Dangers of internal funding

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

I’ve benefited from different types of internal university funding for my research over the years.

The schemes I’ve accessed range from conference money to pilot project grants and new staff grants. They’ve offered the stepping-stones I needed to get projects going and build momentum.

This post talks about the dangers and opportunities presented by internal research funding, and flags the Top 3 types of internal funds that I’ve found most useful.

It’s important to plans ways to do research, even without a fat grant.

One of the internal grants I secured was specifically for developing and writing up a major grant proposal. It paid off a couple of years later when our team got that ARC Discovery project. Being able to get together for concentrated periods of time to nut out the grant application saved us heaps of time and focused our energies. It really worked well.

Most institutions have some form of internal funding for their researchers. Some have more than others. Some barely cover their researchers’ conference travel, others offer plush suites of articulated funding for just about every segment of the research cycle.

Internal funding is a good thing. It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.

Internal funding can be a bad thing, however, when you have too much of it and no consequent profile in securing external funds.

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Keeping referees sweet

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Choosing the referees to list on a CV and job applications can be a complex business, particularly when you’re starting out.

You want a balance of voices who could credibly recommend you.

Perhaps someone who has been your academic supervisor, an examiner, a senior colleague who knows you and your work well enough, someone you’ve RA’d for?

For a non-academic job, maybe – just maybe – that first round of referees might include the boss of the fish and chip shop you worked at over the summer.

For academic jobs, there are other considerations in the mix, too: Should you have at least one international referee? One internal referee from your current position? Will it look odd if you don’t include any of your supervisors as referees? What if Professor Z on the hiring committee sees that you used Dr X and not Associate Professor Y…?

After navigating the rocky straits of choosing and securing your referees, you need to ensure that they’re on board with you for the duration of your job hunt(s).

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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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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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PostdocTraining: the why, what and how

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.

The Research Whisperers met Kerstin at the 2012 ARMS conference, and were impressed by her passion for her work and savvy approach to alt-ac careers (‘alt-ac’ = ‘alternative to academia’). We invited her to tell us the story of moving from fixed-term researcher to company founder. 


Saddest sign in the world (By Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr)

A life in research looks like an incredibly rewarding prospect. It’s a ‘sky’s-the-limit’ kind of career, a chance to change the way the world thinks and works, and to make a fair living while doing so.

But how many researchers do you know across the academic spectrum who aren’t ‘living the dream’?

We decided we knew too many, and established PostdocTraining to offer support. The program is aimed at new postdocs who are isolated, dependent and worried about surviving the next grant round. They include ECRs unsure of how to start carving their niche and making headway down their own research path. We also wanted to help lab heads and directors who wanted to make their research teams more effective, efficient and productive, and researchers keen to transition to positions in and outside academia, but not knowing how to make a start.

PostdocTraining is rooted in the need to tackle these issues head-on in research. We started it to offer the kind of program I wish I’d had when I started my career as a researcher on ‘soft money’.

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ERA: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Associate Professor Peter Macauley (RMIT University)

Associate Professor Peter Macauley teaches in the information management programs at RMIT University. Before starting at RMIT, he worked for 30 years in public, special and university libraries.

Over the past decade Peter’s research has focused on doctoral pedagogy, knowledge production, information literacy, scholarly communication and distance education.

With colleagues, he has been awarded ARC funding for two Discovery projects: ‘Australian doctoral graduates’ publication, professional and community outcomes’, and ‘Research capacity-building: the development of Australian PhD programs in national and emerging global contexts’. He publishes regularly in journals best suited to the readership for his research; some happen to be ERA-ranked A and A* on the 2010 list.

The Research Whisperer knows Peter as one of the good guys: a researcher with integrity and perspective, who tells it like it is. 


Problematica (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

ERA, which stands for ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’, is similar in many ways to research frameworks used in other countries to evaluate the quality (and sometimes quantity) of the research output of universities and—indirectly—individuals.

In the United Kingdom, they have REF (the Research Excellence Framework); in New Zealand, it is the PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund), and many other countries have similar schemes.

In this post, I focus on the journal ranking component of ERA.

Officially, the ERA journal rankings were abandoned after the first round of evaluation in 2010. Unofficially, the ERA journal rankings are alive and well and used for all the reasons they were withdrawn: job applications, promotions, grant applications and other forms of peer review (the bedrock of academe).

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What can an academic sponsor do for me?

Be excellent (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I heard about academic sponsoring through a Canadian colleague, Jo VanEvery, who participates in the #femlead chat. The conversation I caught was a few months ago, and the discussion about sponsorship was almost right at the end – curses on timezones! – but I was intrigued by the idea of it.

We’ve mostly heard of mentoring, and often coaching, for academic careers, but sponsoring is something that isn’t really on the Australian academic radar.

In fact, I hadn’t heard of it at all, and understood ”sponsoring’ mostly as material support for events and (sports) teams.

So, first up, what is academic sponsoring? As far as I can tell, academic sponsoring and mentoring share some territory, but sponsoring is a much more directed and concrete dynamic. It’s when someone vouches for you by putting you forward for an opportunity.

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Making the right impression: Academic phone interviews

Holding pattern (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post comes about because of @emilyandthelime’s query about academic job-hunting and phone interviews. While Skype and video-conferencing are gaining ground, phone interviews still pop up regularly.

It’s stressful enough being on the job circuit, but scoring an interview where you won’t be flown in can ratchet up the angst.

We depend on visual cues (smiles, gestures) so much in making an impression that being bereft of these when doing a phone interview can be daunting. You might also feel that the candidates who are fronting up in person for their interview had a ‘home-ground’ advantage because they’re able to smooth their presence into and out of the interview. On the phone, you appear and disappear with a click.

Conversely, not having to be in the same room as an interview panel can feel less intimidating and allow you to perform better. This was something that I found and appreciated. And in the instance I’m thinking about, they gave me the job (which always helps me remember the interview fondly).

Here are my top strategies for making a great impression when interviewing by phone:

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Planning your next career move

Dr. Eva Alisic is a psychologist and research fellow at Monash University, where she focuses on children’s recovery from traumatic events. 

Eva grew up and studied in the Netherlands, while spending some time in France, Switzerland and the US.

She edits the Trauma Recovery blog, which has weekly updates regarding traumatic exposure and recovery in children, adolescents, and their families. It includes news, practical tools and key insights from research findings. 

An engaging colleague and a scholar with great initiative, Eva is also a regular at our Friday #shutupandwrite sessions at RMIT. She is on Twitter as @EvaAlisic.

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First, decide what you would really like to do. Then, find out how you can make it work.

Sounds obvious, right? Often, it’s not.

Many people start by thinking about the constraints and try to design their future within those boundaries. Many ‘yes, buts’ show up quickly after a great, bold idea surfaces and make the enthusiasm disappear even more quickly. Sometimes, there is simply a lack of thinking about what it is that really makes you tick. You just continue on the path that you appear to be on.

I hope to activate you, to make you combine dreaming and doing.

This post was initially meant to be about doing a postdoc abroad. I was planning to tell you about the pros and cons, and give you some hope by showing how far I got with the few contacts I started with. Then I considered a post on ‘Paper in a Day’, a process that I’m developing to stimulate connections and collaborations among early career researchers. Both may eventually be written, but each time they got me thinking about the ‘yes, buts’ that I had encountered.

Yes, I am absolutely aware of constraints and limitations. And I think there is often a way around them. There are many opportunities if you dare to believe and act.

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How I assess a funding application: Part 1 – Track-records

Now that our Discovery applications have been fed into the gaping maw of the Australian Research Council (ARC) competition, I thought I’d take my 2-part series of posts about assessing funding applications out for a spin. Part 1 focuses on track-records and the research team. Part 2 will address an application’s overall feasibility.


“It’s all a lottery!”

“You need to game the system or you haven’t got a hope.”

“Only those who’ve had them before will get one.”

Sea of Wisdom temple (Beijing) by Jonathan O’Donnell (on Flickr)

The urban myths circulating about grant rounds are as tenacious as those about waking up in ice-filled bathtubs and realising you’ve had your kidney harvested.

No doubt, spending so much time and investing intellectual resources in a major application makes the lack of success bite that much deeper.

Having been around the traps as a supplicant, awardee, assessor, and now advisor, I’d have to say that most funding assessment processes do end up giving money to the strongest teams and most compelling projects. This isn’t to say that the processes or choices are always perfect, or that rogue results (in good and bad ways) don’t pop up. There’s always that story of the ARC Discovery that was written over a weekend and got up.

This post is about how I assess funding applications and, in particular, the track-record components. Over my academic career, I’ve:

  • Been part of judging panels for niche academic association committees that gave out travel and small grants,
  • Been invited onto a university’s fellowship selection panel, and
  • Assessed for a bunch of international funding bodies (in Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong).

I’m not claiming that my process is necessarily best practice, but I thought it might be useful for you to gain insight into one assessor’s valuations (and, it has to be said, biases).

Each funding scheme’s selection criteria may differ in detail but the two basic elements of track-record and project idea are always there.

The role of the assessor, for me, is in gauging the quality and feasibility of the overall proposition. The fact that the ARC now gives ‘feasibility’ an overt weighting in the Discovery scheme gives rise to interesting conversation (but that’s for another post!).

What do I look for when assessing the track-records of researchers on grant applicants?

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