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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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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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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Telling research career stories – Part 1

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

This is the first of two posts about the issue of research career disruptions and interruptions. I started writing this as a simple “Top 5″ listing of how to write about these situations, and what not to do.

It became my blogging albatross. I ended up worrying at it for more than three weeks. *

Why was this? It was because, as I was typing up strategies for presenting your track-record in the best possible light, it read as cold and functional.

I felt I was doing that thing of making everything as seamless as possible, as if these things can – and should – be adequately contained in such a way. As if I had no issues with this kind of requirement.

In the end, I’ve decided to split it up.

  • Part 1 is a ‘meta’ take on the idea of telling your research career story, and the ways in which academia and higher education bodies attempt to account for it.
  • Part 2 (next week) is a much more utilitarian post about better – and worse – ways to talk about the texture of your career in grant applications.

* Many thanks to Lisa Batten (@BattLisa) for her comments + encouragement for these posts!


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What’s a FoR?

Rank and file (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Rank and file (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

The terrain of research grant application is littered with acronyms, new and defunct. There’s a level of knowingness about many of them, and how they are used.

For example, the Australian Research Council is always called the ARC. Not “arc” as a word, but by the letters “A.R.C.”. Mutual confusion can reign if two people meet who don’t speak this same language.

Within research development and grantsmanship, one of the elements held up as a defining characteristic for your application and its fate is the FoR code (pronounced as the letters, not as a word). The FoR, or “Field of Research” codes, came about as part of a joint Australian/New Zealand exercise to consistently categorise research and development (R&D) in our nations:

The conceptual framework adopted for the development of the FOR uses R&D activities according to the field in which research is undertaken and based on the processes and techniques used in the R&D. [my emphasis; ABS website]

OK, great, but what is a FoR actually for?

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Boost your postdoc chances

Kerstin Fritsches (Founder of Postdoc Training)Kerstin Fritsches is a former research fellow who spent the majority of her 12-year research career on soft money at the University of Queensland, Australia.

She learned more than she would like about the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs). While her research focused on what fish and other marine animals can see (taking her to some wonderful locations), she has been passionate about improving the situation for ECRs, and involved in postdoc policy and career development training for many years.

An apparently universal need for accessible and effective career development training motivated Kerstin to leave academia and found PostdocTraining to offer career development training tailored specifically to postdocs and their institutions.


Winning a fellowship is a bit of a holy grail for early career researchers.

When these positions mean an independent salary, often accompanied by funding for research support, it’s no surprise that they are hotly contested and bring well deserved prestige.

Cardboard tubes painted to look like owls, lined up on a window sill.

Parliament (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Fellowships show you can win funding based on your track record and excel against stiff competition.  They can also end up being the key to long-term careers in academia, increasing your chances of continuing on a full-time research path.

Given their potential benefits, it’s worth looking more closely at how to go about securing a fellowship.

Each funding scheme has its own rules and traditions, so the 10 steps outlined here are general observations based on what I –  and my peers – wish we’d known when we started applying. Hopefully, they’re practical ideas for your own game plan.

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Conquer the budget, conquer the project

It pleases me no end to begin with this tweet:

“Budget is a proxy for project planning” says Aidan Byrne: inaccurate budgets indicate project not well thought through
— Dr Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer)

Aidan Byrne is the Australian Research Council’s CEO, and @thesiswhisperer livetweeted his presentation from the ANU Acton campus. The talk brimmed with tasty morsels for the Research Whisperers to chew on and, having half-written this entry already, it seemed an opportune time to get it out there!

What spurred me to write this post?

Not the bottom line (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Not the bottom line (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

The fact that just about everyone leaves the grant budget till last.

No matter how many times I bring it up with researchers and their teams, and encourage early tackling of the budget, the poor thing ends up being rushed through, thrown together, or created from the ether.

This isn’t good for it. It can get resentful and make your entire application ineligible if you don’t pay enough attention.

This year’s ARC DECRA (ECR award), for example, has a ceiling of $131,740 per year in funding – over $90K of which goes towards the awardee’s salary. This leaves up to $40K as project costs. That’s it. You can’t argue for more; that’s just what the scheme is. If your project doesn’t fit into this budget, then this scheme may not be for you, or you would need to scaffold the project funding with commitment from other sources.

Many view the budget as a poor cousin to the regal elements of ‘track-record’ and ‘project description’, but they do it a disservice. The humble budget, properly conceived and executed, can be the foundation and catalyst for project efficiency and team bonding.

Finding that hard to believe?

Read on, because here are five ways that conquering your budget can help you conquer the project (or your grant application, at least):

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Will I get the grant?

“Dear research whisperer,

Before I start thinking about my next grant, I just wanted to get your gut feeling for what you think is going to happen with the application that I put in this year. Any thoughts?”

Dear applicant

Counting stacks of chinese currency

‘After the Heist’ by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

That is the hardest question that I face in my job, and one that I always resist answering. It comes in many forms: researchers want to know whether they will win the grant; administrators want to know whether they will meet targets; and bosses want to put hard numbers into workplans.

I know that some other research whisperers like to predict who will be successful and who won’t, but I don’t play that game. I like your application. I think that it is really strong. However, as Mark Bisby (former VP Research for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) puts it, “It’s not a test, it’s a contest” (we love that quote). It doesn’t matter how strong your application is if the opposition is stronger.  We have no control over the relative strength of the opposition.

More than that, I don’t believe that I have enough data to make a confident prediction. If I can’t make a confident prediction, then I am guessing.  Personally, I don’t believe that guessing is a valid planning tool.

I don’t have enough data because there are so many external factors influencing the competition that I can’t predict or influence.

You’ve applied for the ARC Linkage scheme. [This is an Australian research funding scheme that requires matching funds from external partners - Ed.] Here are some of the external factors that might influence that scheme this year. This should give you some idea why I don’t like to guess.

  • Changes in the university landscape: The overall number of applications should continue to rise as universities put more pressure on academics to write more applications. More applications means more competition.
  • Changes in the economy: The overall number of applications may be down because the economy is in a bad way and so partner organisations are less willing to ‘risk’ money on research projects.  In Australia’s case, however, we seem to have escaped the worst of the effects worldwide, so that may not apply here.
  • Local political changes: The overall number of applications may be slightly down because Victoria and Queensland had a change of State governments just before the closing date, so anyone relying on those governments to be partners would have had a hard time getting signatures.
  • Changes in the scheme itself: The overall number of applications may be slightly down because the Australian Research Council (ARC) introduced a new requirement that every external organisation needed a Partner Investigator as well, and some people may have had trouble signing up their partners. I don’t believe this, though. Our university was able to get all of our partners organised, so I don’t see why everybody else couldn’t, too.
  • Changes within the funding body: The ARC may have ripped a bunch of money out of this particular scheme to fund the new Industrial Transformation Research Program (ITRP), or there could have been other internal pressures on the overall funding envelope.
  • Changes within the funding landscape: The ARC doesn’t expect to get any new money into the system in the current funding climate. The head of the ARC said as much in November 2012. That means that, no matter how many excellent applications they receive, they cannot increase the funding envelope.
  • National political events: There will be an election in Australia this year. This won’t change the overall chances of success, but it will almost certainly mean that the announcement of results will be delayed. The ARC cannot announce results until they are signed off by the Minister. The government doesn’t make any major decisions once an election is called. So, if the Minister hasn’t signed off before the election is called, the ARC are stuck in limbo until the election is finished and they have a Minister who can sign off.
  • National political changes: There may be a change of government. This shouldn’t really effect things too much, except to add delay while the new government sorts out its ministry.  People are always a bit nervous that the new government might make sweeping changes and, even though I don’t think this will happen, it makes everybody a bit jittery. The minister does technically have the right to refuse to sign of on one or all of the grants put forward for funding.

If I were to make a prediction about your application, I wouldn’t know what I was talking about.  That wouldn’t be fair on you, or on me.

Sorry that I couldn’t be of assistance this time.

Research Whisperer

Research on a shoe-string

Dr Emily KotheDr Emily Kothe is a lecturer in psychology at Deakin University.

Emily conducted her PhD at the University of Sydney on promoting fruit and vegetable consumption to Australian young adults. She graduated in 2012.

Her honours, masters and PhD projects had a combined budget of less than $400.

Emily is in the process of writing her first set of internal grant applications as an academic staff member, and is interested in the process of developing projects in the context of conducting research on a shoe-string.


I’ve been going through my paperwork from my student days recently. In the process, I found my funding requests for my PhD research. Not including conference travel, my research expenses for my PhD were $375.95.

That included a 1-month subscription to Thinkstock to allow me to buy high quality images for use in an online intervention to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, and the purchase of the domain name that I used for the intervention website. My Honours and Masters projects, and the research I’ve been running for the year since completing my PhD, have all been conducted at zero cost (except for my time).

Save money - by shopping (Photo by Toban Black - http://www.flickr.com/photos/tobanblack)

Save money – by shopping (Photo by Toban Black – http://www.flickr.com/photos/tobanblack)

This means that in the last 6 years I’ve spent an average of $62.60 a year on research costs.

At research institutions, developing, submitting, and ultimately receiving, competitive grants is a key indicator of productivity and performance for academic staff. This means that obtaining a Category 1 grant (e.g. ARC Discovery or NHMRC Project Grant) is central to my career development.

Assuming that I want to progress in my career (spoiler alert: I do!) then I would be expected to apply for a faculty-level internal grant ($$), a university-level seed grant ($$$), then a Category 1 Grant ($$$$$$).

As a freshly minted academic staff member, I’m starting small with the preparation of a faculty-level grant (the maximum budget is $18,000, with all funds to be spent in a year). In the process of preparing this grant, I’ve had to think about spending about 47 times more on research than I have ever before. Obviously, I don’t need to ask for the whole amount, but spending months putting together a request for $62.60 in funding would be colossal waste of time for everyone involved!

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