Apotheke Windischgarsten

Beat the Peer Review blues – avoid common grant application pitfalls with these tips

Peer review

Winning a grant proposal involves a lot of work and, more likely than not, a few rejections along the way. Receiving feedback on unsuccessful bids can be incredibly useful for PIs when thinking about how to improve grant applications, turning that rejection into an eventual success story. For funders like UKRI or Nuffield, you will usually receive this feedback and be offered a chance to respond, which can ultimately lead to an award.

At UoW we have been through recent feedback and collated some of the most common themes that are picked up on in reviewer comments, to help you think about how you can ensure your proposal is as strong as possible and avoid common pitfalls.

Value for money and resourcing

  • Excessive Principal Investigator (PI) or Co-Investigator (Co-I) time is often picked up on when not well justified. If you need to dedicate large numbers of hours per week to your research project, think about why this is necessary and ensure you communicate this. Can part of the work be done by an early career researcher?
  • The pandemic has left reviewers reticent to fund unnecessary travel costs. If you’ve chosen five case study countries, ensure you justify these. If you have costed in steering group meetings, could some take place online?
  • Be aware that the longer your proposed project, the more scrutiny it will generally receive in terms of justification of costs. 48-month projects will naturally be expensive due to staff time, so is the duration appropriate? If it is, tell the funder why.
  • Letters of support from any project partners must include an estimate of monetary value for any in-kind contributions given. Letters should also be meaningful – vague or noncommittal letters will be viewed unfavourably by reviewers. See our guidance here.


  • Reviewers will be assessing whether the proposed researchers have the expertise but also the cohesiveness as a team to deliver the project. Make it absolutely clear who is fulfilling each role of the project, and why.
  • The inclusion of consultants on projects may be questioned, even if eligible as a cost. Why can this expertise not be found within your project team? If you’re including multiple consultants, could you reconsider the make-up of your team and bring another researcher onboard with the needed expertise?
  • Providing opportunities for ECRs is often a priority for funders, so reviewers may comment on Research Assistants or Fellows being included in the project as part time, or for only part of the project. Think about whether you could improve the career opportunities for ECRs by increasing hours or duration. Conversely, we have received some feedback that acknowledges part time work may suit a more diverse pool of applicants, so it can’t hurt to mention reasons why you’ve included part time position in your application, if you decide to.
  • On a similar note, many reviewers will pick up on inadequate training for any ECRs involved on projects and will require explanation of how the institution supports ECRs. RKEO and School Research Leads can help advise on this.
  • If ECRs on the project are not involved in outputs, it is likely the reviewer will wonder why. Ensure they are co-authors of journal articles where possible.
  • Steering committees will help convince reviewers there is a group of interested parties helping to keep the research on track.

Quality of proposed research

  • It sounds obvious, but unclear methodology will always be picked up on, so make sure your methodology is understandable even to researchers slightly outside of your direct discipline.
  • Clearly define your terminology. Some terms are complex and nuanced even to experts – if you’re referring to ‘mothers’, define what a mother is in your project. If your proposal refers to Arab culture, what is your definition of ‘Arab’?
  • If you’re using certain case studies e.g., certain countries, certain population groups – why? You must justify very clearly and ensure you haven’t left out any obvious stakeholders in any sampling.
  • An unclear link between research questions and objectives (or between different subprojects) will annoy reviewers! Ensure this link is watertight and clear.
  • Don’t use linear methodology involving a ‘single point of failure’, as reviewers will highlight the risk of this. You need a series of parallel subprojects, which inform each other.

Impact and dissemination

  • If you haven’t included key stakeholders who could benefit from the outcomes of your research, it will be picked up on. The more specific you can be, the better – e.g., if you’re targeting policymakers, which ones? What journals will you publish in? Where will your exhibition be held?
  • If you’re applying to an international collaboration call, remember both parties should benefit. We have received feedback in these circumstances about the learning being one-sided and UK-centric. Equally, UKRI will want the UK to benefit from any research they fund, so bear in mind the purpose of any call you’re targeting.
  • Remember that you can include costs for impact activities. This is often forgotten! Conventional or traditional routes to impact will now often be criticised. Think outside the box. Please see our Researcher Development Hub resources here or get in contact for more advice on impact.
  • Funders are becoming increasingly concerned with stakeholder involvement in research projects, with funders like NIHR requiring Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) to be clear from the outset. Can you include members of the public or patients on an advisory board/steering committee? Can they provide feedback on outputs (e.g., leaflets?) In some cases, it may even be appropriate for them to be co-applicants. Read more about this here.
  • Public engagement is a big focus for funders like British Academy and UKRI. How will you attract varied and diverse audiences for any public engagement activities you conduct as part of your project? Which networks can you use?

For further reading, try checking out funder websites for what they see as common pitfalls when reviewing applications to their funding schemes. This page from Asthma and Lung UK is a good example.  


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