It becomes apparent not far into research that there are an awful lot of other researchers on the metaphorical street corner with a very eloquent sandwich board trying to raise money for their excellent idea. The jostling for the best position to catch the generous plutocrat is most intense in the lead up to grant deadlines, particularly big competitive grants (typically those funded by government or very large trusts).
The super novice PhD student may find themselves squaring up to the grant system bully (described as a bully because of the issues with success rates and failure covered here and here). That time has come for this project. There are probably many ways to approach this problem. However as I do not have the resources, access to living things or animal ethics clearance to set 1000 monkeys working on typewriters for an adequate period of time to produce the greatest grant application ever, I went and sought help.
For no other reasons than it has been a while since I gratuitously included photos of animals that amuse me, and because I’ve made the segue already, I share the grant writing tips I have now gleaned with the assistance of photogenic primates.
1. Ask for Help
Obviously I did. As a total novice previously working mostly clinically, I needed the input from someone who knew how to present a grant application. In this case, the university offered the assistance of a writer who specialises in helping people do this. I’m guessing this is available wherever you are.
Now part of me expected that the interaction might just be me turning up to provide said expert the chance to point and laugh at me for an insanely long period of time (cue mental image of Homer’s TV laughing at him). It did not turn out like that. He was very encouraging and saved me an awful lot of wasted time by redirecting me on some key formatting and presentation points.
2. Don’t Make Reviewers Work
This falls into the category of “I don’t even take my own advice”. Every time I’m helping with exam preparations for training doctors, one of the first things I mention is that your job is to try and make the examiner work as little as possible. The less they have to struggle and strain to see if you are actually going to give the answer they’re looking for, the better for the exam candidate. Viewed from the examiner’s point of view, they have lots and lots of candidates to assess and the harder they’re working to understand what you’re on about, the less they get to focus on all the excellent bits. And I didn’t even translate that to doing a grant application. Idiot.
Take away inspirational desktop calendar quote for this one – “Communication takes work. If you don’t do it, they have to. Nobody wants to do your work for you.”3. Make It Pretty Right From The Start
Following on from this point, you want to lay out all the reasons your project is excellent extremely quickly. The ideal introduction should mean that a first-time reader knows exactly what the problem that needs to be explored is (the problem), what this project does to set out on that expedition (the aims) and what fantastic stuff might come out of it (the vision). The reviewer needs to finish those first few lines saying “well this is worth reading”. All previous grant applications I’ve done have suffered from not being direct enough.
This tip also highlights how useful it is to have someone read it who has never heard of the project (even better if they don’t work in the field directly). All my other grant attempts have been aided by the other guys in the team. This is good, but because we all know the project we have probably missed bits that lack clarity for the first-time reader. It’s too easy for us to join the abstract dots because we know what the picture ends up looking like.
4. Get the Team Listing Right
The way the team is presented has to achieve a couple of aims:
* Demonstrate you can do it.
* Demonstrate why everyone is essential (and why they fit together).
For my particular project this is the biggest challenge. As much as it’s a project I have to drive, my total absence of research cred means any application proposing me as the most central person is doomed to fail. The project is very much clinical, but the most experienced clinically hasn’t done their publishing and research in the university space. So those in the team who have extensive research experience and have obviously overseen big ,valuable research will be featured right up there too. People like me might well be listed only as “associates” or have lots of caveats about junior status inserted.
Following on from this, to the casual reader it wasn’t clear enough from my draft how each individual fitted in to achieve the goals. This is of course easier to explain when you’ve made the aims of the project clear up front, along with what is required to achieve those aims.
5. There Will Be Work
I went in recalling that there was talk of such a grant application needing 5 weeks of work for the full-time researcher.
My guide today tells me it’s about 42 days of work.
I am sure there is some appropriate philosophical point about the virtues of hard work and suffering but there is too much of me trying to deny the size of this particular task to reach too hard for it.So within the eyes of monkeys lies the way forward. Though not exhaustive as a list (and open to improvement by anyone else), it will guide my next attempts with the typewriter before I return to the grant zoo.