Work backwards

Path through a paddock leading to a house in the far distance. Beautiful blue sky above.

Long road home, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

If you want to submit your grant application on time, it pays to create a reverse timeline.

That is, start from the end result – submission of the application – and work backwards.

Let’s say that you want to submit your fabulous application to JustGiveMeAGrant [not a real funding body], and their deadline is 29 February 2016 [not a real submission date].

Working backwards from that, how much time do you actually have to write the application? Let’s work it out.

At the moment, your timeline looks like this.

  • 29 Feb 2016 – Submit application to funding body.

Who will sign off?

For most government funding bodies, you are not the applicant. Your university is actually the applicant. This means somebody in your university will need to check and sign the application. In my university, the research office asks for 10 working days to check the application, get back to you with any last-minute questions, then get it signed by a very senior person.

However, before that person approves it, you might need to get approval from people close to you – your head of department, a finance officer, or maybe an ethics committee. All sorts of people in your university might want to sign your application before it is submitted to the funding agency. Let’s say that your head of department wants to sign off on your involvement, and your finance officer needs to review it to make sure your budget isn’t going to lose money. They need a week each.

Your timeline now looks like this:

  • 29 Feb 2016 – University submits application to funding body.
  • 15 Feb 2016 – Submit application to University research office.
  • 8 Feb 2016 – Submit application to Head of Department.
  • 1 Feb 2016 – Submit application to Departmental finance.

There’s a whole month gone before you even start.

Do you have partners?

If you are working with other organisations – other universities or external partners – they will have their own sign-off requirements and their own timelines. Ask them now, before you start, what those timelines are. You might be talking to Professor Needs-Grant and the Senior Widget Designer all through the writing of the application, but it is almost certain that they won’t be the people who sign off on their organisations’ commitments to the application.

Universities generally understand how research grants work, but external organisations often don’t. Sometimes, they need to go to the Board of Directors, which might mean writing a specific document to get their approval. I’ve had an applicant who needed to get approval from the Chair of the Board in another country. You want to know about this beforehand.

Let’s say that Prof Needs-Grant needs 10 working days for sign-off, and your external partner needs a 1-page summary for the board, and must have it two months before the deadline, so that it can go to the Board meeting in time for submission. It is probably going to take you a week to write the special summary, allowing for revisions, and making sure that the Senior Widget Designer is happy with it.

Your timeline now looks like this.

  • 29 Feb 2016 – University submits application to funding body.
  • 15 Feb 2016 – Submit application to University research office and Prof Needs-Grant.
  • 8 Feb 2016 – Submit application to Head of Department.
  • 1 Feb 2016 – Submit application to Departmental finance.
  • 29 Dec 2016 – Submit 1-page summary to Senior Widget Designer for Board meeting.
  • 22 Dec 2016 – Write 1-page summary.

Do you have a life?

Waterfall diagram showing review and sign-off time listed at the end of the articleSee the problem here? End of year festivities are going to get in the way of your grant writing. Don’t let that happen. Plan to take some time off with your friends and family.

As you create your timeline, make sure you mark out any non-working days, even if they are only 1 day. You don’t want to miss out on getting a signature because the organization was closed down on the day you planned to ask.

Your timeline now looks like this.

  • 29 Feb 2016 – University submits application to funding body.
  • 15 Feb 2016 – Submit application to University research office and Prof Needs-Grant.
  • 8 Feb 2016 – Submit application to Head of Department.
  • 1 Feb 2016 – Submit application to Departmental finance.
  • 26 Jan 2016 – National ‘Take a day off work’ Day.
  • 28 Dec 2016 – Submit 1-page summary to Senior Widget Designer for Board meeting.
  • 24 Dec 2015 – 4 Jan 2016: University closed down. On holidays.
  • 9 Dec 2015 – Write 1-page summary.

Who wants to read it?

You would be crazy to submit a major grant application without getting advice from senior colleagues, friends, experienced past recipients, your mum, and other people who support you intellectually. These people will appreciate it if you can give them a couple of weeks to read the draft, rather than a couple of hours.

Let’s imagine, for now, that you have 3 people who will read the application. You want your local research whisperer to review it, then Dr Smart Colleague to read it, and then Prof Mentor.

Your timeline now looks like this.

  • 29 Feb 2016 – University submits application to funding body.
  • 15 Feb 2016 – Submit application to University research office and Prof Needs-Grant.
  • 8 Feb 2016 – Submit application to Head of Department.
  • 1 Feb 2016 – Fill out cover sheet and submit application to Departmental finance officer.
  • 26 Jan 2016 – National ‘Take a day off work’ Day.
  • 28 Dec 2016 – Submit 1-page summary to Senior Widget Designer for Board meeting.
  • 24 Dec 2015 – 4 Jan 2016: University closed down. On holidays.
  • 9 Dec 2015 – Incorporate changes from Prof Mentor. Write 1-page summary for Board meeting.
  • 25 Nov 2015 – Incorporate changes from Dr Smart Colleague and send revised draft to Prof Mentor for review.
  • 11 Nov 2015 – Incorporate Research Whisperer suggestions and send revised draft to Dr Smart Colleague for review.
  • 3 Nov 2015 – Local ‘Celebrate Horse Racing’ holiday.
  • 27 Oct 2015 – Send to local Research Whisperer for review.

Do some things have to wait for others?

Check to see whether sign-off has to happen one after the other, or different people are willing to sign in parallel. It is really important to get this right. You don’t want someone saying that they won’t sign, right at the end, until they see that someone else has signed first.

Let’s imagine that:

  • Your university signatures have to happen one after the other (finance officer, then head of department, then university signature);
  • That the industry partner and the other universities will sign independently of one another;
  • But that your university must see all of their signatures they will finally sign. Your university needs to sign last.

That means that you can’t send it to Prof Needs-Grant right at the end. Your university will need Prof Needs-Grant’s signature before they will sign off.

Also, your current timeline has the industry partner giving you their signature on the day that the grant is due. You will need to get their signature in time to send everything to the university, too. Since they need the longest period of time, you can send it to Prof Needs-Grant and your departmental finance officer at the same time that you send it to the industry partner. It will add a bit of time to your timeline, but Prof Needs-Grant and your department will have extra time to review and sign it.

Your review and sign-off timeline now looks like this:

  • 29 Feb 2016 – University submits application to funding body.
  • 15 Feb 2016 – Submit application to University research office, with coversheet and signatures from Departmental finance officer, Head of Department, the industry partner and Prof Needs-Grant.
  • 26 Jan 2016 – National ‘Take a day off work’ Day.
  • Mid-Jan 2016 – Submit application to Head of Department (must be at least two weeks before submitting to the university).
  • 24 Dec 2015 – 4 Jan 2016: University closed down. On holidays.
  • 3 Dec 2016 – Submit 1-page summary to Senior Widget Designer for Board meeting. Submit draft application to Prof Needs-Grant for signature. Fill out cover sheet and submit draft application to Departmental finance officer.
  • 27 Nov 2015 – Incorporate changes from Prof Mentor. Write 1-page summary for Board meeting.
  • 13 Nov 2015 – Incorporate changes from Dr Smart Colleague and send revised draft to Prof Mentor for review.
  • 3 Nov 2015 – Local ‘Celebrate Horse Racing’ holiday.
  • 27 Oct 2015 – Incorporate Research Whisperer suggestions and send revised draft to Dr Smart Colleague for review.
  • 13 Oct 2015 – Send to local Research Whisperer for review.

Can’t we save some time?

So, there you have it. Four months are needed just for final review and sign-off. But what if you don’t have all that time? Surely we can cut it down somewhat?

Final review might be able to happen all at once. There are three different approaches to getting feedback on your application.

  • Everybody reads everything at the same time.
  • Everybody reads everything sequentially.
  • Different people read different bits of the application, and one person then reads everything.

I’ll describe that in full in a different article. For now, think about whether you can cope with three different sets of feedback coming in at the same time. If you can, then you can give the draft to all three of your reviewers on the same day.

Also, think about whether you can run the review process at the same time as the sign-off process. Can you change the text after people have signed off? Whose signature will mean that you can’t change anything in the application anymore?

Your finance officer, for example, doesn’t care what the text says (except maybe the budget justification). However, once they have approved your budget, you better not change (otherwise, it isn’t authorized anymore).

Let’s imagine that your industry partner doesn’t care what changes as long as you don’t change anything on the 1-page description, your finance officer doesn’t care as long as the budget doesn’t change, your head of department doesn’t care as long as your time commitment doesn’t change, and the university does care. Once the university has signed the application, nothing else can change.

Now, think about what sort of feedback your reviewers will give you. Your research whisperer will probably look at everything, so may suggest that you change the budget, your time commitment, and the text. They probably aren’t likely to suggest changes to the partner commitment at this stage, as they know that takes a long time to develop. You need their feedback before it goes to the finance officer.

Your colleague and your friendly professor, on the other hand, are only going to look at the strength of your argument, the methodology, and the actual research plan. That means that you don’t need their feedback until it is due to go to the university research office.

Keep in mind that you will need to leave time to incorporate the changes from various people.

So, now your review and sign-off timeline will, in the end, look like this:

  • 29 Feb 2016 – University submits application to funding body.
  • 15 Feb 2016 – Submit application to University research office, with coversheet and signatures from Departmental finance officer, Head of Department, the industry partner and Prof Needs-Grant.
  • 2 Feb 2015 – Submit draft application to Prof Needs-Grant for signature. Application must be submitted to Head of Department by this date. Incorporate changes from Prof Mentor and Dr Smart Colleague before submitting to university.
  • 26 Jan 2016 – National ‘Take a day off work’ Holiday.
  • 18 Jan 2016 – Application and university coversheet must be submitted to departmental finance officer by this date. Provide draft application to Prof Mentor and Dr Smart Colleague for review by 1 Feb 2016.
  • 11 Jan 2016 – Incorporate changes from local research whisperer (and any others received to date).
  • 24 Dec 2015 – 4 Jan 2016: On holidays. University closed.
  • 17 Dec 2015 – Provide local research whisperer with full draft for review by 7 Jan 2016.
  • 3 Dec 2015 – Submit 1-page summary to Senior Widget Designer for Board meeting. Items on the 1-pager cannot be changed after this date.
  • 26 Nov 2015 – Write 1-page summary for industry Board meeting.

So, there you have it: the critical path for your application is the approval of your industry partner (two months), then the approval of your university (two weeks).

Taking into account the holidays, you need to have a full draft written eleven weeks before the external submission date. However, the scope of your project will be set thirteen weeks before the submission date. Better get writing!

Advertisements

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt. At the moment, he is spending a bunch of time looking at crowdfunding for research. In fact, he has enrolled in a Masters by Research to do just that. He'll let you know how it goes.

12 Responses to Work backwards

  1. troyrhoades says:

    Reblogged this on Drops of Experience and commented:
    There is some good advice on grant writing and time management by Jonathan O’Donnell on The Research Whisperer blog.

    Enjoy!

    Like

  2. L Smith says:

    Reblogged this on Funding your research and commented:
    Really useful advice. The process may vary slightly depending on the funder and your own universities procedures but the broad principles are the same. For those that work with me they will already know that I talk a lot about making sure you give yourself enough time to develop a strong application and this process must include the internal sign off and peer review / feedback. The tips included in this post are well worth adhering to.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Lachlan

      You are right that it will vary depending on both the funder’s requirements and the university internal procedures. Good point.

      Mostly I wrote this because too many people don’t actually think about internal sign-off.

      Jonathan

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Joanna Candler says:

    Reblogged this on jocand0 and commented:
    Here’s a more detailed way to plan your research grant submission – how to create a reverse timeline.

    Like

  4. Alexis Holden says:

    This is great. We are reblogging this on our site and tweeting. The more people who stress these points, then hopefully the approach will become ‘the norm’…..we hope. Will we see an end to the last minute bid (note: I do appreciate there are often circumstances beyond our control, or a last minute opportunity has come our way, that means we have a last minute bid)……. Thanks for writing.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Alexis.

      I dream of never seeing a last-minute application again, but I think it is just a dream. A lot of the time, as you say, people only hear about the funding at the last minute. We need to get smarter about how we alert people to opportunities, or better at training them to do it themselves.

      Jonathan

      Like

  5. Pingback: Weekend reads: LaCour loses job offer; new Science data guidelines; Macchiarini grant funding frozen - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

  6. Miriam Goodwin says:

    Coming from an industry background I place great emphasis on preparing a summary of a project that everyone is comfortable with. It’s a technique that I learnt a long time ago working on large tenders.
    Regardless of whether there is a board sign-off or a similar early stage-gate that calls for a summary, getting a one-pager sorted out as soon as practical is invaluable to solidifying intentions and getting consensus among participants.
    Typically that summary goes through many iterations, but those rounds of changes are more easily done with a summary than with a complete document.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hi Miriam.

      This is a really good point. Getting consensus is invaluable. I’d never thought of getting changes approved via the summary document. That is brilliant! Usually, everybody gets so fixated on ‘the application’ that the summary gets forgotten. Thanks for sharing.

      Jonathan

      Like

  7. Pingback: 6 Tips for Grant Writing Success • AIM Biomedical

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: