Against exhaustion

Deborah BrianDeborah Brian is Senior Research Administration Officer in the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at The University of Queensland. She coordinates grant applications and research activities for a diverse group of engineering and computer science academics, with a focus on supporting early career researchers. In her alternate (academic) existence, she is an anthropologist and archaeologist with research interests in Indigenous cultural heritage and the construction of social memories, histories, and identities. Deb has been one of RW’s featured RO Peeps She tweets – entirely too much – at @deborahbrian.


Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.

Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.

Now, it might be because I was in the final throes of #grantfest, but when Jonathan Laskovsky’s piece on exhaustion popped up on Twitter this morning, it made me want to hurl my iPad across the room. And I love my iPad.

I won’t tell you what I said then, or what I was still muttering under my breath when I finished reading the post, but I will say this: PLEASE DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

Instead, I want to offer three pieces of advice for those struggling through the genuinely exhausting process of writing grant and fellowship applications, which for reasons unknown, always seem to be due all at once.

Follow these three simple rules to give yourself the best shot of: a) writing a decent grant or fellowship application, b) not pissing off your colleagues and support staff, and c) coming out alive. READ MORE

Ask a question

Do it (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Do it (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I’ve been loathe in the past to talk too much about what I do on an everyday basis in my job.

This is because I’d been made wary by certain (rare, it must be said) attitudes towards sharing information about internal processes for research development and researcher support.

I said then and I’ll say again now for the record: There’s nothing really new or ‘top secret’ in research education and development. As every Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) conference testifies, there’s much to be gained and nothing to lose by workshopping or sharing your processes.

As yet, there is no laser-pen that will automagically generate a winning grant application. Until that pen happens along, what research education and development people do – academic or professional administrative staff – is hone models and ideas that have had a range of outings.

As in so many areas of intellectual and professional endeavour, lots of people have gone there before you, and they’ve been doing it for longer than you.

This does not mean the work is any less valuable to researchers who need to know about these strategies and methods. Nor does it mean the staff managing these researcher development programs are any less committed to finding better and more effective ways to help researchers make good research happen.

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Exhaustion

Jonathan Laskovsky Jonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


I’ve been playing squash for about 12 years.

I play quite poorly (especially given 12 years of practice), but I enjoy it. Although I don’t really have any desire to get any better than I am, I’m naturally quite competitive. So, I’m there to win even though I’m only playing with friends for fun.

Over time, I’ve found that the one advantage I have is persistence. I run down every ball. Balls that I’ve only got a 3% chance of getting to – let alone making a shot off – I’ll run down. I’ll run down a ball if it means hitting a wall, hard. If I can’t run the ball down, I’ll throw my racquet at the ball on the 1 in 1,502,402 chance that it may just bounce off the racquet and hit a winning shot (which, not surprisingly, hasn’t happened in the 12 years).

Man playing squash - the image is blurred because he is moving fast.

Blurry, by Ed Houtrust on Flickr

Inevitably, this is an incredibly tiring way to play. After four games or so, I’m usually exhausted and my advantage has pretty much been nullified. At that point, something strange starts to happen. I start to play better shots. I’m now so tired that I can’t run everything down so I need to play better shots to avoid total defeat. Remember, I’m there to win.

All of this sports malarkey leads me to this: there’s something to be said for exhaustion. For being tired, miserable, irritable, and downright sick of your grant application. Because there’s a certain amount of clarity that comes with the exhaustion.

At that point of exhaustion, you are in a similar frame of mind to your reviewer. They have read 50-odd applications and are tired of it. They are incredulous that ‘an interdisciplinary approach’ is still being touted as innovative (it isn’t). They are probably wishing they hadn’t volunteered to be a reviewer. They’re trying to fathom the incredible project that is hidden in the convoluted language and structure of grant applications because they want to still believe that it is in there.

Your exhaustion is the key here. Like the poor squash player, you can harness your exhaustion to play a better shot.

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Five types of funding

An intricate page of Chinese printing, overlaid with many chops and seals

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Some people seem to think about research funding in the same way that I think about the doctor – only when it is an emergency.

That’s not the best way to approach it. You need  a plan and you need to know what funds are coming up when.

To plan for the long term and shape your searches, you need to have a picture of what is actually possible. Different types of grants fit different situations. Here is the way that I think about funding.

Scholarships and fellowships

Scholarships and fellowships are given to individuals. That means that more weight is given to the person than the project. Don’t get me wrong – you still need an exciting project, but the balance of assessment will be different.

In general, scholarships are for students and fellowships are for staff, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule.

Scholarships and fellowships can vary in duration. I’ve seen overseas fellowships that are only three months long and I’ve seen senior fellowships that are five years long.

If you are an early career researcher, you should give serious consideration to an international fellowship (such as a postdoctoral placement). It will give you a much wider view of your field, and help you to understand how things work internationally.

Examples of scholarships and fellowships include the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships and the Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers.

Make sure you know what these scholarships and fellowships offer. Some ‘visiting fellowships’ only offer some desk-space and use of the university library; they don’t provide a stipend/salary, or any travel funds.

Seed funding

Seed funding is intended to get you started on a project. It provides a small amount of money to allow you to prove the potential of an idea, so that you can then move on to a larger project.

Assessors will be looking at the idea. You will still need to demonstrate that you can do the job, but your idea will be the focus of your application. Often the best seed funding applications apply completely new methodologies to established problems, or move out into territory that nobody else has yet explored.

External agencies can often use seed funding to fund risky experimental work. Grants are generally short (often 6-12 months long) and can be quite small. Because the work is high risk, the funding agency wants to give you just enough money to prove that your idea has potential, as quickly as possible.

Universities often provide internal seed funding on the understanding that it will lead to an application for future funding. Ask your local research whisperer what is available.

Examples include the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Development Grants and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health Exploration grants.

Project funding

Project funding is probably the sort of funding that most people think about when you think about research funding. It is the standard term for grants that fund a team of people to work on a particular project for an extended period of time.

Assessors are generally looking for a skilled team that has a viable project. Three to five years of funding for 4-5 people can quickly add up, so the stakes are high. Only the best teams, with the most exciting ideas, can be funded.

Examples include the Australian Office of Learning and Teaching grants and National Science Foundation standard grants in the USA.

Centre funding

Centres are generally funded for 3-6 years, although I have seen them for 9 years. Funds are generally much larger than project funding, and are designed to fund a program of work that encompasses many projects.

Assessors are looking at the track record of the team leader and the team, the long-term benefits of the program of work, the facilities available, the management arrangements, and the support that already exists for the work. The leader of a centre is generally an acknowledged expert who has shown that they can do great research and inspire others to work together.

To my mind, a good centre proposal bundles together the excellent work that is already being done and adds unicorns and rainbows. Some centre proposals start from scratch, but it can mean that you spend a lot of time bedding things down.

Examples include the Australian Cooperative Research Centres and the European Research Council Advanced Grants. The Advanced Grants are really interesting to me.  They are described like project funding, but at €2.5 million over five years, they feel more like centres. They pick one person and let that person build their team. What a great idea!

Prizes and awards

Prizes and awards are given for work that has been done in the past, rather than work that is done in the future. They shine a light on excellence by rewarding and promoting it.

They are almost always given to individuals, and they look very shiny on your CV. As a result, they are very competitive most of the time. Sometimes their scope is quite broad. Others can be focused on a particular discipline or geographic area. Some reward you with money, others just provide you with recognition.

‘Awards’ is a bit of a confusing term, actually. When you get a grant, it is ‘awarded’ to you. The contract with the funding agency is often referred to as the award. Prizes and awards also sometimes have a contract, so I guess that you might need to sign the award when you are awarded an award.

Examples include the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes and the MacArthur Fellows. I love the MacArthur Fellows program because it’s not just a prize, it’s a surprise. You don’t apply. They just pick you out and give you US$625,000. Not too shabby!


So, there you have it – 5 different types of grants for 5 very different situations.

This isn’t a definitive list. There are lots of ways to build a typology of funding: size of award; local vs regional vs national vs international; by discipline; by career stage…

The important thing is to have an overall picture in your mind that is wider than just ‘project grants’.

How do you divide things up? What have I missed?

How #altac research happens

kieranKieran Fenby-Hulse is the Researcher Development Officer at Bath Spa University (UK).

He is primarily responsible for delivering and developing research development workshops and online training materials to support both postgraduate researchers and research staff.

Kieran’s research interests include creative practice, cultural value, affective experiences, music, narrative, gender, and Hindi film.

He has a research blog, “Researching Music, Digital Media, and Film“, and tweets at @DrKFenbyHulse.

We were intrigued by Kieran’s profile apparent balance between his own research and role as a research developer, and asked if he’d like to tell us more about how he manages to find space for both.


When is a cat not a cat?  (Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire - http://www.laughandpee.com)

When is a cat not a cat?
(Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire – http://www.laughandpee.com)

The term ‘academic’ is often used as synonym for university lecturer.

A lecturing position is the expected career path for many postgraduates when they begin their PhD, and understood to represent the pinnacle of academic achievement; proof that it was all worth it in the end.

Times are changing. This is noticeable from the way in which funding bodies and national organisations such as Vitae, here in the UK, are offering advice and guidance to postgraduates on alternative career routes.

This is echoed by the appearance of the #altac and #postac hashtags on Twitter, which PhD students, postdocs, adjuncts, and other researchers are using to voice their interests and thoughts on pursuing alternative careers both within and outside of academia.

But do you leave academia behind when you leave the institution? Isn’t academia something that exists beyond bricks and mortar? And what of those that stay within higher education, but are not employed as lecturers or researchers? Are these people no longer academics? Have they become administrators overnight?

Should the title of academic be left at the gates of the department as you leave?

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3 Rules of Grant Club

A bleak image of a No Parking space, with a sign that says 'Do not leave bins here'. There is a bin directly under the sign.

DO NOT LEAVE BINS HERE (Photo by Ben Kraal – @bjkraal)

One of the things that I repeat to researchers all the time is that a grant application, while a form of academic writing, is not a journal article, book chapter, or conference paper.

Grant applications are a specific genre of writing, and they require their own tone. Their format and aims are also often very different.

Many researchers view major funding bodies as cold, emotionally destructive monoliths of bureaucracy or – worse still – as organisations that are actively working to suck the soul out of generations of brilliant research unicorns. They see themselves in an adversarial relationship.

This isn’t helpful. Or true.

This post gives you the 3 Rules of Grant Club (and it’s brought to you by the mania induced by Australia’s current ARC deadline frenzy).

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