One with the lot

A lovely hamburger.

Yum, by Jonathan O’Donnell

There are a lot of clever ways to design your research. There are a few that are not so clever, too.

I came across two grant applications recently that used the ‘one with the lot’ design. They promised the world, if only the funding agency would give them some money. That isn’t clever. At best, it is a recipe for failure. If, by some chance, you do get funded, you’ll find it a recipe for disaster and heartache.

One application was a full-time fellowship for three years – a serious amount of money. The applicant talked about doing a longitudinal study of a population at risk, analysing it across half a dozen different categories, and doing a multi-country comparison. There was no way that they were going to be able to do all that work in three years.

The second promised a lifetime worth of work for a $20,000 grant. They were going to travel, do some impressive digital humanities work, build and maintain a website and convene a workshop. There were a lot of publications in there, too.

Both of these applicants were relatively inexperienced and seeking advice about how to improve their applications. Both drafts will be substantially revised before submission. I encourage applicants to give me very rough drafts so that we can do exactly that sort of substantial revision.

What I want to talk about here is the mindset behind ‘one with the lot’ projects.

World enough, and time

In general, I see two issues here:

  • a lack of experience in managing a project, and
  • a desire to be ‘bigger’ than all the other applicants.

I often work with first-time applicants. Their experience generally lies in working on other people’s projects, rather than leading a project. They often haven’t designed a project before.

At the conceptual stage, before anything has been scoped, your project is perfect. It will never get better than this – all things are possible. Conceptual design is really, really important and shouldn’t be rushed. It is one of the few spaces we have where dreaming is possible. We get so few chances to dream; it is important to dream big. But it is equally important to then sit down and work out what is can be achieved.

We don’t have Marvell’s ‘world enough and time’. We don’t have the world at our disposal, and we don’t have an eternity to get our work done. The work of designing your project lies in specifying exactly how much work can get done, what resources are required to do it, and how long you expect it to take. The certitude that you can put around that design is one measure of the strength of your proposal. People will have more confidence in a tightly focused project that delivers a clear result in a reliable amount of time, than they will in a floofy project that seems unachievable, or that doesn’t show evidence of careful planning.

Moving from a conceptual design to a planned project is work, but it isn’t difficult work. It just requires planningplanning, planning, and more planning.

Why over-promise?

Harder to solve are the attitudes that often seems to lie behind these grandiose promises.

Sometimes, applicants simply misinterpret the phrase ‘value for money’. Almost every grant scheme talks about value for money in one way or the other. It is often listed as a selection criteria. All things being equal, the funders will fund something that gives more ‘bang for the buck’.

But all things aren’t equal. Funding bodies are hardly ever comparing apples with apples. If they are lucky, they are comparing apples and pineapples. More likely, they are comparing apples and the Appalachians. There is often little or no similarity in the topics, scale, scope or methodologies being compared. That makes it impossible to say that any application will produce ‘more’ research for the funds. More importantly, that isn’t the value that funders place on the research. They don’t want ‘more’ research. They want ‘better’ research. They don’t want mass-produced; they want haute couture.

What are you worth?

Sometimes, applicants seem to regard the process as being unequal in a completely different way. They seem to feel that the grant process is one of supplication. That is, they need to make themselves subservient to the requirements of the funding agency. That just isn’t true. You aren’t begging to be funded. Reviewers want to see that you have confidence in your ability to do the work. Promising the world doesn’t do that. It signals the opposite – that you don’t know your true worth.

So, what are you worth? If that is a little bit existential for you, then consider what your ‘day rate’ is. That is, if someone wanted to pay you to do research for a day, what would you quote? In the consulting world, this is referred to as a day rate. Consultants (theoretically) calculate how many days they will be working on something and multiply it by their day rate. That becomes the basis for their quote.

Here is one way to work out your day rate:

  • Find out what your hourly rate of pay is.
  • Include any salary on-costs, such as superannuation, leave loading, etc.
  • Add any overhead that your university is going to charge. Overheads cover such things as operating costs (lighting, power), services (the library, campus security) and other costs that you incur, just by existing.
  • Multiply it by the working hours in a day (eight, in most reasonable cases).
  • Add a contingency to cover all the things that get in the way of getting the work done. For relatively routine work, people often add 10%. As the work gets more complicated, you should increase the contingency accordingly.

THIS IS NOT YOUR DAY RATE!

This figure is the base cost of your research for a day. It is the rate that you need to charge just to cover the cost of doing the work. Looks expensive, doesn’t it?

Actually, it isn’t that expensive. If you asked a consulting firm to send someone to do the work, they would almost certainly charge more for the work. In part, that might be because their base salaries are higher. However, they also put more value on their work. They add a margin for profit.

Most of us don’t work for profit-making organisations. While there are private universities, the universities in Australia are (by and large) non-profit charities. That means that, at the end of the day, there isn’t an owner or shareholders who are going to take a return from any profit that the university makes. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t add a margin to your day rate. I think that you should.

The difference between the base cost of your work and the rate that you charge is a numerical calculation of the value of your work. Even in your own mind, it is worth working out what that value would be. You might do that by talking to others around you, or by comparing your rate to that of a consultant. There are probably business development people at your university who would be happy to help you work it out. (Hint: they’re likely to have a formula.)

Knowing your day rate allows a world of possibilities. It allows you to think like a contractor or a consultant. It allows you to think ‘Is this work worth doing?’ That can be useful in shaping your attitude to some work.

From my point of view, it allows you to roughly work out how much time you should be putting into a project. If someone is going to pay you $20,000, how many days should you be spending on the work?

It gives you a way to evaluate the other benefits you might be getting from a project, if you aren’t getting paid that rate. These might be as diverse as the chance to work with your academic crush, getting a shiny thing for your CV, or helping solve a problem for people who couldn’t normally afford your work. Adding a margin to your work also allows you the room to take on those ‘break even’ projects.

Finally, if someone ever asks you to do some work for them, it gives you a strong fee estimate to start from.

Our universities wrap all sorts of metrics around the work that we do. Some are more stupid than others. Working out your day rate (even just for fun) gives you a chance to take back some of that space. It gives you a chance to say, in numerical terms, “this is what I’m worth”.

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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 has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

5 Responses to One with the lot

  1. Peter Bentley says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I think there are many people who over-promise and win grants for projects, and then only later regret it when they actually check what it was they promised to do when it comes time to deliver.

    Ideally, people who over-promise and under-deliver should face consequences such as not getting funding again (at least form the same source), but I am doubtful that it may work the other way. Grants are often won by teams (which makes it hard to attribute success, failure, mediocrity) and winning grants provides a “track record”, irrespective of whether the project delivered on all of its goals. The people administering the grant also change over time. This may incentivise over-promising.

    Peter

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Peter

      There are few things more dispiriting than having to grind on to deliver on promises, after the money has run out.

      In consulting, reputation is everything. So those who over-promise and under-deliver often have to keep bringing on new clients because they don’t get much repeat business.

      In academia, I think that it is slightly more complex. The currency of academia is ‘ideas’. Those people who have the best ideas generally get a better reputation, and better peer recognition. Where grants are peer reviewed (as most top-tier government grants are), that recognition translates through to greater success.

      However, there are confounding factors. Reputation builds over time, and is based on trust networks, so senior academics have an advantage over those just starting out. You can see that when a stellar academic moves to a new country – it takes a while for them to start to win grants, because they often aren’t well recognised by the network within that country.

      For smaller schemes like philanthropic funds, it is much more direct. There is generally a good store of organisational knowledge, either in the administrators or the board. Once bitten, twice shy. They do generally reward people who promise and deliver (or over-deliver), as they represent a smaller risk than an unknown researcher.

      Like

  2. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    PS: My day rate calculation works out like this:
    + Salary scale: HEW 8.7 (Australian university salary scale)
    + Hourly salary $56.2479
    http://www1.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=48060e93bd5qz
    + RMIT salary on-costs: 35.85%

    So my direct salary costs for an hour are: $76.42 (rounding up to the nearest cent). This is what RMIT needs to cover my salary for an hour.

    For research work, I think we are talking about charging 20% overheads, so that would be:
    $91.71 per hour.
    It might be 15%, which would bring it down by about $5.

    For contracting work, the rate can vary wildly, but 50% seems like a safe (and very conservative) bet, so that would be:
    $114.63 per hour.

    Those are my base rates – what my university expects me to bring in to cover my costs.

    I don’t have a PhD yet, so I’m a junior researcher. So research work shouldn’t be charged at a premium.
    On the other hand, I’m a highly experienced research whisperer who brings a network of knowledge with him, so contracting work should be charged out at a premium.

    As such, I think that I would peg my research rate at:
    + $100.00 per hour.
    I would peg my consulting rate at:
    + $200.00 per hour.

    This seems to make sense, as the research work is generally more interesting than research administration work, so I want to encourage interesting research work, and discourage (or charge a premium for) boring research administration work.

    And my aim, over time, would be to bring my research rate up to my consulting rate. That is, to do more and more interesting work, with a higher and higher level of skill and insight.

    Well, that was an interesting exercise. The numbers always look scarily big. But not as big as a commercial consultant. Compared to that, I’m a ‘cheap treat’.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      PPS: Here is an example of that day rate calculation in use.
      https://experiment.com/projects/to-selfie-or-not-to-selfie-how-can-scientists-foster-public-trust-on-instagram

      If you look at the $85 level of rewards, you’ll see me, offering my time. I used my day rate as a way to work out him much that reward should be pitched at. (Still seems high to me.)

      Like

      • Peter Bentley says:

        Thanks for the example.

        I think the rates look high but are quite reasonable if one was to think salaried paid hours for research should be costed. I would double those rates for professors (typically base of $180000+ at Vic universities, plus 17% super, offices, credit cards, allowances, support staff). It goes to show just how costly (non-casual) academics are and how their time needs to be treated as a valuable resource for the university.

        The costing of time is great in principle, but does not seem to operate in practice. Academics spend a lot of time in meetings which would not justify their existence if full costed. Leadership positions and committees (e.g. for “diversity”, “staffing”) may not justify their costs compared to just using those resources for their purposes. Travel reimbursement is typically very time consuming and has a lot of staff dedicated to it when a per diem rate would be far more cost effective.

        To extend on your personal example, I wonder how many research support and commercialisation offices cover their costs in terms of the additional revenue their staff generate through grants, contracts and licences? It is even more extreme for grants which have low chances of success and do not cover the full costs of the staff, even if they win.

        Research loses a lot of money, I can’t see that changing any time soon, but nor should it be a goal just to cover the costs.

        Like

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