Writing ARC grant applications – top tips

Today I attended a session at QUT on grantwriting for ARC competitive grants in the humanities. Here’s the list, and some more detail over the fold:

  1. Do research on what gets funded – what successful projects have been funded before?

  2. Check research priorities; how does your research fit?

  3. Start early.

  4. Clarity and simplicity are the key to success. People have just a few minutes to look through each proposal. Be clear about what you’re doing and why it’s important – make sure it’s right up front.

  5. Follow the guidelines to the letter.

  6. Choose a partner if you do not have a strong track record. Note, however, that if you a person without a strong track record, it will bring down the overall track record. You need to argue the case to support an ECR without a track record in order to justify them. If you have one person with weaknesses, you would need two or three people with outstanding track records.

  7. Review, review, review. Get as many people to provide feedback as possible. Make sure you address all concerns before putting in your final proposal.

  8. Convince the ARC that your proposal is an opportunity to fund something that is urgent. This research needs to be something that is important to fund now, before it’s too late. Don’t insist on this if it’s not urgent, but it does help a proposal.

  9. Write for reviewers. The panel will have diverse disciplinary experiences; it is very important that you assume that the reviewer is an intelligent layperson who doesn’t understand the nature of the field.

  10. Avoid slogans, jargon, polemic. Writing should be straightforward, clear, and very precise.

Ask yourself: would this be something that you would fund?

Specific points

Significance and innovation

  • Innovation: not just that it hasn’t been looked at before, but that the conceptual framework or methodology is a different way of looking at the problem.

  • Significance: it has to be an important problem.


  • Methodology is often weak in humanities applications; this can harm a proposal


  • Is it likely to be completed on time?

  • Have you bitten off more than you can chew?

  • Does the scale of the project and number of people make sense?


  • Budget needs to be reasonable, but we know that the ARC cuts back budgets a lot.

  • It doesn’t hurt to put in a few extra items that you can do without – but don’t be unreasonable.

  • ECRs can’t expect to get the full amount of the budget. Sometimes, as an ECR, it is not worth asking for a research assistance, as it is hard to demonstrate that you can manage the team.

  • You might get one semester out of 3 years for teaching relief.

What are some of the common (fixable) reasons things don’t get funded? ===

  • Objectives are not adequately stated: it’s unclear what the outcomes of the project will be.

  • Unrealistic budget.

  • Project is predictable, routine, or repeats previous research.

  • Beyond the capacity of the applicant to complete – lack of experience in the particular area, or the scale is larger than imagined.

  • Timeframe is unrealistic, or some of the potential obstacles are not discussed. Be upfront about potential problems you might see.

  • Poor presentation or writing. The application needs to be a pleasure to read. Make it easy to read: in the first section, state four or five clear aims. Dot points are good here. Use bolding judiciously to highlight important points

  • Partisan or biased positions can be very problematic. You need to be open about the outcomes.

  • Lack of understanding of the field. Make sure you put in key references in the text.

  • Insufficient information: clear title, clear significance, etc. Reading the title, it needs to be absolutely clear what the project is about — it’s not a book title.

What can’t easily be fixed

  • The work is not significant enough

  • The hypothesis is not sound or not supported by the data presented.

  • The work has already been done.

  • The methods proposed are not suitable.


For legal proposals, general practice is for two ARC readers to look at the proposal. One of these will have a legal background. Then the proposal goes out to external reviewers, selected on the basis of the FOR code and keywords.

  • Stay positive in a rejoinder: make sure you do not attack assessors. Rejoinders will only have a relatively minor effect on the final scoring.