The nitty and the gritty
29 November 2011 8 Comments
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.
Spelling mistakes and typos distract normal readers. If your reader is tired, at the end of a long day, simple mistakes will do more than distract them, they will actively annoy them. They might move from being an open, generous but tired assessor to being a tired, nit-picking, hostile assessor.
Most often, hostile assessors criticise your methodology. I’ve never seen an assessor write: “This application doesn’t have enough background”. I’ve often seen an assessor write: “This methodology needs more detail”.
What makes a good methodology?
If you want your assessors to approve of your methodology, give them as much detail as you can. Don’t just show them the landscape – get down and dirty. Show them the grit.
- Tell them how much data you’ll be collecting, why it’ll be collected, and what you’ll be doing with it.
- Describe exactly how each stage of collecting and analysis work together to solve your central research question.
- Show them the links between your different stages, how each element will advance you in solving your research question.
- Clearly state what outcomes there will be from each stage. Be explicit.
Tell them how many people you will be interviewing, samples you’ll be taking, documents you’ll be examining, and sources you’ll be investigating. Give them numbers and people, and make them feasible. You need this detail level of detail to estimate your budget and your timeline. Don’t force the assessor flip to to those sections to see these details. Put them up front, in your methodology, so the budget, timeline and methods section all reinforce one another.
These are some of the questions you should be pre-empting in your methodology:
- What sort of methods will you be using?
- How many studies do you need to resolve your central question?
- How will the observations be collected and analysed?
- What sort of insights or themes will you be looking for, and how will you map them?
Describe your techniques, and why they were chosen. Assessors will want assurance that you are more than competent with these techniques. Saying that you are is not enough; include references to peer-reviewed articles where you have used these techniques before.
If you use the term ‘mixed methods’ (just what does that really mean?), tell them in detail how you will marry your quantitative data with your qualitative data. They will need to know that so that they can decide what chance you may have of achieving your research goals.
Give the same level of depth for the full period of this project. Don’t describe the first six months in detail and then go fuzzy as you push further out. Conversely, don’t drift back into the past. Your methodology should build on the background, but it should also be focused on the immediate future. Anything that talks about the past is probably talking about background, and should go into that section or be deleted.
Most importantly, the assessors will want to understand why you believe that your methodology will work. Why is it going to work when other people have failed? Why it is clever and innovative, but feasible? Expose your thinking. Lay out simply and clearly what you are going to do.
This level of detail is important for two reasons:
- It shows the assessors that you have given real thought to what you are going to do, and
- It allows them to evaluate whether the approach and processes of your research will fulfil your project’s aims.
For you, it is the best chance to think it through before you get into the project. If you don’t do it now, there might be some nasty surprises when you do get to start up the actual work.