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:

Read more of this post

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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Publishing in real time

Cindy WuCindy Wu is a co-founder of Experiment, a crowdfunding platform for scientific research.

Cindy was funded during her undergraduate studies by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work on cell immunotherapies.

In 2011, she was on the University of Washington International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team when they won the World Championship. Cindy dropped out of grad school to build Experiment, a Y Combinator backed startup.

Experiment is creating a world where anyone can be a scientist. Bill Gates recognized Experiment as a “solution to close the gap for potentially promising but unfunded projects.”

Cindy grew up in Seattle, and now lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @cindywu.

This post is an interview between Cindy and Jonathan O’Donnell.

Hi Cindy,

Notes at a research seminar that read EAC, Australian Woman's Register, Information infrastructure, interoperability, silos vs networks, services and widgets.

Things I care about, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Thanks very much for agreeing to talk with us at the Research Whisperer, and for co-founding Experiment. For those not in the know, Experiment is a wonderful crowdfunding platform for science. Any researcher in the United States can use Experiment to reach out to the public to raise money for their work. If you don’t know how crowdfunding works, jump onto Experiment now, find a good project and give it some cash. If you get inspired, submit a proposal.

If the project reaches its target, the researcher will receive their funding (less Experiment’s 8% fee) and can start work. While they are raising funds, and during their research, Experiment encourages them to keep in touch with their backers using Lab Notes. For an example of how great these Lab Notes can be, see Paige Jarreau’s updates on her science blogging PhD.

Most crowdfunding services allow project leaders to send out updates, but not everybody uses them. Experiment is trying to understand how these updates work, and how to make them work better.

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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

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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