Tag Archives: We need to know

Put some meat in your feedback sandwich

7213133_s

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 four aims, which are things that we need to discover or understand in order to achieve the goal;
  • the general research approach;
  • about four 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.

Opening sentence

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 in the right place. 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.

Importance sentence

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 what  we refer to in the book  as the ‘competence proposition’, which is 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.

Aims

The aims of the project should be stated immediately after the importance sentence. If you don’t know the difference between aims and objectives (surprisingly, the Oxford Dictionary is rather little help: its definition of ‘objective’  is ‘thing aimed at’), read this excellent post on Pat Thomson’s blog.

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.

Dissemination

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.

Review a Research Grant Application in Five Minutes

PeerReviewCartoon

Cartoon by Nick D Kim, http://strange-matter.net

This post tells you how to do a five-minute review of a research grant application. If you are asked to comment on a grant application by a friend or colleague, you should begin with this five minute review. In 95% of cases it will be all you need to do. Except create the feedback sandwich of course.

If you are writing a grant application, before you ask anybody else to read it you should spend five minutes reviewing it yourself. Far too many of the grant applications that I get asked to read take me a lot less than five minutes to review. Then it takes several days to construct a palatable feedback sandwich with the filling  “rewrite this completely”.

I don’t say you can review the detailed content of a grant application in five minutes. That takes longer and I will write about how to do it quickly in a future post. However, five minutes is plenty of time to review the framework of the case for support and check that it is appropriately used.

The framework is important for two reasons. First, if it is good, it tells the reader the essential story of your grant application very quickly. Remember, most readers only want to know the essential story. Second, the framework guides the reader to the detailed content that supports and justifies the essential story, so that the detail can be reviewed effectively and quickly.

‘Summary Sentence’

The most important part of the framework is a summary sentence. This should say what the project will achieve and enough about how it will achieve it to give a bit of distinctiveness and a bit of plausibility. It is essentially the elevator pitch, except that instead of taking 30 seconds to 2 minutes to say it or read it, it should take more like 15 seconds. The summary sentence should be the first sentence of the introduction, so it should take no time to find it, you still have 4 minutes 45 seconds left.

If you read my last post you will recognise that the summary sentence is what I refer to there as the first key sentence. So it will come as no surprise that you should check that the summary sentence is re-used as the first sentence of the part of the case for support that sets out the background to the research project (In line with previous posts  I am going to refer to this as the “Background” although different funders call it different names). Let’s allow 15 seconds to do that. 4 minutes 30 seconds left.

‘Importance Sentence’

Now you should spend 20 seconds checking the second sentence of the introduction. It’s the importance sentence. It should say something about why it is important to achieve whatever the project will achieve. Make a mental note about whether the importance sentence has a practical element. Does it mention a real world problem – childhood cancer, the economy, forgetfulness in old-age, or some such. It’s not essential that there is a practical element to the importance sentence but it has implications for the dissemination sentence, which you will review in a few minutes time.

As soon as you have checked the importance sentence for practical content, jump to the background section and check that the importance sentence is repeated there. This is just a quick glance, so it should only take you 10 seconds. You have 4 minutes left.

‘Aims Sentences’

Go back to the introduction. Immediately after the importance sentence there should be a set of aims sentences, about four sentences setting out the aims of the project. The aims sentences should state things that we need to know, understand, characterise or in some way discover. The aims sentences could be preceded by a linking or framing sentence and they could easily be formatted as bullet points. Checking that the aims sentences are in the right place should take you 10 seconds. Do not look at the content of the aims sentences yet. Wait 30 seconds until we get to the sub-project overview sentences.

Now you should check the next sentence of the introduction. It should be the ‘project overview sentence’.

Project overview Sentence.

The project overview sentence gives a simple one-sentence overview of the project. It might also be structured as a linking sentence to the four or so sub-project overview sentences, which should immediately follow it and which could appear as bullet points and could be expressed as objectives. It should take you 30 seconds to read the project overview sentence and 20 more to check that it appears again to introduce the part of the case for support that gives the detailed description of the research methods and of the project.

As Jacqueline Aldridge points out in the Research Funding Toolkit blog,  the overview sentence often gets buried at the end of the section that it should introduce.

Next you can spend 10 seconds checking that the sub-project overview sentences follow the project overview sentence. Now you are ready to check their content against the content of the corresponding aims sentences.

Sub-project overview sentences; content of aims sentences

Each aims sentence should link logically to the corresponding sub-project overview sentence in the following way. The aims sentence should say “We need to know X”. The sub-project overview sentence should give a very brief description of the research in the sub-project and should end with a clause that says “this will tell us X“.

The aims sentences should be repeated in the background. Each of them should introduce a discussion of the evidence that supports the assertion that this is an important aim.

The sub-project overview sentences should be repeated in the part of the case for support that describes the project in detail. Each of them should introduce the detailed description of the corresponding sub-project.

This checking and matching will probably take nearly a minute to do for the first aim/sub-project overview sentence pair but the others should be much quicker. It’s just a matching exercise after all. Lets assume it takes 2 minutes. You have a minute left, and only the dissemination sentence to check.

The dissemination sentence

The last sentence of the introduction should say what will be done with the results. It is the dissemination sentence. You need to check that it is repeated in the description of the project as the introduction to a section on dissemination. You also need to check that, if the importance sentence has a practical component then the dissemination must have a corresponding practical element. For example, if the project is going to discover a cure for a disease, the dissemination needs to promote the use of the cure in some way. As a general rule there must be a plan to disseminate the results in a way that makes it likely that the claimed practical benefit will be realised.

What to do with the outcome of the review

Only about 5% of grant applications will pass this five minute review. If you are reviewing a grant application for someone else and it passes, it should be pretty easy to review the detailed content. I’ll give some helpful pointers in a future post. It goes without saying that if the grant you are reviewing is yours, it is safe to give it to someone to review.

In the more likely case that the grant application fails the review, then it needs rewriting. If it’s yours, that’s pretty simple. Read my post from last week. Write the 12 key sentences and use them to organise the text you have already written. If you can’t write the 12 key sentences then you shouldn’t be writing a research grant.

If the grant application is not yours, you need to write a feedback sandwich. Basically the grant needs to be rewritten before it’s worth looking at the detailed content. I’ll say something about how to do this in my next post but whatever you do don’t use the phrase “completely rewrite”.

 

Get the Framework in Place – Quickly

Framework

In this post I want to describe the framework of a grant application. Its components are the key sentences in the case for support that define its essential message. I will explain what the sentences are and how you use them to build the framework. Then I want to explain how you can draft the sentences very very quickly.

The essential message of a grant application’s case for support is carried in ten key sentences, which make the case in headlines. The rest of the document fleshes out that case, provides evidence and makes it believable. But the key sentences set out what has to be believed. They say what the research project will achieve, why it is important, how it will achieve its goal and what you will do with the results. That is the sense in which they carry the essential message.

So what are the 10 key sentences?

Sentence 1 is very important. Its function is to make the reader want to read on by giving them a sense of what your research project will achieve. A good way to do this is to state the overall outcome of the project and to specify enough detail about the project to make it seem both feasible and distinctive. For example, the sentence “This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke based on a family of synthetic metabolic inhibitors that our group has discovered, tested and synthesised” does all this. Like many introductory sentences, it is quite long. The length is due to extra information that makes it clear both what the approach is and that the project is building on previous work by the applicants. The project would have seemed less feasible and less distinctive if the sentence had stopped at the word “stroke“.

Sentence 2 should give evidence that the problem to be solved is important. A good sentence 2 (assuming it’s true) would be “There are 152000 strokes per year  and over 600,000 disabled stroke survivors in the UK: a suitable metabolic inhibitor could reduce the disability caused by stroke.” It is a common mistake to say something like this in the first sentence but it does not engage the reader so effectively as a promise that the project will bring us closer to solving the problem.

Sentences 3-5 state that we need the outcomes of the research project. In order to make it easy to explain your project it is best to break it into 3 sub-projects, each of which will have a clear outcome. Before you describe the project, sentences 3-5 sell the project to the reader by stating  that each of the outcomes is important. Each of the sentences can be a simple statement that “We need to know” whatever the sub-project will discover.

Sentence 6 introduces the research project. It is an introductory sentence and it can help to add some complexity to make the project seem more feasible and more distinctive. For example, the hypothetical stroke project would be helped by some reference to the achievements of the research team or to the distinctive facilities available.

Sentences 7-9 describe each of the sub-projects. Each sentence says what the sub-project consists of and what its outcome will be. It is crucial that the outcomes match exactly the outcomes sentences 3-5 said were important.

Sentence 10 says something about what will be done with the outcomes to maximise the benefit that will accrue from the project.

Where do the key sentences appear?

Each of the key sentences should be used three times. First they appear consecutively in the introduction of the case for support. The introduction may also include some linking statements but no other substantive messages.

The sentences appear again in the main body of the case for support. This time each sentence introduces a significant section of text that fleshes out and justifies its message.

Third, the summary of the project should be virtually an exact copy of the introduction to the case for support.

How do you write the key sentences quickly?

As I will explain below, it should be possible to produce first drafts of the key sentences in less than an hour. I recommend that you use the draft key sentences as a framework for writing the two main sections of the case for support, the background and the description of the research project.

The first sentences to write are sentences 7-9. Each one states what research you will do in one of your sub-projects and what the outcome of that research will be. Usually the outcome will be that you will know something or understand something that currently is not known or understood. For example, if you were carrying out a project on the importance of writing in the practice of social work, sentence 7 might be:-

We will analyse and quantify texts and explore how writing is being managed alongside other commitments in order to discover the institutional writing demands of contemporary social work.

If you have worked out what your project will consist of and why it is worth doing then it should be really easy to write sentences 7-9. And if you haven’t, you shouldn’t be writing, you should be designing your project.

As soon as you have written sentences 7-9 you need to write sentences 3-5. Each of these sentences has to state the reason that the outcome of one of your sub-projects is important. It should use exactly the same wording to describe that outcome as its corresponding sentence 7-9. So the sentence 3 corresponding to the sentence 7 above could say something like:-

We need to know the institutional writing demands of contemporary social work so that we can identify the writing skills that social workers need.

Notice that the description of what the sub-project will discover appears in exactly the same words in both sentences.

Sentence 6 should also be fairly easy. It is a descriptive sentence that summarises the main features of the research project. These features are itemised in the first clauses of each of the sentences 7-9. You simply need an overarching summary. It should only take you a couple of minutes.

If you haven’t thought hard about dissemination it will be impossible to draft the definitive version of sentence 10 at this stage. However, you should force yourself to write something quickly now. What you write may be rather unconvincing at this stage, but the effort of writing it will be a stimulus for you to think about that phase of the project as you flesh out the case for support. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes on it at this stage.

Now it is time for sentence 1. This is the hardest sentence to write and it’s nearly impossible if you try to write it too soon. It should be pretty easy now because you have written sentences 3-10. The ideal form of sentence 1 is that it states a big question to which all of your sub-projects contribute. It then adds some detail about how you will do the project. This detail should be drawn from sentence 6. With the preparation you have done, sentence 1 should take no more than 10 minutes.

Don’t worry that your sub-projects don’t answer the big question completely. They never do. The knack is to find a big question that fits loosely, but not too loosely, around your project. It has to be clear that your project will contribute to answering the big question you have chosen. It is accepted that there is a trade-off between how completely you answer the question and how big it is – everybody knows that it took more than one research project grant to find the Higgs particle.  You cope with the fact that your project will not answer your big question completely by choosing your words carefully. Notice that, in my sentence 1, I have been careful to use the term “potential treatment”. It would be implausible to claim that the project would develop an actual treatment.

Once you have a draft of sentence 1, sentence 2 should be very quick and easy to draft. All you need to do is to give a reason that your contribution to answering the big question is important.  This reason should be a fact about the world (the If drafting sentence 2 takes you more than a minute then you need to redraft sentence 1. Even with a redraft, you should have your framework well within the hour. If it takes you more than two hours, then you are not ready to write the grant. Find out how to get ready by reading this post.

Are you ready to start?

Starting Line Photo

Starting Line

In this post I will tell you how to decide whether you should start writing a grant application. In essence it’s about how to check whether you have a viable, fundable research project before you go to the trouble of writing the grant application.

This is the third in a series of posts prompted by a desire to show people the easiest possible way to write a research grant application really quickly. I also want to help people avoid wasting time by trying to write grant applications that are unlikely to be finished and virtually certain to be rejected.

In the first post in the series, I argued that you should not start writing until you are ready to write the description of your research project. For me this is a no-brainer. It’s not just that I have seen many people waste years writing flabby, no-hoper grant applications that carefully define a big question and fail to say how they will answer it. It’s more fundamental. The whole point of a grant application is that it is an attempt to sell a research project to a funding body. How can you start trying to sell something before you can say what it is?

In the second post in the series, I advised that a good way to make sure that you are always ready to write a research project at short notice, is to use a process that I call ‘outlining’ to maintain an outline, a catalogue of possible sub-projects. A sub-project is a discrete piece of research; three or four sub-projects make a nice, saleable research project.

I explained that the outline consists of five lists for each sub-project:-

  • a list of discoveries or outcomes, what each sub-project will achieve;
  • a list of the activities that will be carried out in order to make the discovery;
  • a list of the skills that will be needed to carry out the activities;
  • a list of the resources that will be needed to carry out the activities.
      • The resource list will be split into two sub-lists. The first will list the resources that will be paid for by the grant and the second will list those that will be, or have already been, paid for by the institution. It is often necessary to move items between these two sub-lists because funders have different rules about what resources they will pay for.

Whether or not you maintain a catalogue of sub-projects, you should prepare an outline of your proposed research project before you begin to write bout it. That is, you should compile the 5 lists of information for the three or four sub-projects in your proposed research project.

The advantage of using an outline is that it makes the task of writing and submitting a grant much more efficient. The outline contains the information you need for the three main tasks involved in writing and submitting a grant application.

  • It contains the information you need to check the viability of your proposed project, which is the subject of this post.
  • It contains the information you need to negotiate, and to calculate in detail,  the resourcing of the project.
  • It contains essential information that must be used in writing the project.

How to test your project before you start.

To check the viability of your project you should ask the questions below. All of these questions will be asked, either by the funder or by your institution, after your grant application is written. It will save time to ask them now and make sure that the answers are appropriate before you start writing. I have set out the questions in sections according to the list that has the information needed to answer them. The sections are in the order resources, activities, skills and discoveries.

Resources

  • Are all the resources being requested allowable under the chosen funding scheme?
    • If not, you have three choices. Find a different funder; find a different source of funds to pay for the ineligible resources; or change the sub-project for one that doesn’t need them.
    • Don’t make the mistake of assuming that an especially persuasive application will persuade the funder to bend the rules.
  • Will the resources to be provided by the institution definitely be available to the project?
    • Now is the time to check with your line manager or Head of Department.
    • Don’t forget to include your time if you have a salaried position.
    • Don’t forget the research and office space and equipment that will be needed for the research and the researchers.
  • Is the grant requested the right size?
    • This is not just a matter of whether it is within the stated limits of the funding scheme for which you are applying. It should be within the typical range both for the scheme and for an applicant of your standing. Your institution’s research office, or the funding body will usually be happy to give you good advice on this.
    • If your grant is the wrong size, do not make the mistake of trying to fix it by changing the resource list: change the whole project by scaling up or scaling down sub-projects until you have a project that is the right size.
  • Is the complete set of resources adequate to carry out all the activities of the project?
    • It is very common for grants to be rejected outright because of a mismatch.
    • Asking for too little is definitely worse than asking for too much but neither is good.

 Activities

  • Will the specified activities lead to the specified outcomes?
    • This is the heart and soul of the research proposal. You sell the project on the basis of the outcomes it will produce (see below). You will have to write a description of the project that will convince the reader that what you plan to do will do will produce the outcomes you claim. You will only be able to convince them if your description is comprehensive.
  • Can all the activities be done within the specified times?
    • It is a common and fatal mistake to promise far too much and to be vague about how it will get done. It is important to be realistic about what can be done by ordinary mortals in modest time-frames.
    •  And remember it is important to adjust the project rather than to make unrealistic promises about how long it will take.

Skills

  • Does the project team have all the skills?
    • The test that a grants’ committee will apply is whether the research team has peer-reviewed publications that demonstrate the use of the skills. If not, then you need to enhance your team or reduce your project. If you can’t do that, write papers, not a grant.
  • Are the skills sufficient to carry out the activities?
  • Do the skills justify the staff to be paid for by the grant?
    • If you want to hire a post-doc to do a project, it will need to be clear that advanced research skills are part of the project. 

Discoveries or Outcomes

  • Do we need to know that?
    • Are the research outcomes important enough to deserve funding? Funding agencies all have their own statements about their criteria for evaluating research outcomes. Typically they are  interested in discoveries that advance understanding in an important subject or field of study, or that will improve health or economic or social well-being. Although you don’t need chapter and verse at this stage you do need to be reasonably certain that your research will lead to new knowledge or understanding that will have an impact on your field or on society, or on both.
    • It is important that none of your sub-projects could possibly produce results that would render the other sub-projects pointless. For example a project that starts by isolating the bacterium responsible for a disease and then doing lots of experiments to understand the physiology of the bacterium and how the disease can be cured or prevented will fail at the first step if the bacterium cannot be isolated. Many projects fail to get funded because they appear to have this kind of dependency between the early and late phases.
    • Do not claim that your research will show everybody else is wrong, even if you think it will. It is better to put a positive spin on the current state of knowledge and explain how your work will advance it.

So what?

Of course all these questions can, and should, be asked by somebody reading your grant application after it is written. See, for example, Jacqueline Aldridge’s post on 5 minute peer-review on the Research Funding Toolkit Blog.  However, by asking the right questions before you start writing you make it easier to write a good grant application quickly. You also make it possible to begin the detailed work necessary to make sure that your research project is properly resourced and costed as soon as you start writing it, rather than after you have finished. Many grant applications have been compromised by the need to make hasty last-minute adjustments because of difficulties about resourcing that only became apparent after the writing was done.

Next week I will explain how, using the information in the outline of your research project, you should be able to sketch out your case for support in a couple of hours.