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How to get better at writing funding applications

10 Aug 2016

It takes hard work and tenacity to secure research funding. Salla Ruskamo, a University of Oulu scientist studying proteins of the myelin sheath, an insulating membrane surrounding neurons, received a three-year postdoctoral research grant from the Academy of Finland Research Council for Biosciences and Environment on the third time of asking. Myelin is material that covers neuronal axons and improves electrical communication among neurons. The protein composition of the myelin membrane is an entirely new area of research, and the funding made available to Ruskamo will provide a long-term platform for studying these proteins.

“Our research will help to provide relief for many myelin-related genetic disorders and multiple sclerosis, for instance,” says Ruskamo, a specialist in the field of structural biology and biochemistry.

We asked Ruskamo about the application process and about how to get better at writing funding applications.

Third time lucky

Ruskamo applied for funding for a research post as Postdoctoral Researcher immediately after completing her doctoral thesis.

“The first time was about learning the ropes and served as good practice. At the time I didn’t know exactly how the Academy of Finland and its review panels worked. Besides, it was still early days in my research project and therefore I didn’t even have preliminary results to show for myself. I didn’t have a very impressive CV either, and my research plan was not as coherent as it could’ve been,” Ruskamo explains.

On her second attempt, Ruskamo was able to establish a clearer focus for her research based on the comments she received from the review panel. During her first postdoc year she also had articles published, which benefited her CV.

“I was gaining in skills and experience and most importantly, we now had some preliminary results, which made for a more credible application. The second time round I was close to getting funding, and the feedback was very positive. However my research plan was considered too high-risk, although if successful the project would’ve yielded great impact. So the challenge for me was to convince the panel I could deliver on the promises I’d made in the plan.”

By the third time of asking Ruskamo again had more results that were enough to convince others that her research could indeed succeed. Ruskamo says these latest results reduced the risks of the project, which was now regarded as an ambitious one. She received funding in spring 2014.

Drive home your strengths and skills

Although preparing an application is a major investment of time, Ruskamo says the process gets less time-consuming each time round.

“The application must be a convincing piece of writing. It’s also important to establish a clear focus for research because often applications tend to be too broad and sweeping. You must learn how to get the message across just right and in sufficient detail. And then you mustn’t be shy, but really drive home your own strengths and skills,” she says.

The comments and feedback from the review panel provide great clues and pointers for the next application and for the research itself.

“Based on the comments, you can mention things that you omitted to include in the previous application. It’s quite possible that a shortcoming in an application is not real, but the applicant has just omitted to mention that they have the required skill sets.”

Ruskamo also points out that in the case of high-risk research, it’s good to include a plan B in case the project doesn’t go as intended. It’s also important that the application is reviewed by the right people.

“The reviewers should be experts in your own field. The abstract and keywords really matter because they will ensure the application goes to the right panel,” Ruskamo reminds.

Good preparation is important

Comments from research colleagues can be important. Ruskamo herself has also received valuable help and comments from partners in their areas of expertise, as well as from her husband who works in the same field. So it’s really worthwhile making the best use of all the help you can get.

Ruskamo says it really pays to carefully read the instructions and application guidelines on the Academy of Finland website. You must know how to prepare your research plan according to these guidelines. On two occasions Ruskamo has attended the Academy’s Ask & Apply Roadshow, a great way to learn more about the application process.

“I found Ask & Apply particularly useful the first time round. I learned about how the application is processed, how the panels work, where the application goes and what’s important in the application. I’d really urge people to go to the roadshow, especially first-timers who don’t yet have any experience of the application process.”

Ruskamo plans to continue her research into membrane proteins.

“I still have two years left of my postdoctoral funding for myelin protein research. Beyond that, everything is wide open again.”

Finnish text and photo: Anna-Riikka Oravakangas

Last modified 10 Aug 2016
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