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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Writing for scientific publication: 3 common mistakes

Marc BaldwinMarc D. Baldwin is the founder & CEO of Edit911 Editing Service. He is also Professor of English at Hillsborough Community College and a published author.

You can find more of his writing and editing advice on the Edit911 blog.


One of the most important things you will do as a scientist or researcher is publish your work. It isn’t just a matter of sharing information—an integral part of the scientific process—it’s also about furthering your career.

Publishing your work in a scientific journal is a requirement toward earning a graduate degree at some institutions. Beyond graduation, getting published is necessary for a career in academia and, increasingly, in industry as well.

I have proofread and reviewed hundreds of original manuscripts in my career as a research scientist and lecturer. I’ve noticed over the years that most mistakes can be placed into a few simple categories. In this article, I will discuss the Top 3 writing errors I encounter when reviewing manuscripts submitted for publication to scientific journals.
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Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 1

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.


Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I got started in community-based research more or less by accident. I had always used interviews and focus groups as a social marketer in HIV prevention, but I could see neglected issues in my field of practice that seemed to warrant in-depth investigation.

They involved personally catastrophic but fairly uncommon events in small groups, such as HIV infection among gay and bisexual men from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Survey and statistical methods can’t get much purchase on rare events in small groups of vulnerable people, but funders and service providers were nonetheless waiting for what they considered ‘real’ research to quantify the issue before taking action.

I wanted to break this impasse, even if it meant producing research that doesn’t count as ‘evidence’. Something is better than nothing, right?*

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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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For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow

A beautiful white teddy bear with a ballon tied to it by ribbon. The balloon has a butterfly drawn on it, and 'Arcadia' written on it.

Balloon and bear, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Recently, I received an application that was asking for a postdoctoral research assistant.

I thought, “That’s odd. Normally, we would talk about a ‘postdoc fellow’.”

Then I thought about all the requests that I’d fielded lately for funding research assistants.

My first question when working out the budget is: “Do you want someone who has a PhD already?”

If they have a PhD already, then doesn’t that, by definition, make them postdoctoral?

What exactly is the difference between:

  • Research assistance;
  • Research associate;
  • Research fellow;
  • Research assistant?

It is important to know, as they have very different budget implications.

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Don’t just throw your keys in the bowl

The 1997 movie The Ice Storm (which I remember being rather depressing) depicts a 1970s ‘key party’. A key party, in case you missed this piece of 70s pop culture, was a way for suburban couples to engage in sexual experimentation, particularly swinging.

Stay with me here, because I think the swingers’ key party has a lot to tell us about why some research collaborations can go so terribly wrong.

The idea behind a key party is simple. Couples are invited to attend a party with a bunch of other couples. One of the partners leaves their car keys in a bowl. Later (presumably after large amounts of booze and whatever else), the other partner selects a random set of keys from the bowl and goes home with the person who owns them to…engage in certain activities.

Anyway, we’re all adults here so I don’t have to spell it out for you.

Moving along.

Why do I offer the key party as an analogy for research collaborations? We know that building good research collaborations is hard but, sometimes, I think we don’t give enough attention to how difficult it actually is, in an emotional sense.

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Guidelines to Grant Success

Sign warning of the dangers of tree climbing. Far below you can see the ground.

That was the easy bit by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

There are three key points for efficient grant application writing:

  1. Read the guidelines,
  2. Read the guidelines, and
  3. Read the guidelines.

Research developers like to trot this one out regularly. It usually gets a laugh (or an eye-roll, ymmv), but it’s TRUE.

I am a strong advocate of this mantra at the moment because university research offices around Australia are geared up for major Australian Research Council (ARC) funding rounds. ARC grants are arguably the most difficult and prestigious to land.

When talking with researchers about their applications (including using the ARC’s online system), I often have this experience:

[Five minutes into our meeting, where I feel like I'm not making much headway]

Me: [casually] So, you’ve read the funding rules and instructions to applicants, right?

*crickets*

That’s my ‘ah-hah’ moment. It explains why the researchers are having so much trouble getting started on an application, and why they don’t even know what headings to use.

Major grants are tricky beasts to wrangle no matter how many times you read the guidelines. However, funding bodies are generally clear  (often painstakingly clear) about what information they want from you and how you’re meant to present it. I alluded to the kinds of things guideline-reading can do for you in Research Grant Writing 101.

Here are five fab reasons why training yourself to read and digest each funding scheme’s information can make your life easier:

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Respect the work

Me, hard at work in a hotel room

'Jonathan at work' on Flickr

Recently, I had someone provide me with a project plan called something like “research-plan-v15.doc”. They had done 15 versions of their project plan. In that time, they had completed exactly zero versions of the rest of the application. As a result, the application almost didn’t go in.

When we talked, it became apparent that they were stuck trying to refine the research question and describing the associated parts of the core ideas of their project. I know exactly where they were coming from. In my own tiny applications, I have often lost focus on the rest of the project because I had become obsessed with just one part of the process.

Here are some ideas for making sure you get your application in on time, every time.

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Is it a real relationship? You and your industry partner

“Do you think they’ll call again?”

“Don’t look too keen!”

“Did you play hard to get?”

The process of finding an industry partner in research is often compared to forming a romantic relationship.

Analogies abound! Some internal schemes that encourage industry links are colloquially known as ‘wine and dine’ funds. Everyone talks about courting the industry partner, finding common ground, evaluating whether there’s a connective spark between the research team and organisation, and how one doesn’t talk about money too early.

I’ve been wary of using dating/wooing analogies in my posts. Maybe it’s my Women’s Studies 101 kicking in (hard) at the often sexist or exclusionary modes of representing these dynamics.

Maybe it’s because I never dated much.

I did read a fair share of Cosmo and Cleo in my teens, though, so I feel semi-qualified to dabble.

At the risk of morphing into a research Agony Aunt, these are my top 5 ways of knowing if what you have with your industry partner is worth it.

You know it’s the Real Thing when:

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The nitty and the gritty

Untitled (stool for guard) by Taiyo Kimura at MONA, Tasmania

'in a dark place' by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

How did you feel when you finished your last grant application? Let me guess: you were exhausted, running late, and sick of the sight of the thing.

Hold onto that feeling. Embrace it. Understand it.  Because that might have been how your assessors felt when they were reading your application.

They probably had a stack of applications too high to jump over, and reading them in the gaps between the rest of their life (i.e. late at night, when they were traveling, when they were tired). Unless you were very lucky, they might have been reading them piece-meal, a bit at a time. And they would have been rushing, because they needed to get their reports back in time and there were other things calling on their time.

As a result, they might not have been in top form when they reviewed your application.

But that’s enough about them; let’s get back to you!

“This application needed a good proof-read before being submitted.”

When you get a comment like that, it isn’t much comfort to remember that you only just submitted the application in time, an hour or so before the deadline. However, that is exactly the sort of thing that assessors say in their reports. Given that you’re asking for several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of funding, they have a point.

When an assessor is tired, or disappointed, or feels that you are wasting their time, they can often become quite critical.

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