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March 22, 2012

Recalling the trials and tribulations of applying for research funding will stir the emotions of even seasoned academics.

"It's not a test, it's a contest," was one comment - attributed to a senior figure at a Canadian research council - left under the first of a two-part post on the topic by Adam Golberg on his blog Cash for Questions: Social Science Research Funding, Policy, and Development.

"Some application and assessment processes are for limited goods, and some are for unlimited goods," writes Mr Golberg, research manager at Nottingham University Business School. "PhD vivas and driving tests are assessments for unlimited goods - there's no limit on how many PhDs or driving licenses can be issued. Other processes are for limited goods - there is (usually)...only so many papers that a top journal [will] accept, and only so much grant money available."

Sometimes, Mr Golberg notes, academics are fragile despite their apparently impregnable exteriors. "Talking to researchers who have been unsuccessful with a particular application, they talk in terms of their research being rejected, or not being judged good enough," he writes. "They end up taking it rather personally."

But he stresses that grant funding rejections are not personal slights and do not mean that the applications are so bad they are completely unfundable. "It's those misconceived criticisms that unsuccessful applicants will remember," he continues. "And sometimes they will conclude that it's those wrong criticisms that are the reason for not getting funded. Well, maybe not. It's also possible that ... the reason that your project wasn't funded was simply that the money ran out before they reached yours."

In his second post, Mr Golberg offers advice on what to do following a rejection. His first tip is to keep trying. "Success rates are low for most schemes and most funders, so even if you've done everything right, the chances are against you," he writes. "To be successful, you need a degree of resilience to look for another funder or a new project, rather than embarking on a decade-long sulk, muttering plaintively...whenever the topic of external funding is raised."

Second, he asks pointedly: "Can you do the research anyway?" He is not questioning academics' ability, but rather the attendant logistical issues, such as whether an institution can offer the time for research or whether researchers are willing to cut down the scope of their project, or split the work with junior colleagues.

Mr Golberg's third recommendation is to consider which aspects of an application could have been better prepared.

"Give yourself more time, start earlier before the deadline, and don't make yourself rush it. If you did all this last time, remember that you did, and the difference that it made," he writes.

To reapply or not to reapply is the final question he considers.

"If you find yourself thinking about how much you might need to tinker with your unsuccessful project to make it a fresh submission, then the chances are that you'll be barking up the wrong tree," he writes. "Worst-case scenario is that it's thrown straight out without review, and best case is probably that you end up with something a little too contrived to stand any serious chance of funding."

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