What makes a strong rejoinder

A quick opening note on terminology: I use ‘assessor’ to refer to experts who read and review research grant applications, then provide comments into the final decision-making process. Terminology varies a bit between funders, and between countries. We’re not talking about journal reviewers, although some of the advice that follows may also apply there.


Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | http://www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

In 2012, with Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), we wrote ‘Rational responses to referees, our advice on preparing your rejoinder or response to comments on your grant application. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.

As my applicants are busy writing their responses, this seemed like a good time to build on ‘Rational responses to referees’.

This post provides some advice on the specifics that I want to see in a strong response, and how you might deal with some tricky situations. When your response goes back to funding body, it will be considered along with hundreds or even thousands of other applications.

In such a situation, you want to make it as easy as possible for the reader (the funders) to understand your response.

White space

I’ve seen a draft that was a wall of text, 5,000 characters long. There were no paragraphs breaks and no white space. It was exhausting to look at.

Be kind to your reader – cherish the white space. Put white space between paragraphs. Indent first lines. Use formatting (if the system allows it – the ARC doesn’t).

All the normal rules of civilised writing still apply, even if you have a lot to say and a severe limit on how many characters you can include. Invite your reader to engage with your text. Read more of this post

The magic formula

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 2 March 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


A paper fan that was used by mathematician Hua Luogeng while calculating mathematical formulas.

Numbers on a fan, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

I’ll let you in on a little secret – there is no magic formula for getting a research grant.

It always comes as a surprise to me when I come across people who think that there is some magic to it. They don’t express it that way, of course. They say things like:

  • You need a Professor on your team to get a grant.
  • They are only funding [random topic] this year.
  • It is all about the title – you need to grab them with the title.

I know a senior researcher who believes that getting your application started early will give you a greater chance of success. That sounded fine to me, until he explained that a lower serial number on his application is the ‘secret sauce’. That is, if he gets in early and grabs a ‘low number’ he has more chance than people with a high serial number. Srsly!

They have no evidence for these beliefs. They have a hunch, or folklore, or superstition. That is, they are in the realm of magical thinking.

Why would a researcher believe in magic? We work in an evidence-based world. This is a university! We respect data. At least, that’s the theory. Read more of this post

Second time around

more-detail-2Yesterday, I was providing advice to a researcher for a grant application resubmission.

You know how it goes: they had put something in last year, it had been reviewed, then rejected. I offered to have a look at it, to treat it as a first draft for this year’s application round.

It turned out that I thought that the researcher needed to:

  • Clarify the core research question,
  • Cut back on the background, and
  • Flesh out the project plan.

This is pretty standard. I tell people this a lot!

I’m thinking of getting a ‘Detail! Detail! Detail!’ t-shirt made up.

Read more of this post

Changing disciplines

Last year, one of our readers wrote:

I would like to ask/know if it is possible to develop research and apply for funds affiliated in a faculty different from your field – that is, following a logic of interdisciplinary work, can we be affiliated in medicine and develop research in psychology, for example? Or be affiliated in philosophy and develop research in medicine? … Combining the two seems great but is it done?

Ape masks, hand and foot from planet of the apes

NYC – Queens – Astoria: Museum of the Moving Image – Planet of the Apes, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

Most of the researchers that I work with are working on interdisciplinary work, so I see this question more often than you would think. It generally comes in two different forms:

  • I’ve changed disciplines. How do I present the work in my old discipline to the best advantage?
  • I have a lot of expertise in one discipline, but now I’ve started moving to another disciplinary space. How do I get funding for that?

People are concerned that new readers won’t understand, or won’t give them credit for, their old work. Given that I’m generally talking to them about a grant application, that is a serious concern. Writing a funding application is all about getting the other person to understand and support your request. I don’t want anything getting in the way of that.

Talking about this change can be a challenge if assessors have an image of an uninterrupted progression through Honours, Masters, PhD, postdoc and onwards, all in one topic. Do you just drop your old work? If you include it, what do you do with citation numbers, where norms vary wildly between disciplines? Do you talk about why you changed? If so, how? Read more of this post

The impact producer

Photo by Ronald Yang | unsplash.com

Photo by Ronald Yang | unsplash.com

The #ImpactAgenda is upon us. Every government funding agency I know is looking for impact outside the academic sphere. So, I’ve been thinking about impact a lot lately.

One of the best ways to learn how to do things better is to look at how they’re done in an allied industry. The best example of this that I know of is the idea of bench-marking hospital admissions against hotel check-ins. At a basic level, both activities are similar: you are allocating a room to a person who wants to stay at your establishment. Yet the experience can be totally different. Hotel check-in is usually quick, friendly, and relatively painless. Hospital admissions, on the other hand, can sometimes be quite bureaucratic, protracted, and impersonal. The two experiences, while similar, are underpinned by completely different attitudes to the work. So, hospitals have learnt a lot about admissions from hotels.

By examining an idea in a different environment, we can sometimes learn not just how other people do things, but gain new ideas about how to improve our own activities.

For those researchers who are grappling with the impact agenda currently being rolled out in Australia, the UK, and other countries, it’s worth thinking about how documentary film-makers increase the impact of their films.

Making a documentary film can be a long and exhausting process. Finding funding, assembling a team, executing a plan when you never have quite enough resources, coping with team dynamics, keeping everything together long enough to get the job done, and maintaining a singular vision while doing it – all of this sounds a bit like a research program to me. Read more of this post

Ten tips for better research

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on October 12, 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Drew Patrick Miller | unsplash.com

Photo by Drew Patrick Miller | unsplash.com

Early in 2016, Robert Macintosh published ‘Top Ten Hints on Building Your Academic Reputation’, a post aimed explicitly at postgraduate students. It was republished in the Times Higher Education blog where it lost a lot of its postgraduate context. Robert was advising on building a career, and his advice may help you to build your career.

However, I don’t think we are here to build careers.

I believe we are here to improve our understanding of the world and work on hard problems. In that spirit, here are my tips for doing better research.

This is my view from sitting within the world of research administration, while undertaking my own research degree. In my day-job, I help people get funding for their research. That is, I help other people to do research.

These tips are designed to help you to shine, to get your future research funded, so you can do even better research. It’s a virtuous circle. Read more of this post

What viral means for us

This is based on a talk I gave recently to research administrators at Northwestern University in Chicago. Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made it possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Recently, we posted It Gets Worse, an article about the crisis of casualisation in universities. I wrote it in collaboration with the wonderful Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles of CASA, and it was cross-posted to the CASA blog. We thought that it was an important problem.

So, it seems, did a lot of other people.

Graph of daily views, showing a consistent pattern of 200 - 900 views, except for the latest day, which shows almost 3,000

This is what viral looks like for us

The response was amazing – heartfelt and very real. Hopefully, it adds another pebble to the avalanche that will be needed to bring reform to the sector.

While a lot of people were clearly interested in the issue, I thought some might be interested in how it played out behind the scenes, so to speak. This is how we work, and how Research Whisperer got to this point.

Read more of this post