Grant applications are hard work (includes LaTeX template)

This post is a taste of (not so) slackademia.  It shows how much work is involved in preparing the funding application for a NERC Standard Grant.  It also includes a LaTeX template for anyone writing their own.  It can be used in any document where there is a tight limit on page numbers.

Grant applications are a lot of work

My recent work on the massive Hekla 3 and Hekla 4 eruptions shows that Hekla 4 produced much more extremely fine ash (<64 microns; this is the stuff that can cross the Atlantic and cause trouble in Europe) than Hekla 3.  We know that explosive eruptions are driven by gases in magma, so I want to get a post-doc for 2 years to look at the bubbles and the dissolved gases in pumice from the eruptions to see why they are so different.

It turns out that these applications are A LOT of work.  The final version required:

  • 13,000 carefully chosen, fully-referenced, words, co-written with 5 other authors (=> 5 sets of corrections/edits/comments) on 2.5 continents (Iceland surely isn’t a whole continent).
  • Detailed spreadsheets with well-researched and up-to-date costs.
  • 2 days of sampling (last summer) and 80 hours of specific analysis (this spring) to get one preliminary dataset; another day including instrument time for another.
  • Letters of Support from heads of departments, lab managers, senior government agency scientists, research professors.  The application is 23,000 words if you include Letters of Support and CVs.
48 sides of carefully thought-out science.

47 sides of carefully thought-out science.  Don’t underestimate how long it takes to put it together.

I reckon that it took around 3 months of full-time equivalent work to prepare.  This is time that I could have been analysing data or writing papers.  You can also add in another fortnight of other post-docs’ time.  Plus a few days of Professor/Senior Scientist time.  While working out the costs, I learned that employing a post-doc costs the tax-payer about £100,000 per year (of which about 1/3 is salary).  So we are talking about at least £25,000 of effort being put into a grant application.  Did I mention that only 1 in 5 get funded?

If it isn’t funded, the time will not have been completely wasted.  The data are useful, I’ve made new contacts and had an excuse to get right up-to-date with the latest published papers.  I understand the importance of being able to find the best-thought out and most useful projects to give funding from a limited pot, but it should also be recognised that every extra section on the application form has a real cost in terms of scientists’ time.

Grant application LaTeX template

LaTeX is an open source document preparation system.  Unlike a word processor, you only have to think about the text and it takes care of the formatting.  No more adding a word and seeing all your pictures jump to different pages.  If you have to write a complicated document with sections, subsections, references, tables and figures (such as a Masters or PhD thesis), then I highly recommend it.

Click here to download a LaTeX template for grant applications.  It is based on the normal article class, using the following extra packages:

  • anysize to set 2cm margins
  • helvet for Arial-like font
  • natbib and multicol with a custom .bst file for a compact reference list (Note: since 2014 NERC applications require references in 11pt font.  Comment out the \tiny{} before the bibliography to make the text full size.)
  • wrapfig to wrap text around images
  • pgfgantt to make a Gantt chart
  • titlesec and a number of other tweaks to make things compact

The packages are fairly common and can be installed on Ubuntu-like Linux systems with a single command (sudo apt-get install texlive texlive-latex-extra texlive-humanities texlive-fonts-extra).  The content of the template comes from this blog post, and the output looks something like this:


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  1. Michael says:

    LaTeX is great – but its problematic if you have collaborators, which don’t use this package (at least for life sciences, most people don’t). One tip: Take a look at the Biblatexpackage, which is ways nicer (and better to use) than the old BibTeX.

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