similarity with the work of writing a PhD thesis for experts in your field.


2. Review successful and unsuccessful grant applications, and as many, as you can get your hands on (especially of the scheme you want to apply for). You’ll start to draw out the common elements, how they frame and design their idea, as well as get insight into the stylistic nuances of grant writing.

But there’s more wisdom still you can draw from reading others’ applications, whether they’ve been successful or not: sometimes you’ll be surprised that a proposal was funded, and other times you’ll be left wondering why such a stellar proposal didn’t make the cut. The wisdom available here is that, no matter how good or experienced one gets at grant writing, it doesn’t offer immunity from the supply-demand imbalance in the research funding landscape. So yes, become a skilled grant writer and learn from the experience of your senior grant writing colleagues, but remind yourself that each year, a lot of fund-worthy projects and people (at all career stages) don’t get funded.

Seen and heard…

So when my exasperated client asked me how she could improve her grant writing skills, I didn’t for a moment think that ‘she’ll be fine’ because she’s completed her PhD. On the contrary. These two concrete activities thus came as a relief to her, not least because they let her know she had been seen and heard as one of many PhD graduates who feel ill-equipped for the role of a funded research-academic.

Join us!

If you can relate to the angst of not having strong grant writing skills, or not knowing where to start to improve in this area, consider joining Granted, where training and at-elbow support will help you draft a full grant proposal and give you the skills and knowledge to write stronger grants, every time. If you’re interested in joining the next course, please get in touch to secure your place!

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