The key to writing anything quickly is knowing what you have to write.
One of the things that puts people off writing research grants is that writing a grant can be a never-ending nightmare. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Last month I helped a client, let’s call him Dr B, to write a research council grant application in 2 weeks. It was interesting for me because it was a model of how to write with the minimum of effort – by either of us. Dr B tells me that he spent only about half of the working day on the application during the 2 week period when he wrote it. I spent between 2 and 3 hours helping him.
The clock started on September 3rd when Dr B sent me a draft set of 10 key sentences and a question about whether to follow my advice, to state the aims and objectives in the introduction, or whether to follow the funder’s guidelines for a case for support which suggests that aims and objectives form part of the description of the project.
I edited the sentences and sent an email suggesting that Dr B could follow both my advice and the funder’s guidelines. I think that it is essential to state the aims and objectives – and not much else – in the introduction to the case for support and also in the summary, so that the reader knows what to expect. And if the funder recommends that you state the aims and objectives at the start of the description of the research project then its fine to do that although I would suggest that you only format them as Aims and Objectives once. In other places you can use phrases like ‘We need to know’ for the aims and ‘In order to discover X we will do Y’ for the objectives.
I think that editing and drafting my email took less than 20 minutes. It can’t have taken much more because the email logs show my response 31 minutes after Dr B’s query. A few days later Dr B promised to send me a draft on the 15th and we made an appointment to speak about it on the 16th. The draft arrived on time and I spent about an hour and a half reading it and annotating it. Then Dr B phoned and we spent an hour discussing my suggested changes which took him less than a day to implement. We also kicked around some ideas that will be the subject of his next grant proposal.
The key to writing anything quickly is knowing what you have to write. That is why it is so useful to start by writing the key sentences. They define the grant application. Each of them begins a major section of the proposal. These sections justify the bald assertions in the key sentences and make the reader believe that they are true. The key sentences that define the background must be justified with evidence; those that define the project must be justified with descriptive detail.
Writing the key sentences should only take you a couple of hours. If you can’t write the key sentences in a couple of hours then you need to do some more thinking about your project. That can take days, weeks, or months, but until you have done it you are not ready to start writing a grant application.
Dr B is ready. I had an email from him last week. He has been thinking about the ideas we kicked around when we were discussing the edits to his last application. He wants to send me a set of key sentences next week!
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 three aims, which are things that we need to discover or understand in order to achieve the goal;
the general research approach;
about three 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.
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 at the beginning. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
In this post I want to tell you how you can be prepared to write a grant application quickly and with minimum effort. Last week I warned you about the trap of the never-ending grant application. This week I am telling you how you can make sure you never fall into it.
The essence of the approach is that you use a process that I call ‘outlining’ to compile a personal catalogue of possible research sub-projects. Each sub-project consists of a piece of research that you would like to do, but for which you don’t currently have the time or the resources. If you can create a suitable catalogue you will be able to design a viable research project very quickly. If you cannot create such a catalogue, you are not ready to write a grant application and you should not waste the time.
This approach is the easiest way to discover whether you are able to start writing the description of a research project. I will discuss how you create the basic building block of your research project, a sub-project, and how you create a catalogue of sub-projects.
The definition of a sub-project is very flexible and is very much up to you. We point out in the book, The Research Funding Toolkit, that a research project is much easier to write about if it can be broken down into about four components. These components are the sub-projects. So for the 2-3 year research project of a typical grant-application a sub-project will be about 6 plus or minus 2 months full-time research.
Sub-projects should be conceptually discrete but they might overlap in time and in resources. For example, imagine a psychology research project to test whether particular numerical and verbal skills develop at different rates in boys and girls. It might consist of a series of discrete sub-projects each of which measures a different set of numerical and verbal skills. Each sub-project can be defined in terms of what research will be done, what resources will be needed and what the sub-project will discover. However, the sub-projects might well be carried out during the same time period using the same equipment.
The point of the sub-project is that, when you are explaining a big research project, it is very helpful to break it down into a small number of discrete components, which together build up into a significant package. And when you are trying to design a significant research project, it is usually easier to build it up out of a number of sub-projects.
In compiling the kind of catalogue you need for writing research grants it is essential to record 5 sets of information about each sub-project. These are:-
What the sub-project will discover or establish. Ideally a sub-project will discover something that can be expressed in a single sentence. For example, one of the sub-projects in our hypothetical psychology project might establish whether ability to solve arithmetic problems is equally related with ability to write complex sentences in boys and girls.
What activities the sub-project consists of. For example, our hypothetical sub-project might involve the design of testing materials; the development of suitable testing apparatus; the selection of a suitable group of schools to be involved in the project; liaison with the schools; selection and screening of suitable children within each school; administration of the tests; processing of test results; writing of reports and papers.
What skills are needed to carry out the activities.
What resources will be used in the sub-project. This should be separated into two lists, resources that are already available and new resources that must be paid for by the grant. These lists should go beyond the obvious resources of equipment and consumables and include things like your time and the time of other staff who would be involved, which should be quantified both because some funders will treat it as a cost that can be funded from the grant and because your employer may need to know what they are committing to the project. They should also include facilities that may be needed like laboratories. In our hypothetical sub-project on child development it could also include the relationships which you will have established with schools that provide you with research participants – if you have them, otherwise you will need to budget for the work that must be done to build such relationships.
These 5 lists are what I call the ‘outline’. They include all the information you will need about a sub-project in order to write about it as part of a research grant. I strongly recommend that you develop the habit of turning your ideas about possible research projects into a catalogue of sub-projects. The essence of the outline is that you maintain the 5 lists for each sub-project. As soon as you have a few sub-projects you can consider whether you have enough to generate a coherent and fundable research project. I will tell you how to make that decision in my next post.
This post sets out some advice for academics on how often you should submit research grant applications. The advice I give is not what most people expect to hear from a dean, so I will start by stating what I think is an important principle and contradicting a common idea about what deans think.
The principle is that a good university strategy can only work if it promotes strategies that are good for individuals within the university. So whatever a university strategy requires academics to do in terms of submitting grant applications has to be beneficial to those academics. It follows from this that, contrary to a widely voiced complaint, no sensible university wants academics to waste valuable time writing grant applications that have a very high probability of failure.
I don’t want to dwell here on cases where the probability of failure is high because of inexperience or lack of skill. I have argued in another post that nobody should start writing a grant application unless they have the skill to write a good description of the research project. I will also be happy to discuss ways in which people can improve their skills if they need to do so in order to pursue a sensible strategy, but not right now. Right now I want to concentrate on explaining what is a sensible strategy for an individual to adopt. In line with the principle I outlined above, I will also argue that university strategies should support individuals and encourage them to adopt good individual strategies.
A sensible grant application strategy has to start by asking whether you yourself will need a new grant around the time that you would get the result of the application. We can consider how you answer that question elsewhere but the important point is that if the answer is no, you shouldn’t write any grant applications at all. On the other hand, if the answer is yes, you need a strategy that will get you a grant quickly. To get a grant quickly you will need to submit several applications in quick succession.
The failure rate makes it necessary to submit several applications to be reasonably certain of securing a grant. Even the best-written grant applications from the strongest applicants have a reasonably high chance of failure – maybe as high as 50%. This means it would be foolish to risk too much on a single application – or to be too disappointed by a single failure. I think that the best strategy is to submit four or five grant applications in quick succession, all based on the same set of ideas. Then, if you get five straight rejections, you can be reasonably sure that it is time to change your approach.
I have seen many departmental research strategies recommend that academic staff should write one grant application every year. This is a very poor strategy for individuals. Writing one grant application per year is a recipe for misery.
It’s not hard to understand why this should be. As I pointed out above, most grant applications get rejected. The decision process takes about 6 months. As I have said many times, grant rejections are utterly demoralising. It takes months to recover. Submitting another grant application within six months of a rejection would be a superhuman effort of will. With rejection rates approaching 90%, a strategy of submitting one grant application every year gives an excellent chance of spending several years alternating between demoralisation over each new rejection and anxiety about the next potential rejection.
Another important point is that, if you only submit one grant application per year, it takes too long to get evidence that you need to change your approach. You cannot tell on the basis of a single rejection that a particular set of ideas is unlikely to get funded. You really need four or five straight rejections. Then you can be reasonably sure. If your strategy is to make annual applications it could take five or 6 years to discover that you need to change your ideas. On the other hand, if you follow the strategy that I recommend, you will know within a year.
So I think the best strategy for an individual is straightforward. You shouldn’t write any grant applications until you need a new grant. As soon as you do need a new grant, you need to write several grant applications very quickly. The best strategy for a university is harder to define but one thing is clear. Your university should have a strategy that supports you to make and implement the best decisions for your individual strategy.
This post was also posted in the Russell Dean blog, which has been discontinued.