The price of poor grant feedback

Photo by Dietmar Becker |

Photo by Dietmar Becker |

There is that moment when you find out the results of a long-awaited grant round.

It can be euphoric and somewhat surreal, or it could lead to much shoulder-slumping.

Given today’s research funding environment and the success rates in major funding rounds, there’s probably more shoulder-slumping than anyone would like.

This wrenching, life-affecting result is a tough phase to get through. That’s why I wrote “Picking up the pieces“, for researchers to look ahead and get back into the grant application cycle, after the requisite, understandable period of ranting and tearing of hair.

Recently, I’ve heard several anecdotes about unsuccessful grant applications and their aftermath, and it made me want to revisit this topic. Not quite in a white-hot rage (as can be Research Whisperer’s wont), but certainly with a sustained seething.

My issue is the poor to non-existent feedback that often accompanies unsuccessful grant applications.

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How the Whisper Workshop works

Image courtesy of @kimtairi

Recently, we ran the first Whisper Workshop. It came about like this: one of our colleagues couldn’t find a conference that was quite right for her needs. I said, “No problem – we’ll create a workshop specifically for you.”

And we did.

It was great! We brought together 25 of the best people we knew to talk about creating links between universities and galleries, libraries, archives, museums (the GLAM sector). We got to meet a whole lot of people that we only know from Twitter, geek out, and chat.

I really enjoyed it because I met new people and heard about new ideas. People talked about doing eye-tracking studies in airports, and how this could be used in museums. They discussed crazy projects to automagically detect job advertisements that could be asking for PhD graduates. Most importantly, there was a lot of discussion during the breaks, which meant that people were making connections and catching up with one another. Not only that, the day became self-documenting. Joyce Seitzinger led the charge by setting up a Google Doc that lots of people contributed to. Tseen has created a Storify record of the tweets during the day, then @michaelcollins created another one that also captured the discussion that happened afterwards.

As Linda Kelly said:

I’m a big fan of workshops like this. They are a great way to lift your eyes from your day-to-day work and consider the bigger picture for a moment. We don’t do that enough.

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When you can’t always get what you need

mayngoMay Ngo is a recent PhD graduate in Anthropology from the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

Her thesis examined the role of religion in humanitarianism within the context of irregular migration in Morocco. Her research interests include religion, migration, development, theology, and fiction.

She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a collection of short stories.

May has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away, and tweets at @mayngo2.

This is a post in response to two blog posts on post-PhD graduate careers (How to construct a DIY scholarly career and 21st Century Scholar) that reflect a growing trend of what each post has termed a ‘DIY scholarly career’ and an ‘entrepreneurial 21st century scholar’, respectively.

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz |

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz |

In response to the increasing casualisation and scarcity of academic jobs, and instead of just waiting around to get an academic position post-PhD, these posts exhort graduates to make themselves more competitive by engaging in various academic activities (research, attending conferences, networking) without the support of a university position.

This would run parallel with what they are already doing job-wise, supposedly. Inevitably, all of this is self-funded, and includes an investment of time and energy outside of one’s regular job.

I found it interesting that both bloggers who advocate this have been able to get work in universities, in non-academic jobs. This implies a minimum level of working conditions and job security.

I work in a casualised, low pay, no-paid-holidays job. I do this out of necessity. I come home physically tired, cranky and, most of the time, not in a capacity to think – let alone write – academically.

What I push myself to do in terms of trying to get a foot in the door of academia are postdoc applications, which always involve writing well-thought out and well-written research proposals that take a lot of time and energy.

Apparently, this is not enough. Imagine my jaw dropping when I read one of the blog posts advocating that research could be done during lunch-breaks, at night, and on weekends. And, furthermore, that the research trips and conferences she attended were self-funded and used annual leave from her job. I thought, “This is a particular world where there are paid holidays and job security, but it’s not currently mine”.

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The journal paper that almost ended my career before it started

jenny-ostini-smallJenny Ostini is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Digital Futures Collaborative Research Network at the University of Southern Queensland.

She is a qualitative social scientist and media studies researcher who is interested in the production, consumption, use, and transformation of knowledge, and social change in a digital environment.

Jenny tweets from @follysantidote.

Photo by Ashes Sitoula |

Photo by Ashes Sitoula |

Let me tell you a story.

Be patient with me as it’s a good story but needs a little time to unwind because it’s true. I can’t mess with the characters or timeline for you, the modern TL;DR reader.

A long time ago, I was a graduate student in America.

Coursework was compulsory, and after coursework came comprehensive exams where you were shut in a room for three days and tried to show that you had mastered all the theory and literature to be a true scholar in your field.

Before you could take these exams you had to have all your coursework completed and signed off.

And here is the crux of my story.

Of all the many graduate level seminars I had taken, only one was a two semester, eight credit course. I had an “incomplete” on this course. It was a seminar in applied research methods, and the requirement for it was to conduct a piece of said research, write a journal paper, and have this paper submitted for publication. It didn’t have to be published to get a grade, but it had to be written to the point of submission. I had done this.

The course was all about the process of doing research, taking it from inception to dissemination. It was an excellent aim.

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Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and Man-made Satelite Achievement Medal

Death medal, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I’ve read a couple of grant applications recently that said that they were first:

“This is the first study to…”

I’m always a bit wary of this sort of statement. To work, it needs to be undeniably true. That is, it isn’t enough that it’s a true statement. It needs to be uncontestable, unchallengeable.

To be undeniably true, it should reinforce the worldview of the reader. Your assessor should read the statement, nod and agree. If they don’t – if it raises any doubt in their mind – you may be in for a world of pain.

If you get an assessor that says ‘No it isn’t – what about [vaguely related study that isn’t anything like yours]’, then a series of things happen. First, they aren’t focused on the strengths of your application anymore.  Then, they’re distracted and may start looking for other doubtful statements. Their confidence starts to fade.

If you get a chance to reply to their criticisms, you’ll need to spend a lot of time trying to rebut their claim that you aren’t first, and justify your claim that you are.

There are a couple of other issues I see with claims to be first.

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How to livetweet and survive to tell the tale

Photo by Brian Kopp | Used here under Creative Commons 2.0:

Photo by Brian Kopp | Used here under Creative Commons 2.0:

I posted a while back about why you’d livetweet, and promised a practical follow-up post about the actual doing of it.

I’m writing this post not because there’s a scarcity of info on how to livetweet out there – hello, over-saturated internets! – but because it gives me a chance to throw in my 2 cents worth, while showcasing my favourite strategies and processes from other people.

The kind of livetweeting I’m talking about in this post isn’t just the casual stuff that might happen because you want to tweet out a few pithy observations about a presentation you’re at.

This post is aimed at those who have been tapped on the shoulder – or have tapped themselves on the shoulder – to livetweet an event in a more consistent, formal way. It’s focused mostly on academic conferences, and shamelessly based on my own experiences and biases.

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On the internet, no-one can hear you scream: A guide for virtual Shut Up and Write

SiobhanODwyer-smallDr Siobhan O’Dwyer is a Research Fellow at Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia) and the founder and host of Shut Up & Write Tuesdays, an online writing workshop for academics and postgraduate students.

Shut Up & Write Tuesdays began as a single Twitter account in 2013 (@SUWTues), and has since expanded to include two other accounts (@SUWTUK – servicing the UK and Europe; and @SUWTNA – servicing the US and Canada) with an international following.

When she’s not helping people write, Siobhan’s research focuses on the wellbeing of people with dementia and their carers. She tweets at @Siobhan_ODwyer.

Writing is a central part of academic life. We write to propose new projects, to secure funding, and to share our findings.

We also write to explore our own ideas, to critique the ideas of others, and to vent our frustrations.

Photo by Edgaras Maselskis |

Photo by Edgaras Maselskis |

But for something that’s so essential to our practice as researchers, writing receives remarkably little attention.

The academic business model views time to write as a luxury, not a necessity.

Rare is the academic or postgraduate student who has ever received explicit training in how, where, and when to write.

Because writing is an inherently private act, we rarely get to see how others do it.

Shut Up and Write, however, is starting to change all that.

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