Tag Archives: Rejection

What’s the Point?

I want to explain why I think it’s better to produce a well-written grant application than a poorly written one. Obviously, given the nature of my business, I have to make this case, but it is not as simple as you might think, not least because most successful grant applications are very poorly written. In fact, if you think carefully about the quality of grant applications, it becomes clear that, in this particular domain, quality is completely subjective. So I will start by saying what I think makes a good grant application.

The quality of a grant application is not the same as the quality of the research project it describes. A grant application is essentially a marketing document for a research project and you can have a first-rate application that markets a tenth-rate project. And vice versa. Indeed  poorly-written grant applications are very often successful precisely because grants committees are trying to judge the quality of the project, not the quality of the application. Judging the quality of a project can be very difficult if the application is poorly written. So what makes a good grant application?

The essence of a good grant application is that it makes it easy to judge the project. The application contains all the detail that an expert will look for. The detail should be set out so that it can be read at very high speed and understood by a non-expert. As a rule of thumb, it should take less than two minutes to understand the main points of what you will do and why it is worth doing.

Those main points should be expressed and justified in such a way that a non-expert ‘gets’ what you are going to do and why. An expert should also be able to drill down and find the detail that they need in order to judge whether your project is likely to succeed and achieve those main points. I have already explained how the ‘key sentence’ structure enables a grant application to fulfil these requirements.

Despite the fact that most successful grant applications are poorly written, there are three reasons that it is worth taking trouble to produce a well-written grant application:-

  1. If your project is good, a well-written application will improve your chance of success.
  2. If your project is bad, a well-written application will help you to see that it needs to be improved.
  3. A well-written application can be easier and quicker to write than a badly-written application.

I’ll deal with the first two reasons in this post and I will leave the third for the future.

Well written applications are more likely to be successful.

Well-written applications generate an enthusiasm among committee members that makes them give higher scores. For reasons I’ll explain in a future post, the person leading the discussion is likely to recommend a relatively conservative score, no matter how much they like the application. But if the committee are enthusiastic, they are quite likely to argue that the recommendation should be raised, and to exceed the recommendation when they score.

Poorly written applications can also get high scores, particularly if the referees have given very strong recommendations, but when committee members don’t understand an application they will not argue for a higher score and they may even score slightly below the recommendation. The consequence is that the scores of poorly written applications tend to drift downwards. The effect is small, but if the score is close to the borderline, which is likely to be the case, given the tendency for conservative recommendations, a tiny drift can make the difference between success and failure.

A well written application helps you see that you need to improve your project.

A well-written application explains your project very clearly at two levels.

  • First it explains what makes the project important to the funder.
  • Then it explains what the project consists of, and why each part of the project is important.

If your project needs to be improved, you are likely to find one or both of these explanations unconvincing as you write them. If you do find yourself writing arguments that you find unconvincing, then you need to reexamine your project and work out how to make it more convincing. If your application does not convince you, it is unlikely to convince a committee.

 

Dealing with rejection 2: Salvage.

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Salvage is the only way forward after rejection.

The most difficult aspect of grant rejection, apart from not having a grant of course, is that your motivation to write new applications evaporates. That’s why it’s even more important than working out what was wrong with your rejected application to salvage what you can from the rejected application and start putting together a new one.

It is of course important to take the opportunity to learn what you can about what was wrong with the rejected application and I wrote about how to do that last week. However, whether or not you learn anything from it, you must come to terms with the fact that your rejected application is dead. Yes, dead. I’m sorry, I did say dead and I do mean dead. Mourn its passing but do not imagine that editing will reanimate its corpse. Use your editing pencil instead to mark useful parts to salvage and recycle.

 Salvage the Sub-Projects One at a Time

The most important part of the case for support is the description of the project. This should be at least half the case for support and it should be subdivided into three or four sub-projects. If it isn’t subdivided into projects then you can divide it up as you salvage it.

A sub-project is a discrete set of research activities designed to produce a definable outcome. You must divide your project into sub-projects in order to make it accessible for the grants committee. Remember, they are not experts in your field so they are unlikely to appreciate your project unless you can break it into bite-sized chunks.

If you cannot easily divide your research into sub-projects you can use the timeline of your project to divide it into phases. You will need to be able to say in a single sentence what you expect to be the outcome of each phase. If it’s impossible to do this you need to think again. You won’t get funding for a research project unless you can produce a succinct statement about what you expect to have happened by the time you are about a third of the way through it.   Of course you can use natural break-points in your project to divide it into phases that are not exactly equal, but if you want to get funded you must be able to give confidence that you will are able to plan the progress of your research.

Record Key Information About Each Sub-Project

To make it easy to re-use the sub-projects you need to record extra information with them. I suggested in a previous post that you should compile a catalogue of sub-projects with this information.

  • The most important thing to record is what the outcome would be if you were to carry out the sub-project. You should use this to draft a key sentence that describes the sub-project and states the outcome, unless you have already written such a sentence.
  • A list of the research activities that comprise the sub-project.
  • A list of the skills needed to carry out the sub-project.
  • A list of the resources needed to carry out the activities in the sub-project. This consists of 2 sub-lists:-
    • resources already available to you, and
    • resources you need the grant to pay for.

If you can salvage all of your sub-projects you should have about half what you need for another grant application. However I strongly recommend that you try to create a portfolio of sub-projects so that you can re-use them in different combinations.

 Useful Sentences and Phrases

The descriptions of the sub-projects are the only large chunks of text that I would advise you to salvage from the proposal. The other sub-sections will probably not be relevant if you restructure your project, which I strongly advise you to do. However, there are some snippets of text that could be worth salvaging from the rejected proposal.

  • Key sentences, other than those in the sections of text you have salvaged, are probably not worth salvaging. The ones that express the need to do the sub-projects you have salvaged will be useful but they are very easy to write. Any others should be viewed with suspicion because they have failed.
  • Sentences that refer to your research and project management skills and those of your team are quite difficult to write and should be salvaged if they read well. If your project is for BBSRC, NERC, MRC or EPSRC there will be whole sections of text describing the accomplishments of the different members of the project team that should be salvageable.
  • Descriptions of how existing resources will be used should also be salvaged, even when they are part of  sub-projects that you may not re-use.

Finally, a word of caution, be suspicious of all the text you are salvaging. Something in your grant application sank it and, unless your feedback made it very clear what it was, you should be cautious about the possibility of salvaging something that could sink the next one.

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.