Demystifying the application process: Insights from grant committee meetings

Ever wonder how we decide which applications get funded? If you are an Early Career Researcher (ECR), the way grant proposals are judged can seem like a bit of a mystery. DMT-funded ECRs, Barbara Balocating Dunn and Tim Whitfield, attended a Research Grants Committee meeting to find out what happens. Read on to hear their experience.

As part of the Dunhill Medical Trust’s (DMT) commitment to supporting the development of researchers in ageing-related research, we give Early Career Researchers (ECRs) the opportunity to observe our Research Grants Committee meetings.

For Tim and Barbara, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to look behind the curtain and understand how grant proposals are judged and funding decisions are made. 

“In academia, particularly in science, there’s a lot of emphasis on being successful in applying for grants. But for ECRs like myself, it can be a bit of a mystery exactly how grant applications are judged.” Tim explains, “So I jumped at the chance to see how a committee panel worked. I wanted to learn from other applicants and apply those lessons to my future applications.”

“I totally agree,” said Barbara, adding, “I was intrigued to learn about the process involved in a grant application — what it goes through, the various stages before, during and after being presented at the committee meeting.” 

Crafting a strong proposal

Observing a committee’s feedback on proposals offers valuable lessons for crafting stronger grant applications. Tim and Barbara were interested to learn how committee members share their evaluation, and feedback to applicants where the research, design or methodologies could be improved.

“Observing a grant committee make decisions is beneficial for any ECR,” shares Barbara, “whether you’re a first-year doctoral researcher looking to develop your research designs and methodologies or a second-year doctoral researcher thinking about your next step after completing your PhD.”

For Tim, attending the meeting made him realise that while the research idea behind a proposal is crucial, a well-rounded application goes beyond that. The committee thoroughly considers various aspects, including the research team, potential impact, and cost-effectiveness – so it’s really important for applicants to present a holistic proposition.

“I was really struck by the fact that the application needs to be multi-faceted. I don’t think you can put all of your effort into just coming up with a good research idea. You really do need to take every section quite seriously including, for example, how the team will be built,” says Tim.

Tim also expressed how many of the decisions made were not just about the project, but also about developing researchers, especially ECRs. “The committee thought strategically about how a project could position the researcher to undertake even bigger and more impactful projects later down the line,” he explained. 

It’s not as scary as it seems

Both Tim and Barbara were pleasantly surprised by how human the whole process is. The decision-making isn’t just about scoring, instead the aim is to generate thoughtful discussion and constructive criticism. “I found the committee meeting heartwarming because it was like, oh, they’re not so scary, these funding decision panels – they’re human at the end of the day just like me,” shared Tim. 

“The committee meeting definitely wasn’t anywhere near as intimidating as I thought it would be,” agreed Barbara, noting that “the people judging these applications are all experts from diverse professional backgrounds.” 

Barbara also mentioned that throughout the process, applicants had the opportunity to clarify information and address potential concerns. “I really appreciated that throughout the entire process, there are opportunities for researchers to expand on, or revise aspects of their application.” says Barbara, adding “One of my biggest pieces of advice for ECRs is to take comments on their applications constructively, even if they may be perceived as criticism. It’s really important to explain the reasons behind your approach or describe it differently to address any concerns that might arise.” 

Empowering Early Career Researchers

Both Tim and Barbara expressed their feelings on the importance of transparency in the funding process, and providing insight to committee discussions.

“I would be delighted if all funders took a leaf out of the DMT’s book and allowed researchers to observe their decision-making,” shares Tim.

Observing a grant committee meeting offers valuable insights for ECRs, demystifying the grant application process and providing an opportunity to learn from seasoned researchers. If you’re an ECR in ageing-related research, consider applying to observe a DMT Research Grants Committee meeting. It could be a game-changer for your research journey!

We offer observers to join on a first come first served basis, with priority given to those who have been funded by the Trust and those who are planning to apply for an ageing-related research grant in the near future (either from the Trust or elsewhere). 

We encourage you to take on Tim and Barbara’s insights to help you craft proposals. Remember, grant reviewers are there to support good research. By carefully considering their feedback and using the resources available to you, you can develop compelling applications that stand out. If you’re an ECR interested in ageing-related research, you can also find support through the DMT Academy