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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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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How NOT to pad your budget

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. - May 1942 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. – May 1942 (Library of Congress)

Just before I had completed my previous budget post – “Conquer the budget, conquer the project” – Twitter threw an associated topic my way: padding your budget.

It grew (again) out of the livetweeted session of Aidan Byrne’s talk at ANU that @thesiswhisperer attended. @bronwynhinz responded to Inger’s tweet on Byrne’s admonishment for padding budgets with:

“How is ‘padding’ defined? Waffling instead of being succinct? Unnecessary/tangential material in significance sections?”

At the time, I said I’d write about it and – months later – here it is! Without realising it, the forerunner to this post is actually Emily Kothe’s (@emilyandthelime’s) tongue-in-cheek piece about “Research on a shoe-string“.

In it, Emily talked about some of the ways budgets can be inflated with unnecessary costs to justify the amount you’d ask for from the funding body.

Basically, ‘padding the budget’ means putting unnecessary expenses into your project costings. A good budget is logical, lean and costed with integrity.

Often, a chat with your organisation’s research office people (RO Peeps) can save you a world of pain. I’ve heard that, sometimes, there are RO Peeps who actually do your budget for you. Of course, when I say “do your budget for you”, I mean that you have already thought it through (or talked it through) with stunning clarity and have listed the precise items you want to make your project happen.

No-one can (or should) actually do your budget for your project. Your budget is inextricable from the methods, aims, and personnel of your project – it cannot be done in isolation, and I’ve banged on about this before.

Back to the topic of the post!

Here are my top five ways NOT to pad your grant application budget:

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Picking up the pieces

Gingerbreak man (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Gingerbreak man (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

So, you’ve lost out on the major grant rounds for last year. It only took about eight months to find out, right?

Often, you’ve waited with all of your career possibilities riding on the outcome.

And you got nothing.

As the congratulatory emails, posts, and drinkies ramped up, it was easy to get a little bitter and twisted about the whole thing. Of course, you’re happy for your diligent and savvy colleagues who were given recognition but…what about you?

I can say that I truly understand how you feel. I threw my hat in the major grants and fellowship rings many times; very few times was I successful.

I’m writing this post for you to read after you’ve had a few weeks to get over the angst and disappointment of not scoring a grant, hopefully had a break, and been able to take a step back.

If you’re going to persist in the academic caper, it’s very useful to find a constructively destructive way to channel that post-grant-announcement frustration and anger, that feeling that you’ve been cheated. I would suggest gardening or metal-smithing; anything that allows you to wield tools or make loud noises.

There are no guarantees about winning the grants race, but you can do your best to ensure you make it through the heats.

Top 5 things to pick up the pieces, post-grant-unsuccess:

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What is research?

A Scrabble board covered in words

End of the game, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We all know what research is – it’s the thing we do when we want to find something out. It is what we are trained to do in a PhD program. It’s what comes before development.

The wonderful people at Wordnet define research as

Noun: systematic investigation to establish facts; a search for knowledge.

Verb: attempt to find out in a systematically and scientific manner; inquire into.

An etymologist might tell us that it comes from the Old French word cerchier, to search, with re- expressing intensive force. I guess it is saying that before 1400 in France, research meant to search really hard.

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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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