This post outlines my theory of the trap of the never-ending grant application. It was first posted on the Research Funding Toolkit Blog.
There’s a very old joke about a tourist, driving in Ireland, who asked the way to Dublin. “If I were driving to Dublin” was the response, “I wouldn’t be starting from here.” In a metaphorical sense, my theory tells you what the Irishman told the tourist. It tells you whether you are in the right place to start writing a grant application.
If you are not in the right place, it’s better not to start writing. You will almost certainly never finish. Even if, by a herculean effort of will, you do finish the grant application, you should not get your hopes up. It will almost certainly be no good.
The theory is based on my own observations but I think it explains a lot of anecdotal stuff that is out there. The main observation is that grant-writing workshops with self-selected participants often have a very low success rate. I don’t think this is because people don’t have the time to write. If you are ready to write a grant application there is no reason that the writing should take more than a couple of weeks. I have seen dedicated, hard-working colleagues show up month after month at grant-writing workshops and never finish a grant application.
My analysis of the drafts of these still-born grant applications was also informative. Typically they consist of a good deal of writing about the research question and not much about the research project. Extreme cases, and I have seen a few, say nothing whatsoever about the research project. They are all about the question and how important it is.
Reading these malformed drafts has led to my theory of the trap of the never-ending grant application, which can be stated in a single sentence. Here it is, in bold.
It is impossible to make effective progress in writing a grant application unless you are in a position to write a good description of the research project at the outset.
It follows directly from the theory that if you do start writing a grant application without being in a position to write a good description of the project, you will never finish because you cannot make effective progress. You might just produce a non-viable application, crippled by hypertrophy of the background information sections and an atrophied description of the project.
Sadly, this malformation is likely to occur even if, after writing the background information sections, you manage to put yourself in a position to write a good description of the research project. The reason is that unless the background sections are constrained by knowing exactly what project you are trying to justify, they expand, massively. They do not leave enough space to describe the research project adequately.
Trying to salvage an over-long case for support by reducing the font size, abbreviating everything, and eradicating whitespace is a bad plan. What is needed is a fresh start. Start by describing the project properly and then tailor the background sections to justify it and nothing else.
My view is that much of the heartache, frustration and wasted effort connected with grant applications could be avoided by making sure that you never make the mistake of starting writing until you are ready to describe your research project. And if you have made this mistake, even if you are close to finishing the case for support, you should get someone that you really trust to read it before you submit it.
Be careful who you ask: if you have produced a weak grant application at huge effort, very few people will dare to tell you that what you have written is no good. Instead, they will find something nice to say about it and encourage you to submit it and let the funding agency tell you it is not good enough. Only if you are very lucky will you get feedback from someone brave enough to tell you that you need to start again. Of course you may read this post carefully and realise that for yourself.
In my next post I will write about how you to lay the ground for being able to describe any research project you can do. With the right approach, I think that it is possible not only to get to the right place to start writing a grant, but to live there. Of course if you are ready now then you might as well get cracking.