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).

Rule #1 of Grant Club

  • Don’t write angry.

In particular, don’t write a grant application if you’re angry about having to write a grant application.

This compromises your clarity about project aims. You might accidentally pound into your keyboard that the “project examines the contemporary formations of arts practice in regional areas and aims to land some cash so the $(^*@#$ Head of School will get off my back!”

On a more sober note: it’s easy to spot applications that are written without much engagement with the funding scheme’s guidelines or priorities. If you’re serious about securing funding, do your homework and don’t treat funding bodies as fools.

The basic ‘researcher-funding body’ dynamic is: You want their money – They want to spend their money. Make sure they want to spend their money on YOU.

Rule #2 of Grant Club:

  • Be the Funding Body.

Never underestimate the power of savvy research whisperers. We are shapeshifters. We may come across as your average witty, charismatic, and sartorially challenged professional but – in an incisive flash – we can become The Funding Body.

One of the most useful ways to convey that grant applications are a specific genre is to coax researchers to think like the funding bodies. Particularly if they’re approaching a philanthropic fund, it can pay – literally! – to get into that organisation’s headspace.

What is a funding body headspace?

Contrary to notions that it consists of striking down Dr X’s work on Y because they don’t deserve to have any academic career progression, it’s often variations of these mundane sentiments:

  • There’s not enough money to fund all these great researchers and projects!
  • Is this the project from the last round that we told not to re-apply?
  • Why can’t we find projects that suit our priorities? We need to spend this money!
  • They haven’t read our guidelines!
  • Why doesn’t this otherwise shiny team tell us what they’re actually doing for those 2 months in Barcelona?

The secret here is not much of a secret: successful grants applications are those that give the funding bodies what they want.

This is why we bang on about reading the guidelines – this is where the funding bodies tell you exactly what they want.

Rule #3 of Grant Club

  • There is no ‘us’.

In the end, there is only ‘you’. As research whisperers, we help people as much as we can, in the time we have available. As a rule, there’s never enough time.

You may count on us to review and give advice, suggest improvement, and create/check your budget, but do not assume that we are responsible for what gets submitted. You are ultimately responsible for everything that you submit.

What is finally handed over to the funding body, to be read and assessed by your peers and field-leaders, is your responsibility. The impression readers have – good or bad – will be of you, not me. They will not be thinking, “Hmmm, that Research Whisperer didn’t do a very good job of developing this grant application…”. They’ll be thinking about you. Make them think good thoughts.

Why am I riding this hobby-horse so hard, with the caveat that it has never happened to me directly?

It’s because it alarms me when I hear researchers presume that they don’t need to know about grants and submission processes because ‘someone else will take care of it’. Some researchers do things like:

  • don’t check their budgets (after they’ve been put together by ‘someone else’) to ensure they align with the rest of their project,
  • submit their application directly after it comes back from an editor, and never check the changes, or
  • (this is the biggie) don’t leave enough time to get constructive feedback and to implement the suggested changes.

We know that Grant Club can be a nihilistic and farcical process. We understand and empathise that the pressures are real and constant. A lot of academics and research professionals refer to Grant Club as a game. Much of the time, they’re right. There are rules, and various ways to get better at it. There’s the ability to level up, heaps of competition, importing star performers, and – of course – there’s the potential to win.

Rather than disengaging and becoming numb about the funding treadmill, find active ways to ensure the good stuff gets done. After all, isn’t that why you’re here and why you stay?

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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.

6 Responses to 3 Rules of Grant Club

  1. Katy says:

    Spot on! Thanks for a great article. Regards, a currently hysterical Research Whisperer, loving (not) these back-to-back national funding deadlines :|

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Katy! Hope you are surviving the lovely back-to-back deadlines. One could not plan a more intense + insane batch of scheme closing dates, so close to the end-of-year ‘holiday’ zones, too!

  2. #1 applies to the “response to previous reviews” section of resubmitted grants in particular. I advise applicants to write a draft including everything they really want to say to the reviewers, then once it’s out of their system, throw that draft away and write one that can actually be submitted without alienating the entire review panel.

  3. Tseen Khoo says:

    Yes, I’ve been surprised by some very seasoned, grant-winning researchers still getting extremely hot under the collar about reviewers’ comments and wanting to TAKE THEM DOWN. A bit of distance from the rage is very useful…

  4. Miriam Goodwin says:

    I liken it sometimes to buying something like a car. There’s no point trying to sell someone a Porsche if they only have money for a Golf and just want to get to the station and back every day. You’ve got to understand what matters to the the funding body: what it wants for its money and how it wants to spend its money. That’s not only a matter of what the description and the guidelines say, but a broader sense of why they are funding research and all the signals that one picks up about a funder, a government, a foundation etc.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Great analogy, Miriam. Understanding a funding body’s priorities is at the core of successful grant-writing. And you’re right about this kind of info not necessarily being found in the formal guidelines as such.

      I find it really useful to browse what else the body’s funded before. Makes it even better if you know a research team that has had previous successes (that is: were funded, produced outcomes that the funding body wanted, were funded again).

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