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

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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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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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.

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Who are you writing for?

Screen showing a paper crane with sponsors logos, and a speakers podium in front.

Thanks to our sponsors, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Your grant application will probably only be read by half a dozen people who matter.

Sure, you might get your colleagues to read it in draft. It might be reviewed by your local research whisperer. But they aren’t the people who matter! They are not the people you are writing it for; they aren’t your real audience.

They aren’t the six that matter.

Who are the all-important six? Well, one or two people from the funding agency will read it. They might send it out to three to four assessors – not all of them might respond. Between them, those half-dozen people will decide if it gets funded. They will pass a recommendation to a board or a government minister who will approve the funding. Someone from the minister’s office might scan a list of titles and summaries before your application is finally approved. 

That’s it – that’s your audience. Those half-dozen people decide the fate of your application. They are your audience. Wouldn’t it be great if you knew who they were?

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What is Horizon 2020?

Elena, smiling at the cameraElena Dennison is a Research Development Officer at the University of Sussex currently working exclusively on Horizon 2020 preparations ahead of its launch in January 2014.

A journalist by trade, she has been working in Research Development in the Social Sciences for the last three years. She is currently immersed in all things Europe, digesting convoluted European policy jargon into meaningful narratives to engage academic colleagues, and encourage them to participate and benefit from Horizon 2020 funding.

The Research Whisperers are in Australia, so Horizon 2020 is a bit of a mystery to us. When we heard that Elena was working on it, we asked her for some help.


Going it alone is not an option in research and innovation. It is critical that Europe reaches out to international partners to access new sources of knowledge and address global challenges. Horizon 2020 will, like its predecessors, be open to participation from across the globe.
    Márie Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science

What is Horizon 2020?

A blue flag with the European Union's 12 yellow stars

European Flag, by Rock Cohen on Flickr

Horizon 2020 is the European Union’s main funding programme for Research and Innovation. It will succeed the current funding programme, Framework Programme 7 (FP7) due to finish at the end of this year.

It will run from January 2014 until 2020, with an agreed[1] budget of 70.2 billion Euros. It represents EU funding for research and innovation on a large scale; a programme for all types of actors involved in research and innovation: academia, research, industry and other stakeholder organisations.

Horizon 2020 structure

Horizon 2020 is structured under three main pillars. There are opportunities for individual researchers and groups of researchers to apply for funding in each of these pillars. The choice of pillar and underlying programme depends on what a researcher is looking for in terms of the size of project, whether it is basic or applied research, or whether someone is interested in moving to another country.

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Planning ways to make your research happen

Carousel (Photo courtesy of Dominic Alves on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics)

Carousel (Photo courtesy of Dominic Alves on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics)

If I had a dollar for every time a researcher declared: “But why didn’t I know about this funding scheme? It’s perfect for my research!”…

In the depths of ARC Linkage and Future Fellowships (and other ‘major’ schemes), I often think of the myriad other schemes out there that require less of their applications, that prioritise different aspects of the research project or the research team.

There are some researchers who should be applying for these other schemes, because  ‘major’ grants are not a possibility. We should say this more often, but we don’t, probably because we have put the major research council grants on a pedestal.

These researchers may be academics from teaching-intensive backgrounds or teaching-intensive institutions. They might have had sustained career interruptions, or come to the research institution from industry/community. There are many reasons, and this may warrant a whole post by itself.

What I wanted to write about in this post is thinking broadly about funding your research, and creating a research plan for it.

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Grant writing

Cath EnnisCath Ennis began her career in the life sciences by falling in love with David Attenborough’s programmes on the BBC. She subsequently studied genetics in Newcastle upon Tyne, England; obtained a PhD in molecular cell biology in Glasgow, Scotland; and did a postdoc in genome evolution in Vancouver, Canada.

She then spent two years in the marketing department of a biotech company, during which time she learned many things – the most important being that she does not enjoy marketing and much prefers academia to the private sector.

She has been a grant writer / project manager at a large academic cancer research organisation since 2007, and specialises in cancer genomics and bioinformatics.

Cath blogs at VWXYNot? and tweets as @enniscath


Background

The title listed on my business cards is Project Manager, a role that takes up more than half of my time. However, if I introduced myself to you in person I’d tell you that I’m a project manager-slash-grant writer, and it’s the latter role that I’ll be writing about in this post.

While freelance grant writers do exist, I’m employed full time by a large academic cancer research organisation. I’ve been here since 2007, in two different departments, after a PhD and postdoc in molecular biology followed by two years in the marketing department of a biotech company.

In my last department I was the only grant writer for five principal investigators (PIs); in my current department there are more than 20 of us in the Projects team, although not all of us are directly involved in grant writing. As well as managing one large and a few smaller research projects, I provide grant writing support to one PI and all the department’s trainees.

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Crowdfunding your research

Dear researcher

Thank you very much for sending through your funding proposal. You mentioned that you are trying to obtain corporate sponsorship for this project. That is excellent, and you should continue.

You might also like to think about using a crowdfunding service. Crowdfunding allows you to raise funds from the public. It isn’t for everybody and it is a lot of work but I think that it might suit your project.

To this end, I’ve done a quick analysis of your project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that might help you to decide if you want to try to raise funds this way. I hope that you find it useful. Let me know if you want to go ahead.

Before I begin, I should make it clear that everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s early days for crowdfunding, and I don’t have any working experience with it yet. Read more of this post

Telling research career stories – Part 2 – Common mistakes

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Hopefully, after reading Part 1 of this ‘Telling research career stories’ series, you’ll know that I’m sympathetic to the difficulties of accounting for life’s curve-balls, and ambivalent about the process altogether. I know that it doesn’t feel fair or humane in many instances to reduce major upheavals to a few formalised lines.

Even through this sympathetic lens, however, and with my grant assessor and developer hat on, I can see that there are better, smoother ways to present your ‘track-record relative to opportunities’ narrative than others.

Grant applications are, at heart, very utilitarian documents to which you have to give a measure of life.

That said, giving reviewers the background to why your capacity to produce research was compromised doesn’t mean getting affirmation about your particular situation or life choices.

It’s a grant application, not a support group.

Here are the common mistakes researchers make when talking about career interruptions:

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