Building your track record

Deb Brian works at the Office of Sponsored Research at The University of Queensland, where her focus is on helping researchers to write better funding applications, and supporting early career researchers and women in science and research.

She can be found on Twitter at @deborahbrian, where she talks higher education policy, research strategy, Australian politics, social justice, and cats. Mostly cats.

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight on December 14, 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Ravi Roshan | unsplash.com

Photo by Ravi Roshan | unsplash.com

As the year begins, many of you will be planning your research for the coming year and identifying funding schemes to target. Some will have received the outcomes of last year’s grant applications and will either be breathing a sigh of relief or girding their loins for the next attempt.

This can be a difficult time, both professionally and emotionally, for early career researchers in particular (see Tseen Khoo’s recent post on academic disappointment).

This is especially so for those in fields where there is an expectation that salaries will be sourced from grant and fellowship funds.

In this era of short-term contracts and reduced security of employment, there has never been more pressure on early career researchers to establish a research track record.

Couple this with declining grant success rates across the board and increasing competition and the situation can become quite daunting. Those who are not successful in becoming one of the 1 in 10 researchers awarded a major grant or fellowship can easily become disheartened.

Some tell me the major funding bodies just don’t care about their field, are biased against their particular methodology, or that it is all a lottery anyway. None of this is true, of course, but – more importantly – it isn’t helpful.

So, what can you do if you are an early career researcher struggling to break into the big leagues of research funding?

Here are five tips for you to help build your track record: 

Start small

Major grants tend to be very heavily dependent on track record, so even if you are a talented researcher with a brilliant idea, you may not get funded without a strong track record of past research.

One way to build that track record is to apply to smaller, less competitive funding schemes, such as those offered by charitable foundations or internal grants and fellowships administered by your institution.

While these are generally of a lower value and less prestigious, they give you the opportunity to fund smaller research projects, such as pilot studies, and demonstrate your capacity to successfully manage a research project to produce outcomes. Both of these things will stand you in good stead in the next funding round to which you apply.

Think outside the box

In addition to pursuing small grant opportunities, consider ways you can make your own funded research opportunities. Establish and maintain strong networks with relevant industry groups, government departments, and others, and identify areas where you might collaborate on contract or consultancy research. Talk to your institution’s research donations staff or directly to relevant charitable groups to see if there are donors willing to support your research.

Again, you may need to start small, but even small projects will help you build your project management skills and track record, and you never know where they might lead. Some researchers build whole careers based on the support of charitable foundations, particularly in medical research. Others develop productive industry partnerships that support large teams over many years.

Team up

As well as networking with other interested parties and end users, be sure to take opportunities to attend seminars and conferences, and get to know your fellow researchers. If you lack the funding to get out to many of these events, get online and participate in the growing academic and disciplinary communities there (this may have the side benefit of developing your own capacity for science communication, outreach, and engagement).

Find like-minded people, and those with complementary skill sets, both in your own cohort and those slightly more senior. Look to your PhD advisors, senior colleagues, and mentors to help you find your way onto active research teams. Not only are teams more likely to be funded in most contexts, they can take on more ambitious research and produce a larger number of outputs, thus contributing to the track record of all co-investigators.

Joining existing teams can be a fast track to funding success and advancement, but collaborative networks are also an important part of your own academic capital.

Tend your own garden

While gaining research funding is important for enabling your research, and, for better or worse, has become a research performance metric in its own right, there are other ways to grow your track record. The most obvious is, of course, publication.

When early career researchers learn they have missed out on that grant or fellowship and ask “What now?”, my answer is invariably: publish. Spend some time writing up existing research and developing it for publication in appropriate journals (you will notice I recommend ‘appropriate’ journals and not necessarily ‘leading journals’, but that’s a whole other story…).

So, write, publish, apply for prizes, attend conferences, build networks, hone your skills, curate your online profile, and carry on tending your garden, building your research capability and finding ways to express that in ways that matter to your communities.

Finally, try to identify ways to move your research forward without funding, whether that is reviewing the literature, analysing existing data sets, or running a pilot experiment on borrowed lab supplies.

Sell your story

My last tip is in some ways the most important: No matter how strong your track record, it won’t help you if you hide your light under a bushel.

I talk to so many early career researchers who undersell themselves because their track record is not yet as developed as it might be in ten years’ time. The challenge early in your career is to identify potential directions, and distinguish yourself from others.

How do you do that if your track record is a little on the ‘thin’ side? You look to quality, impact, and relative performance. Is your track record of publications strong for someone of your career stage in your field? Get specific. How many of your publications are first author or sole author publications? You may not have many citations yet, but are some of them in top journals? Has your work been featured in the media (including social media), has it generated a lot of clicks, views, downloads, likes, shares? Has your research generated impact in your field, in policy, or in the community?

Don’t forget context! Does your track record represent an ideal preparation to take on this project? If you designed the project, it really should. Tell your story in a way that shows how the stepping stones of your track record led you directly to this point, and how this project will move you on to the next step.

While you’re waiting for your track record to grow, remember that showcasing a developing research career trajectory in this way can be an ideal strategy when applying for early career fellowships and prizes.

Three to remember

So, as we return to our desks after a well-earned holiday break, remember these tips:

  • Be realistic when choosing the funding schemes to which you will apply, and balance the time you spend writing grant applications with time spent writing papers and ‘tending your garden’.
  • Spend some time looking for alternative funding opportunities, and building networks with other researchers and end users.
  • Make time to think about how you represent your track record, exploring the bibliometric tools at your disposal for analysing and benchmarking your publication record, and following up citations and other measures of reach and impact.

Above all, remember that there are as many pathways to a successful research career as there are successful researchers. Which path will you choose?

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