Hope is not a strategy

Yellow ribbons, showing prayers for reunification in Hangul.

Prayers for Korea, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I hate ‘hope’.

More specifically, I hate ‘hope’ in grant applications.

Do me a favour. Go to your corpus of work and do a global find-and-replace. Replace ‘hope’ with ‘I don’t have a clue’. Because, when I read it in your application, that’s what I do in my mind.

Let me re-write three examples of hoping for you, as they would be read by a critical assessor:

1. You say: By [doing this work], the authors hope that existing [tools will be improved].

Assessor reads: We’ve done this work, but we don’t think it is going to have any effect.

2. You say: Our hope is that … organisations … and researchers [will] use the [tool] as a resource for information sharing, which in turn we hope will save time and money.

Assessor reads: We don’t have any idea what our stakeholders really need. Nor do we know if our tool will be effective.

3. You say: The evaluation project will hopefully not require further funding.

Assessor reads: The evaluation project will certainly require funding, but we couldn’t fit it into the budget. That’s because we don’t really want to do evaluation anyway and, if it can’t be funded, we won’t have to do it.

‘Hope’ is the academic equivalent of ‘build it, and they will come’. Except…they won’t.

If you don’t have a plan – a robust plan, based on data, experience, and ingenuity – you will fail. Hope is a signpost towards your failure. You can’t just hope that things will happen. Research doesn’t work that way.

Now, here is my dirty little secret. All of those ‘hopeful’ sentences I used as examples above came from my own applications or papers. I’m not perfect.

As a researcher, when I’m pushed for time and not sure what to do, I fall back on hope.

As a research whisperer, I hate hope. I will always strike it out of your applications. Hope has no place in a research plan because hope is the enemy of planning. It is a strong indicator that you don’t have a plan.

I’m proud of what I do as a research whisperer. I help people get funding to do their research. Research that may hold the answer to long-term homelessness. Research that models biodiversity. Research that saves lives on building sites.

But on my bad days, my dark days, my creeping fear is that I’m just selling hope. That is, I’m afraid that I’m just a snake-oil salesman with a seductive patter – “Sure, you can get a grant. Of course, it will help you get promoted. With my help, we can rule the world get you funded. Don’t worry about it. It’s practically in the bag.”

Hope has no place in a research whisperer’s strategy, just like it has no place in a research plan. I need to base my strategies on my experience, my ideas, and the best data that I have available. That means that sometimes I need to say harsh things, things you don’t want to hear – “No, you aren’t ready to apply for that scheme yet. No, you haven’t done enough work on this application yet. No, I don’t think you will get that funding.”

That is hard. Personally, I find it difficult to tell people things that they don’t want to hear. That’s why I generally follow up with “But there is this other scheme that seems more suitable for you / your research / your area.” I base those statements, and my strategies generally, on data, creativity, and experience.

That’s what you need to do, too. If you find yourself writing ‘hope’ into your application, have a good hard look at what you are writing.

You’re probably using ‘hope’ in one of three ways:

  1. As a defensive mechanism. In the first example, I knew the existing tools would be improved, but I was too shy to say it. I should have just struck out hope and said what I needed to say.
  2. Because you are lazy. In the second example, it would have taken me about five minutes to come up with a reasonable stakeholder engagement strategy. I should have described that strategy and how I would try to implement it.
  3. Because you actually don’t have a clue. In the third example, I didn’t have any idea about the evaluation project. I felt like I need to talk about one, but I didn’t know how and I didn’t have time to work it out. In retrospect, I should have just struck it out – not just the word ‘hope’, but the whole idea. Better to have no statement than a weak statement.

You need to be bold in what you say. You need to be rigorous in what you do. You need to know your limits.

There is one time, though, where you need to hold onto hope, and that’s after you have submitted your grant application. There is nothing else you can do. All you can do is hope.

In situations where you have no control over the future, hope is a powerful salve against uncertainty, anxiety, and worry. That’s when you most need to keep hope alive.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

7 Responses to Hope is not a strategy

  1. Anna says:

    Hope is in the same category as the word “try”. Use the word “try” and read instead “I aim to fail”.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Yes, I agree, Anna. I’m ruthless at getting rid of “I will try to…” from applications. Instead, just say “I will…”. Be confident. Be bold.

  2. Ehsan says:

    You know what, I actually searched our application for “hope”. Phew! it wasn’t there :)
    Thanks Jonathan.

  3. APPLAUSE!!!! I agree with every single word in this post. And I love the way you break down the different reasons people use it.

  4. Pingback: Hope is not a strategy | carolinekc

  5. Pingback: Confident language in grant proposals - Jo VanEvery

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