Put polish on your proposal

Researchers seeking an edge in the grant race are turning to expert help, writes Zoe Corbyn

May 15, 2008

Individual academics and universities are turning to workshops and courses in the form of "grant clinics" to give their applications an edge as the pressure to attract research funding grows more intense.

The Missenden Centre, which is part of Bucks New University, holds not-for-profit development courses for academics across many areas. Its director is John Wakeford, a retired sociology scholar turned consultant. He leads two-day workshops on "successful bidding for research funding" at the centre - one ran last week - and he also holds about 15 courses a year in different universities.

Most of those who sign up are early-career researchers, he said, but the course is also a draw for academics in disciplines such as the creative arts who have not traditionally sought research grants but are increasingly being asked to do so by their institutions.

The course is in demand because it takes a "hands-on approach", said Dr Wakeford, and it is run by experienced academics. Dr Wakeford is a former director of the University of Lancaster's School of Independent Studies, and he is joined by two other practising academics.

The workshop begins by outlining the research landscape and success rates. Dr Wakeford uses the data to note that "even Oxford and Cambridge have a failure rate" and that no one should be discouraged by a rejection. Next there is a review of unsuccessful research bids before participants start analysing their own drafts or rejected proposals.

"We try to get participants to see it from a very different perspective - that of a potential funder that needs persuading," Dr Wakeford said. "The majority of any panel are not experts. They are people who need to understand what the research is about and how the world would be different if it is funded."

His tips for improving success rates include applying to multiple funding bodies simultaneously. It is a "great myth" that you can apply to only one at a time, he said. He also advises participants to think hard before applying to "initiatives", in which research objectives have already been set out, because they can be "very oversubscribed". He said: "You may be statistically better putting your great idea in under open competition rather than modifying it to fit within an initiative."

Dr Wakeford also suggests approaching departmental colleagues for advice. In the case of collaborations, he tells researchers to establish at the outset a clear bid leader who will write the proposal, and to make contingency plans. "What happens if Dr X leaves or there is a falling out among participants? It frequently happens," he said.

Sarah Andrew, the dean of applied and health sciences at the University of Chester, is the specialist on science grants, while Robert Crawshaw, a senior lecturer in French studies at Lancaster University, is the humanities grants specialist.

Professor Andrew brings experience of winning grants from a "non-research-intensive" university. She counsels taking close note of reviewer criticisms of unsuccessful proposals and looking outside the usual funding channels. "Regional development agencies have funding for various projects and will even fund PhD students," she said.

Professor Andrew believes that the most valuable aspect of the workshop is that it allows participants time to contemplate their approach.

One social sciences researcher who had just won funding said the workshop helped her focus on the topic rather than her personal circumstances. "It is very scary sharing your proposal, but the workshop was very beneficial," she reflected.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

The workshop "Successful bidding for research funding" is run two or three times a year and costs £490. It is next scheduled for 13-14 November.

- See: www.missendencentre.co.uk and www.johnwakeford.com

HOW TO CRAFT A GRANT APPLICATION

PREPARATION

- Clear your diary for a month

- Review colleagues' applications

- Agree responsibilities with collaborators

- Do a risk assessment and plan for all events

- Apply to several funding bodies at once

- Be able to explain why a funding body should want to pay for your research

- Be able to explain how the world would be different if your research were funded

WRITING

- Make every word count

- Use a positive tone; remove negative words and conditionals

- Emphasise challenges and opportunities rather than problems and difficulties

- Keep sentences short

- Try draft on your mum

IF UNSUCCESSFUL

- Examine the reviewers' criticisms. If they have misinterpreted the research or the work to be done, ask yourself why

- Remember that the success rate is about 25 per cent.

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