This 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.
- Write down the main outcome of the project. Mark where it describes it in the text with a (1)
- 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?
- Is the importance of the outcome specific to this funder? Mark any references to the funder’s goals with (3).
- How many separate components does the research project have?
- Mark with (5-1), (5-2) etc, the sections of text that state the outcome of each component of the research project.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.