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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Five types of funding

An intricate page of Chinese printing, overlaid with many chops and seals

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Some people seem to think about research funding in the same way that I think about the doctor – only when it is an emergency.

That’s not the best way to approach it. You need  a plan and you need to know what funds are coming up when.

To plan for the long term and shape your searches, you need to have a picture of what is actually possible. Different types of grants fit different situations. Here is the way that I think about funding.

Scholarships and fellowships

Scholarships and fellowships are given to individuals. That means that more weight is given to the person than the project. Don’t get me wrong – you still need an exciting project, but the balance of assessment will be different.

In general, scholarships are for students and fellowships are for staff, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule.

Scholarships and fellowships can vary in duration. I’ve seen overseas fellowships that are only three months long and I’ve seen senior fellowships that are five years long.

If you are an early career researcher, you should give serious consideration to an international fellowship (such as a postdoctoral placement). It will give you a much wider view of your field, and help you to understand how things work internationally.

Examples of scholarships and fellowships include the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships and the Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers.

Make sure you know what these scholarships and fellowships offer. Some ‘visiting fellowships’ only offer some desk-space and use of the university library; they don’t provide a stipend/salary, or any travel funds.

Seed funding

Seed funding is intended to get you started on a project. It provides a small amount of money to allow you to prove the potential of an idea, so that you can then move on to a larger project.

Assessors will be looking at the idea. You will still need to demonstrate that you can do the job, but your idea will be the focus of your application. Often the best seed funding applications apply completely new methodologies to established problems, or move out into territory that nobody else has yet explored.

External agencies can often use seed funding to fund risky experimental work. Grants are generally short (often 6-12 months long) and can be quite small. Because the work is high risk, the funding agency wants to give you just enough money to prove that your idea has potential, as quickly as possible.

Universities often provide internal seed funding on the understanding that it will lead to an application for future funding. Ask your local research whisperer what is available.

Examples include the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Development Grants and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health Exploration grants.

Project funding

Project funding is probably the sort of funding that most people think about when you think about research funding. It is the standard term for grants that fund a team of people to work on a particular project for an extended period of time.

Assessors are generally looking for a skilled team that has a viable project. Three to five years of funding for 4-5 people can quickly add up, so the stakes are high. Only the best teams, with the most exciting ideas, can be funded.

Examples include the Australian Office of Learning and Teaching grants and National Science Foundation standard grants in the USA.

Centre funding

Centres are generally funded for 3-6 years, although I have seen them for 9 years. Funds are generally much larger than project funding, and are designed to fund a program of work that encompasses many projects.

Assessors are looking at the track record of the team leader and the team, the long-term benefits of the program of work, the facilities available, the management arrangements, and the support that already exists for the work. The leader of a centre is generally an acknowledged expert who has shown that they can do great research and inspire others to work together.

To my mind, a good centre proposal bundles together the excellent work that is already being done and adds unicorns and rainbows. Some centre proposals start from scratch, but it can mean that you spend a lot of time bedding things down.

Examples include the Australian Cooperative Research Centres and the European Research Council Advanced Grants. The Advanced Grants are really interesting to me.  They are described like project funding, but at €2.5 million over five years, they feel more like centres. They pick one person and let that person build their team. What a great idea!

Prizes and awards

Prizes and awards are given for work that has been done in the past, rather than work that is done in the future. They shine a light on excellence by rewarding and promoting it.

They are almost always given to individuals, and they look very shiny on your CV. As a result, they are very competitive most of the time. Sometimes their scope is quite broad. Others can be focused on a particular discipline or geographic area. Some reward you with money, others just provide you with recognition.

‘Awards’ is a bit of a confusing term, actually. When you get a grant, it is ‘awarded’ to you. The contract with the funding agency is often referred to as the award. Prizes and awards also sometimes have a contract, so I guess that you might need to sign the award when you are awarded an award.

Examples include the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes and the MacArthur Fellows. I love the MacArthur Fellows program because it’s not just a prize, it’s a surprise. You don’t apply. They just pick you out and give you US$625,000. Not too shabby!


So, there you have it – 5 different types of grants for 5 very different situations.

This isn’t a definitive list. There are lots of ways to build a typology of funding: size of award; local vs regional vs national vs international; by discipline; by career stage…

The important thing is to have an overall picture in your mind that is wider than just ‘project grants’.

How do you divide things up? What have I missed?

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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What do research developers do?

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Isn’t it brilliant when you learn something within a week of the new year?

When one of my academic buddies asked me in late 2013 what research developers are meant to do, I happily said, “Let me write a blogpost on that!”, and rubbed my hands with glee at the gift of an easy post to knock off in the new year.

I sat down to write this post, and was immediately bogged down in pondering the specificities and individualisation of the role. I realised that it wasn’t as straightforward as I’d thought.

Let me explain:

When I started this job three years ago (thank you, LinkedIn, for the congratulations), I was one of three research developers who were stepping into new positions. My Research Whisperer buddy @jod999 is another from this cohort. We each had responsibility for one of our institution’s colleges (similar to faculties). There was no-one there before us, and no standing expectations to fulfil.

There were expectations, of course, and these are otherwise known as our job descriptions.

As it turns out, though, each of us has cultivated different processes and priorities when carrying out our basic job of helping researchers find money to do their research.

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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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