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Career Advice

Demystifying the grant application process

Virginie Portes, the director of research support at IVADO, draws on her vast experience to help Canadian academics navigate this complex process.


“I found we were giving the same advice over and over,” says Virginie Portes, director of research support at IVADO. IVADO is an interdisciplinary consortium for artificial intelligence research, training, and knowledge transfer and mobilization at Université de Montréal.

Dr. Portes has worked in research for more than 20 years. After completing her PhD, she was hired by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, where she was initiated into the workings of granting agencies and launched a long career in research support. She then worked as a research advisor at Université du Québec à Montréal before holding various positions at U de M in research support.

Dr. Portes has helped countless researchers apply for grants over the years, whether it be for tiny projects or for larger interdisciplinary teams. “Looking back over my career, I realized there was a lack of easily accessible tools that could be used by different types of people,” says Dr. Portes. Beyond the few documents produced by granting agencies, there were no guides for the Canadian granting context in either French or English.

Understanding the complete granting ecosystem

L’art d’écrire une bonne demande de subvention, published by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal in March 2024, aims to help readers understand the entire grant application cycle. “I wanted to offer a simple, not too technical format that provided a general overview of the grant ecosystem,” Dr. Portes explains.

The guide is divided into three sections: how the system works, the components of a good application, and organization tips. It includes both general and sector-specific advice, as well as practical, concrete tools.

Dr. Portes also consulted with eight U de M professors from different disciplines, all with extensive experience in writing and – more importantly – winning grants. “For me, it was very important for the book – though solidly based on my expertise – to reflect the experience of leading players,” she says. “I wanted them to have their say.” Since she wanted to back up her advice with first-hand experience, the guide is full of anecdotes. “What’s fascinating is how much everyone uses the same vocabulary.”

Breaking down biases

By demystifying the grant ecosystem, Dr. Portes hopes to break down preconceived notions on both sides and make applicants aware of the pitfalls to be avoided. For example, researchers must clearly explain their project and substantiate their claims. “You can’t say your project is innovative without showing how,” she explained at a workshop held at the U de M soon after the guide was released.

She also talks about the myth in the French-speaking world that it’s better to submit your application in English to increase your chances of getting a grant. “It’s a common assumption, and often unfounded,” she says. The choice of language for grant writing must be carefully considered and depends on, among other things, the culture of the discipline. “It’s important to think about who will be reading your application,” she told participants at the April 24 workshop. “If you know that expertise in your field is scarce and that an external evaluator will be called in, that should be taken into account.”

A broad appeal

Although designed primarily with research professors in mind, the guide is also useful for graduate students, support teams, and anyone working in research. She says even people working in granting agencies have read her book. “It’s interesting for agencies to see how people approach and prepare for their programs,” she notes.

Encouraged by positive feedback, Dr. Portes hopes to publish an English version of the guide so that it can be available to anyone in Canada. She has already presented the guide at U de M, and a number of other universities have expressed interest as well. She would also like to develop training programs that could be deployed at universities, CEGEPs and research centres. “I’d like this content not to remain just a book, but to go further, and for people to interact with it,” she says.

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