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.

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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.

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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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Is growing your own researchers a luxury?

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

Is a university that provides internal funds to its researchers being indulgent?

After my post about the dangers of internal funding was published, Stephen Matchett picked up on part of it in this issue of Campus Morning Mail.

Matchett wondered whether internal funding would be a luxury that our brave new world of deregulated universities could not offer:

the days when universities can afford such relatively low impact schemes may end once deregulation kicks in – it will be harder to fund lab time or a travel grant from undergraduate fees if they are set in a competitive market.

This got me thinking about the consequences of deleting the capacity-building potential of internal funding for researchers or research projects.

What would happen if this development did not happen at this level? Is helping to build your own institution’s research capacity and experience a ‘luxury’ that universities today can’t afford? Is growing your own fabulous researchers an impossible aim?

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