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.

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Dividing up the money

Australian 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollar notes

Poster money, by Michael Coghlan on Flickr

Dear applicant

Congratulations! We have decided to give you a grant.

Unfortunately, funding is tight, so we have cut your budget to the bone. Sorry about that.

Yours truly,
The funding agency

Sometimes, you can win only to lose.

One of the trickiest times for any research team is when you have to work out what you can do with a reduced amount of money.

The decisions that you make at this point will shape your whole project. They may also have repercussions for the team dynamic. If Professor Needs-Grant feels that they didn’t get their fair share of the loot, they can get grumpy. Their enthusiasm for the project may disappear, or at least diminish.

There are ways to improve this situation.

Before you submit the application 

First of all, when you are designing your project, assume that you won’t be fully funded. After all, it is the norm for funding agencies to cut budgets so they can fund as many grants as possible. Assume that will be the case. Ask each of your research partners to provide the costing for their part of the project. This should include the correct figures for their time on the project, as well as the funds that they want to spend. Then talk to everybody about where things overlap and how different elements might be combined. Work out, with your co-researchers, what will happen if things get cut. Talk about what the project will look like if the postdoc isn’t funded, or if you don’t get all the fieldwork money.

Imagine the possibilities and talk about them with your team. Work out what is the minimum amount that would make a viable project.
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I wanna be leader

Lincoln, carved in state at the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, different people write to me with similar questions.

I always like it when this happens, as I only have to write one e-mail in reply. It saves a bit of time.

Here are two complementary queries I’ve received:

Just a quick question about the makeup of the team. I am hoping to put in a grant where I am project leader but I’ll be the only person from our university. The team members are in other unis in Australia and south-east Asia. They are all Associate Profs and higher. Does this pose a complication with me being the most junior and my university being the administering organisation?

At this stage I really do need some more information about how cross-institutional collaborations work. Given that there are 6 academics on this team, it is important for me to ensure that our university is clearly recognised as a partner. Any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated, as I’ll need to start negotiating all of this with the research team.

Both the requests are seeking information about how to structure their team. This mostly revolves around who will be the project leader.

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Don’t be late

Table showing 23 teams completing applications. Four start 30 weeks out, the rest come in afterwards. One team starts three weeks from deadline!

Applications in a 30-week development program, from expression of interest (EoI) to withdrawal (NFA) or submission.

This diagram shows the flow of applications during a recent development round for a major government funding scheme. If you are in the US, think ‘National Science Foundation’. In the Commonwealth, think of a major Research Council funding scheme.

Have a look at Team 23, right down in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart. They started their bid at the very last minute. They didn’t make it to submission. They were late. Really late! “Why are you putting in this application” late.

I hate applications like that. Here’s why. Read more of this post

One weird trick to get a research grant

Psst. Wanna know a secret? This one weird trick will let you read other people’s grant applications, even before they are funded. Not only that, you get to decide who gets the money.

And it won’t cost you a cent.

1 tip to get a grant. See applications before they get funded. You decide who gets the money.In the past, when talking about how to write a better application, Tseen has advised you to ‘be the assessor’ – to channel the assessor and understand what they are looking for. It is great advice.

The most effective way to do that is to actually become an assessor for a granting agency. Actually, I recommend that you put your hand up for two – one in your home country and one overseas.

Here’s why:

Write better applications

Grant applications are a particular genre of academic writing. They are carefully structured documents that provide detailed plans for the future. They require information that never appears in other sorts of academic writing, such as budgets, CVs, and Gantt charts.

They look forward, when most other academic writing looks back at work that has already been done.

We don’t write them very often and we don’t read them very often. Compare the number of articles that you’ve read recently to the number of grant applications you’ve read ever.

By reading more grant applications, you will learn to write better grant applications. You’ll see what sort of evidence impresses you and what style of writing engages you. You’ll see what enrages you, too, when an otherwise good application contains obvious gaps or someone submits drivel.

Not only that, it will help you to place your own work in context. If you can see how other people position their work, it will help you to position yours.

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How to write a simple research methods section

Photo by Mel Hattie | unsplash.com

Photo by Mel Hattie | unsplash.com

Yesterday I read a research application that contained no research methods at all.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

In an eight-page project description, there were exactly three sentences that described the methods. Let’s say it went something like this:

  • There was to be some fieldwork (to unspecified locations),
  • Which would be analysed in workshops (for unspecified people), and
  • There would be analysis with a machine (for unspecified reasons).

In essence, that was the methods section.

As you might imagine, this led to a difficult (but very productive) discussion with the project leader about what they really planned to do. They knew what they wanted to do, and that conversation teased this out. I thought that I might replicate some of that discussion here, as it might be useful for other people, too.

I’ve noticed that most researchers find it easy to write about the background to their project, but it’s much more difficult to have them describe their methods in any detail.

In part, this is a product of how we write journal articles. Journal articles describe, in some detail, what happened in the past. They look backwards. Research applications, in contrast, look forwards. They describe what we plan to do. It is much harder to think about the future, in detail, than it is to remember what happened in the carefully documented past.

As a result, I often write on draft applications ‘less background, more methods’. Underlying that statement is an assumption that everybody knows how to write a good methods section. Given that people often fail, that is clearly a false assumption.

So, here is a relatively simple way to work out what should go into your methods section.

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The tyranny of the timesheet

This post was inspired by the National Tertiary Education Union 2014 conference on Insecure Work. Thanks to the National Tertiary Education Union for inviting the Research Whisperer to be part of the conference, and for paying for my airfare and accommodation. I learned many things, and this post covers some of them. 


A timesheet with 'No more!' across it in big red lettersI hate timesheets.

It has been a while since I needed to fill out a timesheet, but my visceral distaste for the timesheet ritual remains very strong.

It wasn’t just that they were fiddly and annoying and stupid (although they were). I hated what they represented – they made me feel unvalued, disempowered, and disposable.

At the back of my mind was the lurking knowledge that I could be dismissed with an hour’s notice, that I was a ‘resource’, that I was temporary.

It didn’t matter that my boss valued my work, and I had excellent relationships with them, or that we had a long history of working together.

When you work at a university, you learn that there are two different drivers for all activity: personal ethics and institutional imperative.

When the institutional imperative calls for a review or a restructure or any other activity that requires shedding jobs or saving money, the nicest people can end up doing truly horrible things, no matter what their personal ethics call for. If the rules say you get sacked without notice, you get sacked without notice.

Timesheets, at their heart, represent hourly paid work. This work gets called different things in different places – sessional, casual, adjunct, whatever. Names have power, though, so I think that we should call it what it is – hourly paid work (except on your CV, when you want it to sound as shiny as possible). By doing this, we take away the mystique, the special language, of the academy. By calling it hourly paid work, we bring it into the same world as stacking supermarket shelves and flipping burgers. We bring it into the marketplace.

It is important that we do that, because one in two jobs at Australian universities are now casual or contract. [1]

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