Mixed-up methods

A street sign leading to five different destinations, in Chinese and English.

Where to?, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

I’ve been seeing a lot of applications lately where the methods section starts something like this:

In this project, we adopt a mixed methods approach…

It is a statement that I’m coming to loathe, because the author is generally saying:

Warning: muddled thinking ahead.
In the following section, we are going to provide a grab-bag of methods. Their connection to the research question will be weak, at best. Hell, they probably won’t even be well linked to each other…

There are no mixed methods

In a grant application, the purpose of the methods section is to show how you’re going to answer your research question. Not explore the question. Not interrogate the space. Not flail about without a clue.

Your methods should present a road-map from not-knowing to knowing. If you are using more than one method (and, let’s face it, who isn’t?), you need to show that your methods will:

  1. Work (get you to your goal); and
  2. Link together (be greater than the sum of their parts).

You need to show me both of those things, not just one of them (or, as is sometimes the case, neither of them).

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Little Chickie

Seven or eight little chickens with their mother hen

Chicks, by Rob Faulkner on Flickr

This post was co-written with Rosemary Chang. Rosemary is an academic developer. In her current role, she helps university staff with the scholarship of learning and teaching (SoTL) and teaching award applications. Her PhD research focuses on anxieties in creative writing practice and mindfulness. She tweets about uni matters, writing, and mindfulness @RoseyChang.

Jonathan: Last year, Rosemary and I were talking about her grant application. I explained that she needed to get two different types of advice – advice to make the core idea stronger (which I couldn’t give her), and advice about protecting her core idea from attack (which I could).

We talked about the central idea of her research project as being like a tiny little baby chicken. A precious and very, very fragile little chickie.

Rosemary: The ‘little chickie’ metaphor was very helpful advice. When I went to Jonathan I was in the thick of writing. My research partner and I had honed the project idea over many months. For me, it was a new area of interest. The writing process felt like molding quicksand. Although I’d written a successful grant application before, I did that for someone else. Writing my own was different. What pointers could Jonathan give me? Read more of this post

Breaking funding boundaries

This is the second half of a talk (first half here) that I gave recently at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event.

Thanks to all involved for inviting me and making me feel so welcome.  It was great fun!


A large tree limb growing through a large fence.

The fence and the tree, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The academy is a tough place at the moment. It needs some hacking.

In Australia, we are at the lowest level of government funding for research since we started keeping records. It doesn’t look like that situation is going to get better any time soon.

At my university, 60% of academic staff are paid by the hour. People with PhDs are working at multiple universities just to pay the rent, being paid the same way that they would be if they were behind the counter at a 7-Eleven. This isn’t uncommon across Australia, and the trend is towards more casualisation of the workforce, not less. This is a worldwide pattern, not just an Australian one.

Things are even worse if you are a woman. Universities are gendered places, and there are historical biases against women in most research funding schemes.

There is a real human cost to all this, as Sophie C. Lewis reminded us recently when she talked candidly about her year of tears. New researchers, young researchers, female researchers, researchers in non-traditional areas, researchers whose first language isn’t English… We are all at risk within this system.

I can’t fix this system. I don’t know who can.

What I want to talk about today is some of the ways that we can go around the system, some of the ways that we can break through these boundaries – institutional, structural, and invisible. Some of the ways that you, as an individual, can make a difference to your own situation. Read more of this post

Welcome to Grant Camp

Slide that says: How it works 5 minutes - what you need to do. 20 minutes - write like hell! 5 minutes - take a breather: coffee & chat. Repeat this six times! Half hour break around 3:30 pm.

How it works, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

Researchers often don’t have time to write a decent application.

That is, with the best will in the world, they can’t devote the time that they want to drafting their application.

As a result, research whisperers often get drafts way too late to be able to provide any useful feedback. People send me their drafts less than a week before the deadline. At that point, all we can do is make sure that it adheres to the rules and point out spelling and grammar errors. There is no time to rework fatal flaws, investigate lacunae in the literature review, restructure the budget, or add collaborators.

It is ‘Submit or Die’ time.

To try to avoid this, I’ve been running Grant Camps for my researchers. Inspired by the award-winning Thesis Boot Camp model, Grant Camps are half-day events that give applicants the time to address the major aspects of an application.

I’ve found that, while people can’t get a half a day to work on their application themselves, they can do it if I send them a meeting appointment and they plan it as part of their schedule.

So far, they have been quite popular. They don’t work for everybody, but the people that do like it keep coming back. Read more of this post

The price of poor grant feedback

Photo by Dietmar Becker | unsplash.com

Photo by Dietmar Becker | unsplash.com

There is that moment when you find out the results of a long-awaited grant round.

It can be euphoric and somewhat surreal, or it could lead to much shoulder-slumping.

Given today’s research funding environment and the success rates in major funding rounds, there’s probably more shoulder-slumping than anyone would like.

This wrenching, life-affecting result is a tough phase to get through. That’s why I wrote “Picking up the pieces“, for researchers to look ahead and get back into the grant application cycle, after the requisite, understandable period of ranting and tearing of hair.

Recently, I’ve heard several anecdotes about unsuccessful grant applications and their aftermath, and it made me want to revisit this topic. Not quite in a white-hot rage (as can be Research Whisperer’s wont), but certainly with a sustained seething.

My issue is the poor to non-existent feedback that often accompanies unsuccessful grant applications.

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First!

Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and Man-made Satelite Achievement Medal

Death medal, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I’ve read a couple of grant applications recently that said that they were first:

“This is the first study to…”

I’m always a bit wary of this sort of statement. To work, it needs to be undeniably true. That is, it isn’t enough that it’s a true statement. It needs to be uncontestable, unchallengeable.

To be undeniably true, it should reinforce the worldview of the reader. Your assessor should read the statement, nod and agree. If they don’t – if it raises any doubt in their mind – you may be in for a world of pain.

If you get an assessor that says ‘No it isn’t – what about [vaguely related study that isn’t anything like yours]’, then a series of things happen. First, they aren’t focused on the strengths of your application anymore.  Then, they’re distracted and may start looking for other doubtful statements. Their confidence starts to fade.

If you get a chance to reply to their criticisms, you’ll need to spend a lot of time trying to rebut their claim that you aren’t first, and justify your claim that you are.

There are a couple of other issues I see with claims to be first.

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What’s in a researcher induction kit?

"Pool of Knowledge" (Detail from the "Pool of Knowledge" sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

“Pool of Knowledge” (Detail from the “Pool of Knowledge” sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | http://www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

When I started a new research fellowship in a new institution and city, it took me at least a semester to find my feet.

In that time, I felt the full force of ignorance as I flailed around trying to find out who should review my grant applications (beyond my own collegial networks), what I might be entitled to as a staff member, and trying to get a handle on the new university’s structure.

More importantly, I needed to spend time learning the culture of the place: the person who occupies a certain role may not be the person you’d expect to do the work, etc.

Any expectations that a new staff member (in this floundering state) is going to immediately be productive and successful are not the most realistic. Even if they’ve got grants that they’re carrying over from one place to another, there’s a lot of information that they’ll need to establish themselves.

The earlier that incoming researchers know this information, the more quickly they’ll be able to gain momentum for their research planning and writing.

For a new-to-institution researcher orientation kit, then, these are the basics that I’d include:

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