Tag Archives: Strategy

The Trap of the Never-Ending Grant Application


I wouldn’t start from here……..

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.

How Often Should you Write Research Grant Applications?

18466820_sThis 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.