Tag Archives: Research Funding Toolkit

Catalogue

I have now written enough posts in this blog that it needs a catalogue. I have organised the posts into 8 themes:-

  1. How to write a Grant Application
  2. Strategy for writing grant applications
  3. Writing Style for Grant Applications
  4. Giving and Receiving Feedback on Grant Applications
  5. Dealing with referees reports and with rejection
  6. Interviews and Talks
  7. Software
  8. Academic Life and Afterlife

How to Write a Grant Application

Strategy for Grant Applications

Writing Style for Grant Applications

Friendly fire: Giving and receiving feedback

Dealing with referees reports and with rejection

Interviews and talks

Software for Writing Grant Applications

Academic life & Afterlife

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Ten questions to Get Feedback on a Grant Application

FeedbackThis post was triggered by an  article in Harvard Business Review about how to get feedback on your performance at work. Getting feedback that you can trust is a universal problem and it affects grant-writers more than most. The key to getting good feedback  on a grant application is to think carefully about whom you should ask and how you should ask them.

Whom should you ask for feedback on your grant application?

The best option is to ask the right kind of expert, if you can. Expertise on grants is much more important than expertise in your subject. The ideal person would be someone who has served several years on the grants committee that will consider your proposal. Failing that, you could ask someone who has wide experience of similar grants committees and a good understanding of the scheme for which you are applying.  Unfortunately these people tend to be busy and you may be in a hurry. You can ask Parker Derrington Ltd to read your grant application and give you face-to-face feedback by Skype or Facetime, but you would have to pay. What can you do if you don’t have an expert on call and can’t afford to pay one?

If you can’t get an expert, you should choose an ignoramus, or someone who can act the part as far as your project is concerned. You need someone who does not share your views about what is important in your subject but who is open-minded. This mimics the kind of expertise that a grants committee member will have. The ideal person would be someone at your level, in a different but related field. It can be a good idea to exchange feedback with a colleague in a different subject area who is also preparing a grant application. It is a mistake to use someone who knows as much or more than you do about the area of your project, unless they are sufficiently experienced in the way grants committees work that they will be able to discount their knowledge of your subject.

How should you ask for feedback on your grant application?

If you ask a real expert for feedback, it doesn’t matter how you ask, they will give you useful feedback. Otherwise, you need to design your questions carefully if the answers are to be useful. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Write down the main outcome of the project. Mark where it describes it in the text with a (1)
  2. Mark with (2) in the text the section that gives evidence that the main outcome is important. Can you think of anything else that could be said to support the claim that the outcome is important?
  3. Is the importance of the outcome specific to this funder? Mark any references to the funder’s goals with (3).
  4. How many separate components does the research project have?
  5. Mark with (5-1), (5-2) etc, the sections of text that state the outcome of each component of the research project.
  6. Mark with (6-1), (6-2) etc, each section of text that explains how important the outcome is of a component of the research project.
  7. Mark with (7-1), (7-2) etc, the sections of text that give citations that support the explanations in (6-1), (6-2) and so on.
  8. Mark with (8-1), (8-2) etc, the sections of text that describe the research processes that will produce the outcomes (5-1), (5-2) etc.
  9. For each of these sections, can you mark with (?) any processes that are not clear, and can you suggest any extra processes that might be needed in order to produce the research outcome.
  10. Mark in the text with (1) where it states what will be done to make sure that the overall outcome of the project has maximum value to the funder. Can you think of any way that this could be made more valuable to the funder.

You should ask the reader to spend no more than half an hour answering these questions. If they are unable to answer them in that time then you need to do some serious rewriting. You might also consider reading chapter 11 of The Research Funding Toolkit, which has a comprehensive set of exercises to get feedback at every stage.

Finally, you should know that the correct answer to question 4 should be three.

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We had the workshop: where are the grants?

16630702_sAt Parker Derrington Ltd we often encounter rather fixed ideas about how to improve grant-writing outcomes. ” A workshop is what we need….. Can you manage 100 participants? Can you tell them how to get bigger grants? Can you do it any cheaper? What can you do in half a day?”  Obviously, to survive in business we have to allow the customer to be right, so we find ourselves giving rather a lot of grant-writing workshops.

Of course we think our workshops are the best in the business and we get excellent feedback.  However, a workshop can only do so much. Even academics who have good ideas, a good track record of publications and who can design a fundable research project need more than a workshop can provide. Let me explain. There are three problems that tend to prevent such academics from writing good research-grant applications:-

  • They don’t appreciate the unwritten constraints on the case for support.
  • They don’t have an efficient way of writing a grant-application.
  • They don’t usually get high quality help and encouragement from other academics.

Let’s take these one by one.

The unwritten constraints on the case for support

There are two constraints that push people in opposite directions.

  • It must be speed-readable. Research councils don’t tell you that most of the committee members who take the decision on your research-grant application probably  haven’t read the case for support properly. Worse,  even if committee members did read the case for support properly, most of them wouldn’t understand it.  Obviously your case for support must enable speed-readers to understand and remember what you expect to discover, why it is important, how you will do it, and what you will do with the results.
  • It must be easy to find the detail. Your case for support will also be read by expert referees who will want to assess the detail of what you will do and why it is worth doing. However, few people appreciate that referees will do a much better job and will feel happier about doing it if you make the job easy. So your case for support should  guide referees to the specific content that supports each element of the case. And your summary should make it absolutely clear what arguments the case is making, so that referees know before they begin reading the case for support, what arguments they want to test.

In our workshops we explain how these constraints arise and how to design a case for support that meets them.

An efficient grant-writing process

It should be possible to write a research-grant-application in a week. Most people take months. Some take years.

We find two common factors that make writing inefficient. Probably the commonest is starting to write the grant proposal before designing the research project. Remember, the grant application is a marketing document that is trying to secure investment in the project. It can take a very long time to write it if  you start before you define the project because you don’t know what you are marketing.  Moreover, applications that are not based on a defined project usually fail to convince the reader that they are marketing anything at all: we call them zombie grants. A second factor that makes writing inefficient is not having a guide that tells you what to write in each part of the case for support.

We teach a 2-stage approach to writing in which the first stage is to write a summary that consists of 10 key sentences. That summary is enough to check whether the writer has a viable project. In the second stage, the summary is a guide that tells you what to write in each part of the case for support. Each of the key sentences  forms the first sentence of a major sub-section of the case for support and defines what the rest of the sub-section must convince the reader to be true, either with evidence or with detail about proposed research activities.

How to help a grant-writer.

It’s harder to help a grant-writer than you might think. It should be easy to give clear feedback that will tell them exactly what they have done wrong. Actually, it’s quite hard to do that unless your heart is made of stone, because accurate feedback is crushingly demotivating. Telling a colleague what is wrong with a grant-application that has taken them six months to write can completely destroy their motivation.

To write a grant quickly and well, a writer needs encouragement and feedback, delivered as directly and as quickly as possible.  Our 2-stage approach to writing makes it easier to give constructive feedback, partly because it breaks the writing task down into smaller chunks but also because it makes it easier to define what is expected at each stage, so it combines feedforward with feedback. We offer workshops for coaches to help academics coach their colleagues it but we also offer coaching directly to writers, either as a stand-alone service or as a follow-up to a workshop.  If you are interested, get in touch.

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Committees and Referees

Committees Like a Simple Story: thanks to Science and Ink http://www.lab-initio.com

Committees prefer a clear story: http://labinitio.com

The Journal Nature reported yesterday that scientists have complained that there is a mismatch between expert referees’ evaluation scores of research grant applications and funding decisions.  Different interviewees claimed that this mismatch either does or does not indicate either a flaw in the system or mistakes by referees or by committees.

There may be flaws in the system and mistakes probably happen, but there is a more obvious reason that referees’ scores should not be expected to predict funding decisions. Referees and committees do different jobs which impose different constraints on the way a grant application is written. Very few proposals are written in a way that satisfies both sets of constraints, and so, for the majority of proposals, there is no reason to expect a close match between the referees’ score and the committee’s score. Before I explain the constraints and how to meet them, I’ll clarify the story and explain its relevance.

The story was based on 302 grant applications to the Medical Research Council. It states that some applications that received high scores from the referees were triaged (rejected without being discussed by the committee). Of the proposals discussed by the committee, the story states that the group of applications that were successful and the group that were rejected had ‘a nearly identical spread of scores’. It’s worth noting that the story focuses on a statistic of the scores that is not particularly informative (spread) and does not mention any other statistics. It is relatively common that the referees include both friends and foes of the applicant, which can cause the spread of scores on a single application to range from the lowest to the highest possible. Consequently, nothing that the story says about this rather small data sample indicates a general failure of referees’ scores to predict committee decisions.

However, whatever we may try to conclude from this small dataset, most funding agencies (the EPSRC is an exception in the UK) ask referees and committees to do very different jobs. These jobs depend on different aspects of the way the proposal is written.

Referees work alone and each one works on a single application. The referees are expected to be experts in the same research field as the applicant and their evaluations are typically seen as coming from within that field. Their main task is to test the detailed rationale of the proposal. Are the research questions important? Is the research approach feasible? Does the research team have the ability to carry out the project? What is their standing in the field? Has their previous work made a significant contribution? Is the approach novel? Are other teams likely to get the answers first?

To get a good score from a referee, a grant application must contain relevant detail. Evidence that the questions are important and relevant must be cited. Any evidence to the contrary must be dealt with effectively. The research approach must be described clearly and in sufficient detail to convince a knowledgeable sceptic that the project is feasible, can be carried out with the resources requested, and will lead to the promised outcomes.

The committee works as a collective and takes a view across all the applications before them, typically about 100 for a single meeting. They must also take a view across all the different research fields that the committee supports. They need it to be clear that the project will deliver an  outcome that will have importance beyond the immediate research area and that the applicant has identified an approach that is likely to be productive and that the research team has the skills to deliver it. They need to know what the research aims are and how they relate to the overall outcome. They need it to be clear that the research objectives will satisfy the research aims and deliver the overall outcome and that the results will have appropriate impact

More importantly, the committee also works very quickly. They have to reach an agreed view about grant applications which most or all of them may not understand completely. For the committee to score an application highly they need it to be possible to understand it on the basis of a single hasty reading – or even a quick skim. The case for support should have a very clear structure that states clearly what will be the research outcome, why it is important, what are the research aims, what are the objectives and what will be done with the results.

Of course the best possible case for support has a clear structure that enables the committee to understand it and appreciate its strong points. It also uses the structure to guide the referees to the relevant detail. In my experience cases of support written in this way get very high scores both from referees and from committees. Unfortunately they are very rare but this blog explains in several different ways how to write them.

 

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How to Deal with Rejection 1: What could I have done better?

Are you driven by the question or by the project?

Did you design a project that will answer your question? Thanks to Nick Kim, http://lab-initio.com

Getting a grant application rejected has three things in common with other rejections.

  1. Rejection is slightly less painful if you have other applications still being considered.
  2. Regardless of how painful it is, rejection is an important learning opportunity.
  3. Regardless of the pain and the learning, you need to make sensible decisions about whether, and how, to try again.

I know – believe me I really know – that getting grant applications rejected is painful. In my experience the combination of pain and humiliation can make it impossible to think analytically about the application for weeks or months. However, unless your desire to do research is completely extinguished, sooner or later you have to come back. When you do, it’s really important to learn as much as you can from the rejection and use it to plan the best way ahead.

If you are still consumed with the pain of rejection, you might want to bookmark this page and come back when you feel able to be analytical. However there are three practical  reasons you might want to work through the pain and deal analytically with the rejection now.

  • Dealing constructively with a rejection helps to draw a line under it and resolve the pain.
  • The sooner you start, the better will be the outcome for two reasons.
    • You will do a better job on the analysis if you do it while your memory is fresh.
    • Any plans you develop as a result of the analysis are more likely to be successful if you can implement them before they go out of date.
  • The more times you deal with rejection, the easier and the quicker it gets. I can remember once  (admittedly it was about my 20th rejection) I was able to deal with it in less than a day, rewrite the grant in under 3 weeks and get it fully funded.

If you have got this far I am assuming you want to be analytical. There are four separate steps.

  1. Work out why your grant application was rejected.
  2. Work out how you could have made it stronger.
  3. Salvage useful components.
  4. Get back on the horse.

I’ll deal with the first two in this post and the other two next week.

Work out why it was rejected

Usually the reviews you get back will  say lots of good things and it can be hard to understand why an application with so much going for it could have been rejected. Rejections usually boil down to:-

  • the committee thought the research question wasn’t important enough or
  • the committee couldn’t see how the project would answer the question.

There are three things you should consider here.

  1. It only takes one hole to sink an otherwise perfect boat. It might make it easier to find the hole if you filter out the negative comments and look at them separately.
  2. In most cases the committee discussion is more important than the referees reports but the description of their discussion is likely to be both short and vague. So the hole in the boat my not be very well defined.
  3. Funding rates are falling and sometimes perfect grants, grants that propose well-designed projects that will answer important questions, don’t get funded because there just isn’t enough money.

Don’t be too eager to assume that your grant was perfect. If the funding rate was 30% or better then it’s very unlikely. In fact, most grants that get funded could be improved significantly.

Work out how you could have made it stronger

Regardless of why your grant application was rejected, you should look to see whether it could have been improved. This is particularly important if the reason for rejection is not apparent from the comments: a badly written grant simply fails to convince the reader – the reader may not know why.

You should look separately at four elements:- the description of the project, the background, the introduction, and the summary. There’s a checklist here but as a rough guide you should be clear on the following questions:-

Description of the project

  • Is it clear what you will do?
  • Have you explained the steps that will take you from starting research to having a set of findings that are written up and disseminated?
  • Is the project divided into three or four (i.e. more than two and fewer than five) phases?
  • Is it clear what will be discovered by each phase of the project?

Background to the Project

  • Have you given a good reason why you should do your project? Have you linked it to an important question?
  • Is your link direct (your project will completely anser the question) or indirect (your project will take some important steps towards an answer to the question)?
  • Has the funder stated explicitly or implicitly that this question is important? This is probably worth a whole post. I’ll get around to it.
  • Have you linked the question clearly to each phase of your project by showing that we need to know what each phase of the project will discover?
  • Do other authors agree with your specific ‘we need to know’ statements or are they individual to you?
  • Have you cited publications that demonstrate that your team are competent to produce new discoveries in this area?
  • Have you overstated your contribution to the field?
  • Could other people think this area is a backwater rather than a niche?

 Introduction

  • Does the introduction make all the statements listed in the ‘key sentences‘?
  • Does the introduction state every thing that  ‘we need to know’.
  • Does the introduction state  every thing that the project will discover?
  • Are these statements in the introduction clearly the same as the statements that begin the corresponding sub-sections of the background and the description of the project? They should be recognisably the same statements although they don’t have to be exact copies.

Summary (I mean the summary of the Grant Application)

The summaries of most successful grant applications are appallingly bad. You can see this if you look for the details of successful proposals from the UK research councils or from the European Research Council. However, a good summary helps the funding agency to choose more appropriate referees and it helps the referees and the committee members to understand the research. You should check the following:-

  • Does the summary make all the statements listed in the ‘key sentences‘?
  • Does the summary state every thing that  ‘we need to know’.
  • Does the summary state  every thing that the project will discover?
  • Are these statements in the summary clearly the same as those in the introduction? They should be recognisably stating the same thing although they don’t have to be exact copies.

What Next?

It’s very likely that these two exercises will give you a clearer sense of how you could have given your application a better chance. Next week I will discuss what raw material you can take from a rejected grant application and how to turn it into the basis of future success.

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Speed-Writing Grant Applications in Vienna

Models produced in a project design and collaboration game we played at the Vienna workshop.

Models produced in a project design and collaboration game played in the Vienna workshop.

I have always found it frustrating that it takes so long to discover whether people learn anything in my workshops. It can take weeks, months or even years for somebody to come back with a draft grant application, although I do recall one awkward occasion when I was delighted to receive a complete draft application within an hour of the workshop. Unfortunately the delight did not last long: it soon became clear that the only thing the writer had learned was my email address!

Part of the reason for slowness is that writing is a slow business. It’s slower still when writing something to be be criticised and slowest of all when the task of designing a project has to come before the writing starts. In the past I tried to compensate by encouraging everyone to write, allowing them to write almost anything, and using the writing process to bootstrap the design of the project.

Although this approach works for me, It can take an awful lot of feedback, delivered over many iterations, to develop a polished grant application.

Recently I have taken a harder line. Regulars will have seen that I don’t think you should start writing until you have a project to write about. When you start writing, you should draft your skeleton of key sentences very quickly. Then get straight on with adding the flesh that will convince the skeptical reader that the key sentences are true.

It’s easy to take a hard-line approach on a blog, where readers will stop reading, rather than giving feedback about problems. Last week I decided to take the hard-line “write right now” approach face-to-face. I started a worksop by getting participants to write the first sentence of an application twice, once for their own project and once for someone else’s. Then, after a couple of presentations to teach them about style and content, I set them to divide their project into 3 or 4 sub-projects and to write the 10 or 12 key sentences.

In order to get participants over the project design stage, I used a brilliant idea given to me by Amanda West, from the University of Sunderland. Amanda pointed out that, for training purposes, it is easier to write a grant application for a project that has already been done. I had instructed applicants to prepare for the workshop by conceiving a research project based on their own PhD thesis, or on a published paper, if they didn’t have a project they wanted to do already in mind.

One of Vienna's famous trams outside the Vienna Biosciences Centre

One of Vienna’s famous trams outside the Vienna Biosciences Centre

I am convinced that this approach, building the skeleton of a case for support by drafting key sentences, is the fastest way to get a grant application written, as well as being the best way not to waste time on a never-ending grant application. The results of the workshop were pretty encouraging. Most of the participants produced a full set of key sentences and several got to the point that they were fleshing them out with evidence and explanation before the end.

Of course there are many uncontrolled variables. For example, the participants – all post-docs from the University of Vienna Biosciences Centre – were exceptionally good, even though for most of them English was their second or third language. However, it also seemed clear that if it hadn’t been for the tasks I presented them with, most of them wouldn’t have got over the inhibition that everyone faces with a blank page. So I’m delighted to have found a way to get people writing key sentences even before they have a project because I am more than ever convinced that writing key sentences is the fastest way to write a well-structured grant application.

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Put some meat in your feedback sandwich

7213133_s

Make sure that your feedback sandwich has plenty of meat.

This is one of a series of posts with advice for people who review grant applications for their friends and colleagues. It is also intended to encourage people writing grant applications to review what you have written before you ask a colleague to read it and tell you something you could have worked out for yourself. My last post argued that a quick and easy way of reviewing a grant application is to check its structure. Good structure makes a grant application easy to read.

Most applications will have very poor structure. If the structure is poor, it is not worth reviewing the detailed content. One reason is that it will take too long. Another is that, even if the content is very good, a funding committee’s enthusiasm for the application will be limited because the poor structure makes it difficult to understand.

At this point I feel honour-bound to confess that I have hesitated a couple of weeks before finishing this post because I know that many people find my feedback a bit too direct. They like to soften criticism by constructing a feedback sandwich that smothers useful comments in copious quantities of praise. My view is that feedback should be clear, it should explain how the proposal can be improved, and it should be delivered as quickly as possible. Feel free to cut and paste from what follows and to wrap it up in whatever form suits you.

The application should have an introduction that states clearly:-

  • what goal the project will achieve;
  • why the goal is important;
  • about four aims, which are things that we need to discover or understand in order to achieve the goal;
  • the general research approach;
  • about four research objectives, which are pieces of research that will enable us to achieve the aims; and
  • what will be done with the results.

These statements are what I call the ‘Key Sentences’. They are a distillation of the argument that the project deserves funding. If the grants committee believe the key sentences, they will almost certainly award a grant. So the rest of the case for support should be designed to make the reader believe the key sentences. It does this by repeating them, and reinforcing them with evidence or explanation.

After the introduction, the case for support has two main sections, each of which repeats six of the key sentences and then justifies or explains them. The background section deals with the goal, the importance and the aims. It should explain, with evidence, why the goal is important and how meeting the aims will achieve the goal. The description of the research project deals with all the rest. It should explain in detail the research approach, the research objectives, and what will be done with the results.

The structure allows a reader to understand the message of the grant in 2 or 3 minutes, by ‘speed-reading’ it. This is very important. The committee that decides whether or not to award the grant will have dozens of other applications to read and discuss. Most members will have a limited understanding of the detailed argument. Some of them will still be reading the application during the final discussion about whether to fund it. All of them will have a say in whether it gets funded. They will be much more enthusiastic to fund an application that they can understand and remember.

The structure also helps the referees who will read the proposal thoroughly and write an evaluation. Each key sentence leads directly to the detailed argument and evidence that justifies and explains it. It is not quite as important to make referees’ task easy because each referee typically only deals with a small number of proposals. Moreover, their enthusiasm will be based on their evaluation of the detailed argument. But it definitely doesn’t hurt to make their task easy.

Opening sentence

The opening sentence must whet the reader’s appetite. The best way to do that is to say what the project will achieve, together with something about how it will achieve it, ideally with a clear implication that the research team are well qualified to do the work. For example, the sentence “This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke based on a family of synthetic metabolic inhibitors that we have discovered, and synthesised” achieves all this. The reference to discovery and synthesis suggests that the project is a continuation of past work. Of course the suggestion that the project continues previous work does not testify to its importance – that will rest on the opening clause, which states that the project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke.

Draft grant applications quite often have a good opening sentence. But it is not usually in the right place. Usually it is somewhere towards the middle. Skim through the whole case for support to see if there is a suitable opening sentence that can be moved to the opening position.

It is useful to repeat the opening sentence at the start of the background section, which usually follows after the introduction. It is also useful to open the summary with the same sentence. Repetition of this kind is very good: it helps the reader to remember the essential message. Unfortunately most academics don’t like to repeat a message unless they can confuse readers by using completely different words.

Importance sentence

It’s useful to have a sentence explaining that what the project will achieve is important and to have it follow the opening sentence, which says what the project will achieve. Health, social, or economic benefits are usually, depending on the remit of the funder, good reasons that something is important. Solving a major theoretical problem may also be a good reason. Being the next logical step from the applicant’s previous research is typically not a reason for importance, although mentioning this kind of progression can be a useful way of supporting what  we refer to in the book  as the ‘competence proposition’, which is the proposition that the applicant has the necessary skills to carry out the research.

The importance sentence should also be repeated in the background section and in the summary.

Aims

The aims of the project should be stated immediately after the importance sentence. If you don’t know the difference between aims and objectives (surprisingly, the Oxford Dictionary is rather little help: its definition of ‘objective’  is ‘thing aimed at’), read this excellent post on Pat Thomson’s blog.

I suggest that there should be about four aims. I also think that because funding agencies often ask you to state aims and objectives, you should use them as key parts of the structure. A good way to state an aim is to say that “We need to know” something. There are three important things to check about each stated aim.

The aim should be restated, word for word, in the background section, where it should be followed by a few paragraphs that convince the reader that this is an important aim. Usually they do this by citing appropriate literature. Stating and justifying the aims like this is a device to create a direct link between what the project will do, and an important underlying question that the funder will pay to have answered. It’s also a way of papering over the cracks when the link is a bit tenuous.

The aims of the project should also be stated in the summary. Repeating them exactly, using the same sentences, is a good way of helping the reader to remember them.

Project overview sentence

It is useful to have a sentence that says what kind of research project is envisaged and what the likely outcome will be. It’s often necessary to have something that puts the reader in the right frame of mind for the subproject overview sentences. This sentence should be in the introduction and should be repeated at the start of the section of the proposal that describes the research project in detail.

Sub-project overview sentences (Objectives)

The essential difference between aims and objectives is that, aims tend to be abstract and objectives tend to be concrete. Aims are things that we would like to achieve. Objectives are the concrete things that we will do in order to achieve those aims. Thus the four or so sub-projects that comprise a research project are objectives. Matching the objectives to the aims is a good way of convincing the reader that the research needs to be done: the description of each sub-project should begin with a sentence that includes the phrase “this will tell us” whatever the corresponding aim says “we need to know”.

These sentences should be ‘pre used’ in the introduction and in the summary.

Dissemination

The last substantive sentence in the introduction should say something about what will be done with the results. Again, this sentence should be re-used to introduce the last sub-section of the description of the research project, which should explain it in detail.

So, that’s the filling for the feedback sandwich. How do you wrap it up? I think that it’s up to you to use your judgement. All the wrapping does is to set a baseline. In my view it doesn’t much matter where the baseline is, as long as it is absolutely clear how much the structure of the case for support could be improved.

I should point out that some funders, including several UK Research Councils, require applications to contain a section detailing the achievements of the research team.  That section, which is an excellent way of supporting the competence proposition, is in addition to those discussed in this post.

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