A commendable pilot effort by the Medical Faculty at Lund University aims to provide early-career researchers with hands-on support on how to write successful applications for funding from the Swedish Research Council.

I’m tired, but buzzing! Just finished three back-to-back grant-writing coaching sessions for more than 60 early-career researchers at the Medical Faculty at Lund University on how to prepare applications for funding from the Swedish Research Council (VR). Great to see the focused support that is offered to these researchers.

We had previously held several workshops, including a mini-workshop and moderated panel discussion on How to write successful grant applications last year. This year the Faculty’s Careers Centre and Future Faculty contacted us again to discuss how they could go a step further and offer their scientists a much more in-depth support. The discussions resulted in a multi-step process that started well in advance of the grant deadlines.

First, we developed and disseminated detailed guidelines and a template on how to draft a VR proposal. The participants used this template as a starting point to develop and write their first draft.

Second, we prepared and moderated three one-day coaching sessions for around 20 applicants each. In these sessions, we:

  • presented and discussed strategies for framing, structuring and writing the Summary and Research Plan sections of VR-proposals
  • illustrated these strategies with excerpts from successful applications
  • moderated peer-to-peer feedback in which participants analysed and discussed potential issues that could hamper the chances for success, as well as constructive solutions to address these issues
  • provided our own feedback to the participants

Third, post-workshop, the participants are revising their drafts and will get another chance to receive individual feedback, this time from a senior scientist at the Faculty that has experience as a grant reviewer.

The participants greatly appreciated the opportunity to work in pairs and get feedback from someone that is not close to one’s own field of research. Indeed, in several of the workshops, participants stated that a lot of information was there, but “between the lines”, and not likely to be grasped easily by a would-be reviewer.

This is an obstacle that many researchers are struggling to overcome. Researchers suffer from what the psychologist Steven Pinker calls ‘the curse of knowledge‘ (the term was not originally coined by him). We agree with him that empathizing with the reader, ‘knowing your audience’, is only one step toward getting the message across.

To really understand where there are lapses in the narrative, it’s on one hand vital to get an outsider’s perspective. On the other hand, using effective writing techniques helps overcome the ‘curse of knowledge’ by ensuring that you use a structure that’s adapted to your readers’ needs. In our workshops we teach writing principles that span from the microscopic to the macroscopic to achieve just that.

At the macroscopic level we synthesize findings from cognitive sciences to teach how using story elements and structure helps achieve a complete, coherent and compelling narrative. And we present a detailed breakdown of the key sections in VR proposals to complete VR’s (rather terse) guidelines with our own. This helps applicants write in such a way that even busy reviewers that may spend little time on reviewing an application are able to quickly grasp the key messages regarding novelty and originality, scientific quality, merits of the applicant and feasibility of the proposed research program.

At the microscopic level, we teach simple, yet powerful, principles for how to use sentence and paragraph structure to achieve coherence and flow. These principles are general (thus not only applicable to grant writing) and grounded in psycholinguistics research we discovered during the development of our workshops. Pinker himself also writes about this (very eloquently) in his recent book, The sense of style.

Adhering to these principles helps avoid the common pitfalls that make academic writing often impenetrable. This structured approach to grant writing is also not only useful for the prospective reviewers. As one of the applicants put it in his feedback to us, getting this type of training “makes the process [of applying for grants] less painful!”. And, as another participant stated:

"This type of training should be mandatory. I wish I had attended a workshop like this earlier."

Indeed, most researchers lack access to this type of training, leaving many scratching their heads, particularly in the early stages of their careers. This kind of initiative, as spear-headed by the Medical Faculty at Lund University, is therefore sorely needed.

We’re very happy to have been part of it and wish all participants good luck!