Picking up the pieces

Gingerbreak man (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Gingerbreak man (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

So, you’ve lost out on the major grant rounds for last year. It only took about eight months to find out, right?

Often, you’ve waited with all of your career possibilities riding on the outcome.

And you got nothing.

As the congratulatory emails, posts, and drinkies ramped up, it was easy to get a little bitter and twisted about the whole thing. Of course, you’re happy for your diligent and savvy colleagues who were given recognition but…what about you?

I can say that I truly understand how you feel. I threw my hat in the major grants and fellowship rings many times; very few times was I successful.

I’m writing this post for you to read after you’ve had a few weeks to get over the angst and disappointment of not scoring a grant, hopefully had a break, and been able to take a step back.

If you’re going to persist in the academic caper, it’s very useful to find a constructively destructive way to channel that post-grant-announcement frustration and anger, that feeling that you’ve been cheated. I would suggest gardening or metal-smithing; anything that allows you to wield tools or make loud noises.

There are no guarantees about winning the grants race, but you can do your best to ensure you make it through the heats.

Top 5 things to pick up the pieces, post-grant-unsuccess:

1. Check out the competition.

Every time the results of a major grant round are announced, I ferret through the results and see who and what was successful. Some years, you’ll see a definite trend in the areas and it will confirm your feeling that those were hot topics. Other times, you’ll see that same trend and think, “Wtf? When did that become a ‘thing’?”

No matter what you think of the results, it’s useful to see what got up in your Field of Research (FoR) code – what kind of work and approaches in your field are being funded? Sometimes, it’s also useful to know who is being funded. Many academics have public institutional profiles and those profiles list their publications and other research activity. Particularly when someone is awarded a fellowship or highly competitive ECR award, it’s good to have a reality check about what that person’s track-record was like. In a perverse way, I’d rather be blown out of the round by someone’s stellar publication track-record than be suspicious that I missed out because of how the world misunderstands me and all that I try to do…

1a. Get those publications out there.

This is boring, clichéd advice, but publications are the foundation of ‘track-record’ assessments to date and will continue to be so for a while longer. Chances are very likely that those who were awarded grants and fellowships ahead of you had extremely strong publication (and, consequently, grant) track-records.

From year to year, you need to ensure that you are publishing consistently and in quality books and journals. For the next grant application, it gives you an added edge that you didn’t have the year before.

Also: Think of the timing of getting your publications through, if you can – being able to claim them in an Australian Research Council (ARC) round, for example, means that they need to be accepted for publication  by the date of application submission. ‘Pending revision outcome’ doesn’t cut it, and ‘submitted for review’ definitely doesn’t cut it.

2. Share the success! In particular, tap your buddies or mentors.

When I say ‘share the success’, I don’t mean that you should invite yourself to hang with the winning research team at Whistler as they work on threatened alpine ecosystems (though if you get the chance…).

What I mean is: If any of the successful grant winners are your academic buddies or mentors (or buddies with your mentors…), it’s good to do two things:

  • First up, drop them an email to congratulate them and wish them every success in their project. FULL STOP.
  • Follow up later with a note asking whether it’d be OK to have a look at their successful application as you’re intending to put your hat in the same scheme the next year (or whatever). I’ve written a post that is scheduled to be published soon about sharing grant applications, so I won’t go on too much about it now except to say: chances are, most people will be thrilled to be asked about these things (I know I am) and happy to share. I have heard of instances where successful DECRA recipients are suddenly approached for their applications through out-of-the-blue obsequious emails from those who’d never given them the time of day. I consider this fairly bad social form.

3. Re-visit assessors’ reports or comments from your institution’s internal review process.

Had you taken on board and addressed the viable criticism? Were there problems you glossed over rather than fixed? Is there an inherent flaw (e.g. in research team composition) that you’re in denial about?

Before you think of submitting that project/application/team again, ensure that it’ll progress in development from the version before. Make the hard decisions about scope, personnel, and project priorities. Sometimes, it can be ‘bad luck’ that your application went out to readers who were antagonistic to your project (or you!), but treat the next round as a clean slate.

4. Plan and flag.

Once you decide to re-submit your application, whether it’s to the same scheme or not, check the dates! With ARC Discovery project grants, for example, award announcements are made in early November, and the submission date for the next round is in March the next year. If you’re intending to resubmit to that scheme in the very next round, you have a window of barely three months pull it together (including the traditional productivity dead-zone of Christmas and New Year). Hopefully, your RO Peeps have contacted you about resubmitting and let you know the schedule – if not, make yourself known to them and find out when you need to hand things over.

If you want to tweak your application and submit it to another scheme, embed the dates for that scheme in your calendar and flag your intentions to your RO Peep(s).

5. Believe.

As mentioned earlier, there are no guarantees with grant rounds. None at all. You could put in a shiny, compelling application five times in a row and just miss out every time.

You need to believe in what you’re doing and have confidence in yourself (and your team) to do good work. Despite the often illogical pressures that are brought to bear on academics, research goals should not be to apply for X grant just for the sake of it. Putting up a half-hearted or piecemeal application does no good for your institution, yourself, or the already overburdened grant system.

What helps you through the grants game, though, is your passion for the research project, and the desire to work with the particular team you’ve managed to get together. As with many (most?) things in academia, it’s less about innate talent or intellect and much, much more about stubbornness and gathering scholarly street-smarts. If a particular scheme doesn’t appear to reward your kind of research, find another one that does. Shop around and get to know what’s out there.

There are different ways to become competitive in grant rounds, but they all depend on perseverance and energy. So, in approaching the next major grant round, remember this Top 5 and my freshly created “Three Rs”: Rant – Recover – Rework!

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to Picking up the pieces

  1. davidmpyle says:

    All good points, thank you. One last one – can you use your carefully crafted proposal text as the basis for a short critical-review paper, or a short hypothesis paper, without giving too much away? This way, the effort that you have invested into honing the proposal can be directed into an important output (a paper), and help you get further towards your goal of a successful proposal in the next round.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Excellent point, David. This is something I know many researchers do, particularly if they are publishing as a team (and the team is in the stages of establishing its track-record). As well as another publication to add to your list, it also provides evidence of topic momentum and feasibility when it comes to an assessor/reviewer deciding whether to trust the team/individual to carry out the work.

      • grantwriter says:

        While I agree with this point in spirit, be careful that your review isn’t just a re-hash of the current literature that you then use for self citation to justify what an “expert” you are in your chosen field of study…far too many people take this tack and it is very annoying.

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        Agreed. Work that takes this tack can be a v. obvious thing, and the self-referential strategy is often at the expense of topic scope and foundational research done in cognate disciplines.

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