I want you to imagine a hostile panel. They are reading your proposal. They are ridiculing your Case for Support, tearing your Data Management Plan to shreds. They are shaking their heads in bewilderment at your Justification of Resources. They are laughing at your CV.
I want you to imagine their feedback. How did you go so wrong? What have they picked apart? Where’s the weak spot that they dug their nasty little claws in?
I want you to imagine sitting at a desk, having to rewrite the proposal. You’re beaten, but not broken. You’re smarter than you were. You can take the horror of your experience and begin again. How are you going to write your next submission? How does adversity make you stronger? Perhaps such an imaginary exercise will save you from having to do it for real.
When I am filling out an application or a form of any kind, I have a tendency to fill in all the bits that are easy for me and leave the difficult stuff to the end. When I’ve filled in a box that was no fun to fill in, I want to get rid of that form as soon as possible. If I’m not happy with what I’ve written, I don’t like looking at it again, but perhaps I should.
Or maybe you’re very confident in what you’re putting down on paper. You’ve done the work, you’ve been through the peer review process internally: you deserve to be funded.
But not everyone that deserves to be funded gets funded. From the figures released by ESRC in November 2014, it seems that only a quarter of proposals to their open, responsive mode that “deserve funding” (that is, ranked 7 or above by ESRC’s panels) were actually funded. So what makes the difference?
We know that our funders are squeezed. We know that there’s pressure all around to make sure that they only fund the best proposals that come to them. We also realise that the reviewers are not the creatures of our nightmares, but honest, appreciative colleagues who have the unenviable task of ranking dissimilar proposals. Applying for grants has become, as in Tony D’Amato’s Any Given Sunday speech, “a game of inches”. These inches that we need are “everywhere around us” and “we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the […] difference between winning and losing”.
And that’s where we come back to your (imaginarily) rejected proposal. If you can see where and why that went wrong, you can put it right:
- Is your data management plan weak?
Perhaps talk it over with the Library, and make it strong.
- Are your research questions too woolly?
Check in with a critical friend and de-fuzz them.
- Are you worried about the budget?
Mentors, colleagues and your Research Office are there to make sure it’s correct and the right fit for the proposal.
- Is your CV rather tired?
See if the careers advisers at your institution have any advice to offer. Remember that a CV submitted with a research proposal is not the same as one you would submit for an academic post: you’ll want to big up your project management skills and mention your successfully completed research work. If you’ve managed a budget before, make sure it’s on there!
This kind of approach requires bravery. It is tough to imagine all the things that might get picked up by a hostile panel. It’s hard work drafting and re-drafting something that you don’t like the look of. Asking for help isn’t easy for everyone, but the “inches” that you need to get funded could be everywhere around you. You just need to ask…