The insecure scholar: Playing the application game

Grappling with the frustrating process of applying for grants

December 1, 2009

The hustling that I wrote about in last week’s column may be starting to pay off. After a lot of emails, lunches and coffees, I’ve certainly got the message out – I’m here and I’m open for business.

The fact is that what I’m offering is pretty difficult to turn down. Most academics are under tremendous pressure to bring in money and when a slightly desperate, mid-career researcher with a reasonable track record turns up at their door, they aren’t going to turn me away. When I emphasise that I will do the dirty work of filling in forms in return for their institutional support, I become impossible to turn down.

I’ve boiled my inchoate research interests down to three or four fairly eye-catching ideas that tick a lot of boxes in terms of what’s in vogue within my subject area and what Whitehall is interested in this week. In many ways it’s a fairly cynical activity. If I had a secure position and if obtaining research funding were less of a life-or-death matter, then perhaps I’d be more courageous about what grants I’d apply for.

For the moment though, I’ve abandoned my more groundbreaking research ideas in favour of proposals that have clear and immediate applicability; ones that push people’s buttons (in a good way). I’m playing my part in the slow strangulation of innovative blue-skies research – but hey, I’ve got to eat, right? In any case, it’s not that the ideas I have are without use, even if they play it safe.

Having fundable ideas and receiving positive responses to my ideas from potential academic partners is only the start of a very long process. As any academic who has applied for funding (and these days that means most of us) knows, completing research grant forms takes time and effort.

There are two aspects of the process that I particularly loathe. First, there is the problem of overlap between questions. Most research council and private foundation forms are peppered with repeated demands for similar bits of information, presented with a slightly different emphasis. So you may be asked to detail “Beneficiaries” and then give a “Communications Strategy”; you may be asked to salami-slice your proposal into discrete questions and offer a “Case for Support” that pretty much includes everything you’ve already said.

Instead of being invited to simply put your case, you are asked to be a contortionist and find multiple ways of twisting the same message into different versions.

The second thing I find hard to tolerate is the need to effectively do research in order to get research funding. An important part of any application is the literature review where you demonstrate the “gap in the market” you propose to fill. Now I freely accept that this pretty much has to be on the form, but it makes for a terribly time-consuming process. Drafting the proposal requires as much knowledge of the subject and as much subtlety in execution as any journal article.

And there’s the rub: I’m supposed to be working on my own research project at the moment, not doing the research for the next one. I’m struggling to finish the project and my grant runs out in a few short weeks. Yet for financial reasons I need the gap between this grant and the next one to be as short as possible, which means I should really be applying right now.

But finding the time isn’t the only difficulty. I have to decide which project is most fundable by which funding body. All funders work differently, with various deadlines and priorities. They require different levels of detail, with European funding for example being notoriously difficult to apply for. They have different levels of prestige, with research grants from charitable bodies – which often have the simplest procedures – often lacking the halo of “full economic costing” respectability.

It would help if I had strong backing from a university. My own research office is helpful enough but as I’ve explained in an earlier column, my head of department doesn’t want me to lengthen my contract with further funding applications. Academics at other universities may be happy to name me and I am trying to negotiate an honorary position somewhere, but this doesn’t mean they will pull the stops out to share the workload.

So: to apply now or not to apply now? Whom to apply to? With what partner? For what project? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

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