Choosing the unicorns – An ECR’s perspective on grant reviews

Emma Birkett is a Teaching Associate in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham and lives in the quiet backwaters of Derbyshire, UK.

Her research examines motor timing deficits in children and adults with developmental disorders, especially dyslexia.

She teaches in the areas of child development, dyslexia and educational assessment. She is currently developing a module for a new master’s programme in developmental disorders, setting up a research project on ensemble timing in children and conducting a study on active teaching methods for her post-graduate teaching certificate.

Emma can be found on Twitter at @emskibirkett.


The other day, I read the guest blog on Research Whisperer by Adam Micolich about capturing unicorns, a.k.a landing your first successful grant application. I found it really helpful for early career researchers such as myself, and wanted to offer another perspective on the funding process: that of a grants reviewer.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing two grant submissions.

Unicorn [Photo by Yosuke Muroya | http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamur0w0%5D (Shared via CC BY-NC 2.0)

Once my initial imposter syndrome worries evaporated, I found it was a useful learning experience.

I wanted to share what I’ve learned with other early career creatures on their journey towards capturing that mythical unicorn of a successful grant application! It’s really interesting to compare Adam’s and my tips, given our differences in career stage and grant application experience.

The first application I reviewed this year arrived on my desk in autumn. Two colleagues were submitting an expression of interest to a charitable organisation and I was asked to be the internal reviewer. As in many departments, this internal review process is a quality check prior to external submission.

The second opportunity to review a grant application came after a colleague recommended me as an external reviewer to another charitable body.

The first proposal was outside my research area whereas the second was a close fit with my knowledge and experience. Both reviews provided a great opportunity to learn about what happens after grants are submitted and what reviewers expect. Read more of this post

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Tips for capturing unicorns – writing your first successful application

Adam MicolichAdam Micolich is an Associate Professor in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales. He has a long­standing interest in issues affecting early and mid­-career researchers, some of which he has written about on his blog “Fear and Loathing in Academia“.

He can be found on Twitter at @ad_mico.

 


Tapestry of a unicorn, captured within a round fence.

The Unicorn in Captivity, from The Cloisters [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In my previous post, “The anxieties of sharing grant applications“, I talked about issues related to accessing successful grant applications that can impede progress for young researchers learning to write their first funding proposals. Successful grant applications are the unicorn in the zoo of documents that one must write in research. Truly magical when you have one, but obtaining them in the first place can be a soul-destroying process.

In this post, I share the key lessons I’ve learned from having broken into the system, fallen out for many years, and then broken back in again, reading many proposals along the way.

Read more of this post

The anxieties of sharing grant applications

Adam MicolichAdam Micolich is an Associate Professor in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales. He has a long-­standing interest in issues affecting early and mid­-career researchers, some of which he has written about on his blog “Fear and Loathing in Academia“. He can be found on Twitter at @ad_mico.

In the first of two articles, Adam sheds some light on why people do, and do not, share their grant applications, and some of the issues with libraries of successful applications.


One of the toughest skills to master as a young researcher is writing successful grant applications. These are the unicorn in the zoo of documents that one must write in research. Mired in myth, with great controversy about their true nature and appearance, they sometimes turn out to be little more than a donkey wearing a party hat, that was mistaken for a unicorn because it was being ridden by a silverback gorilla.

A big impediment for young researchers is that successful grant applications are rarely openly shared. This can make it hard to see enough of them to truly know what it is that makes the good ones good. Being on a grant agency panel is about the only way to see a very large number of proposals – sadly, that role only comes once you’ve had a lot of successful grant applications.

An ape dressed as a cardinal, followed by an ape reading from a hymnal, process into a church

Apes parodying the Church. Psalter. Ghent (Flanders). ca. 1320-1330. Oxford, the Bodleian Library, Ms. Douce 6, fol. 17v, detail.

My institution tries to addresses this void by providing a library of successful applications. However, these are only made available internally by people volunteering to do so in the initial administration of their grant. This means that only a small number are available. The library is selective towards authors willing to share and therefore probably somewhat deceptive. I’ve sunk solid days into mining this resource, taking careful notes and looking for patterns. Truth is, there are few gold nuggets to be found.

Read more of this post

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:  Read more of this post

Mind the gap

“This project fills in a significant gap in the literature…”

“This project will address this significant gap in knowledge…”

Text on a railway platform that says 'mind the gap'.

Mind the gap, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read several applications that identify a gap in the literature. The ‘gap’ is a useful way to think about your research. It is often presented as a triangle (or a square):

Poincairre says…
Munroe framed the problem in this way…
Flanders contributed the theory of…
However, between those three approaches, there exists a gap…

Sometimes, this research gap is real. Sometimes, it is a little bit constructed (for the purposes of the theoretical argument, of course). In the end, it doesn’t matter. You’ve found your gap.

That gap in the literature? It won’t get you funded.

If you have a gap, and every other applicant has also identified a gap, then that makes your application just like everyone else’s. It doesn’t differentiate you from the crowd. It is a necessary condition for being competitive, not a competitive advantage. Demonstrating it gets you in the game, but it certainly doesn’t win you the grant. Read more of this post

This wasn’t always me

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

There’s a post I tend to share when major grant round results are announced.

It’s ‘Picking up the pieces‘. In it, I emphasise that “I can say that I truly understand how you feel. I threw my hat in the major grants and fellowship rings many times; very few times was I successful.”

I always thought those sentences failed to convey the howling disappointment, derailment of career, and emptying out of all confidence that these results can bring.

It is hard, after all, to capture the sound of your professional self decomposing in half a second after realising you’re not a named awardee.

This post, below, was originally published on my personal blog at the end of 2010, seven years ago. It felt like my lowest point, career-wise. I was not in a good place.

I wanted to re-publish it to the Research Whisperer audience as a collegial artefact, to share my thinking about academic identity and scholarly life at a very raw time. Read more of this post

Lessons from the Hill

Dr Taylor Winkleman recently completed a stint as a Legislative Assistant in the office of United States Senator Edward Markey after serving a year in the same office as an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)/American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow. Her portfolio included space policy, military and veterans issues, human rights, and foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on global health and trafficking of both humans and wildlife. Upon leaving the Senate, Taylor founded Winkleman Consulting, LLC, and is now consulting on the same issues, with an emphasis on the intersection of commercial space, global health, and humanitarian crises.

Born in Santa Cruz, California, Taylor completed the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine’s dual degree program in 2016, earning both her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Masters of Public Health with an emphasis in public health policy. Prior to beginning her veterinary training, she served 6 years in the United States Army as an Arabic linguist and intelligence professional. During her academic career, she worked as a freelance journalist and photographer.

Her professional interests include international development, zoonotic disease prevention, economics, One Health, Planetary Health, and commercial space policy. Taylor tweets from @T_Winkleman.


The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US programs that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up!


Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]

Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]

The absolute worst moment that I experienced during my time in the United States Senate (the Hill) was during a softball game. While playing catcher, a collision at home plate sent me flying through the air and I landed in the dirt. On my head.

So, there I was, lying in the dirt, my ear bleeding, my arm bruised, with my head ringing from what I was almost certain was a concussion, and I knew one thing with utter certainty: I was going to have to keep playing. We were behind by ten runs in the third inning. We were certainly going to lose the game but if I couldn’t keep going we would be forced to forfeit. I got up, shook it off, and kept playing.

We definitely lost that game.

Thinking back on it, I can understand how many on the Hill would see that as a metaphor for politics, where you often find yourself fighting a battle you seem guaranteed to lose, getting knocked down, and having to get back up. My time as a policy fellow began in an optimistic September of 2016.

Now, in 2017, the situation for science on the Hill and in the federal government could be better.

In some ways, this seems to be the worst of times. Read more of this post