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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Why you should think about thumbnails

My thumb

Selfie (thumbnail), by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I help artists write grant applications. If you are a practising artist or designer, or you run a grants program that they might apply to, read on…


References for artworks should include thumbnails.

At the moment, following standard referencing rules, a reference list for artworks might look something like this:

With thumbnails, the same list looks like this:

 Boy and girl against brick wall Unidentified photographer 1946, Untitled, Gelatin silver print, 3.5″ x 3.5″, Lee Harris Papers, Anacostia Community Museum, USA, PH 2003.7078.053. Published: Smithsonian Institution on Flickr Commons, 19 May 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/smithsonian/2583389433/
 Wistful girl with flowers, soldier in background Unidentified photographer ca. 1915, Untitled, Gelatin silver print, hand applied color, 13.6 x 8.7 cm, George Eastman House Collection, 1973:0126:0015. Published: George Eastman House on Flickr Commons, 3 November 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/george_eastman_house/2999562537/
 Young women with hat, stole and umbrella Unidentified photographer n.d., 200714701, Nova Scotia Archives. Published: Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr Commons, 30 October 2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/nsarchives/15667281365/

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In defence of the crowd

This post was originally submitted as a comment, in response to Milking the Crowd, by Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction.

A view of the climate change protest crowd in Melbourne

So many people II, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Melonie has written a thoughtful piece that highlights some of the potential issues with crowdfunding. It is a debate that is worth having. I’m pro-crowdfunding, but I’d be the first to admit that there are issues to be sorted out.

There are specific problems around crowdfunding, but I don’t think that lack of peer review is one of them. While government research funding is usually peer reviewed,  industry and philanthropic funding sources generally aren’t. They are competitive, but they aren’t peer reviewed. Industry funding applications are often selected by a manager or committee, on advice from an in-house expert. They are then approved by a board of directors. Some large philanthropic schemes use peer review, but most don’t. In Australia (and, I’m guessing, elsewhere), most funds are distributed by committee, perhaps on advice from a program manager, who apply a score based on their selection criteria.

Non-expert publics do not have the same priorities as peers in your field, just as industry research sponsors and philanthropic organisations do not have the same priorities as peers in your field.

Crowdfunding is, as you point out, a campaign for donations. Donations to universities for research (which include scholarship funds, professorial chairs, building funds as well as research project funds) are never peer-reviewed, in my experience.

Moreover, this absence of peer review can be recast as a benefit of crowdfunding. There are some areas of promising work that find it very difficult to gain peer support, in part because the go against the common wisdom and, sometimes, because they are reworking areas that are perceived to have been ‘done’ already. There are also some types of research, such as replication studies and taxonomy work, that find it very difficult to secure government funds. The Australian Research Council, for example, explicitly says that it will not fund:

“compilation of data, computer programs, research aids and tools; descriptive data compilations, catalogues or bibliographies; or teaching materials.”

These restrictions don’t apply to crowdfunding.

The Australian Research Council also won’t fund anything less than A$30,000 per annum. In part, this is because peer review is expensive. Crowdfunders are happy to fund small projects: top-up funds, student projects, outreach programs, all sorts of things that it wouldn’t be worth peer-reviewing via a government funding scheme.

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Lessons from the #postdocalypse

This post started life as a talk for the National Tertiary Education Union 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.


Graph showing biomedical PhDs rising to 2,500 per year, while plant sciences remain static.

Figure 1: US biomedical vs selected PhD graduates. Source:- Opinion: The Planet Needs More Plant Scientists, by Alan M. Jones, in The Scientist, 1 October 2014, via @Wyoweeds.

In the United States, in biotechnology research, a precipitous increase in PhD numbers over the last few years has resulted in unsustainable numbers of post-doc applicants.

People over there are calling it the #postdocalypse (figure 1). I want to use that as a jumping-off point for talking about insecure work in the research sector in Australia.

The situation in Australia is different to the USA. I’m looking mostly at contract research staff. That is, I’m looking at people who have insecure work, rather than people who are trying to get work. I do acknowledge, though, that the situation generally isn’t as dire as in the US. I haven’t heard of any postdocs here who are living out of thier cars. If you declare bankruptcy here, your student debt is wiped out, just like all your other debt.

Still, our data doesn’t look good, whichever way you look at it.

Australia is currently experiencing the lowest level of government funding for research since we started keeping statistics in 1979 (figure 2).

I’m always hopeful that we will convince the government to restore funding to CSIRO, the CRC program, and to research areas other than medicine. Read more of this post

Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

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