Tell them; then convince them.

When writing a grant application you need to be direct.  Begin each paragraph with its main message. Then use the rest of the paragraph to convince them that the message is true. In the book we refer to this style as “assert-justify“. An easy way to describe  assert-justify style is “Tell them; then convince them”.

As I was writing this I thought of nine reasons you should adopt “Assert-justify” style in research grant applications.  The first four are concerned with meeting the needs of the reader – one of the guiding principles for writing with style. The remaining five are concerned with making the task of writing easier. Naturally I shall assert each reason and then justify it.

  1. Assert-justify style communicates more effectively with speed-readers, tired readers, and lazy readers.
    These readers will skim through your document. The neurology of eye-movements dictates that, provided you put blank lines between the paragraphs, their eyes will skip from paragraph to paragraph. They will read the first line of each paragraph. Thus they will read the assertions and get the headline messages. If they are inclined to disagree with the headline messages, they will dig down into the arguments that justify them.
  2. Assert-justify style makes it easier for diligent readers, such as referees, to examine your arguments in detail.
    Each paragraph starts by stating what the argument is about. This makes it very easy for the reader to find the arguments they want to examine. They never face the problem of wading through an argument wondering where it is heading.
  3. Assert-justify style makes it easier for the committee-member who has to present your grant to the rest of the committee.
    They can see at a glance what points you are trying to make. This makes it very easy for them to select the points that are most important and relevant for the committee, even if they don’t entirely understand them.
  4. Assert-justify style is more likely to engage readers who are bored.
    The conclusion is always the most interesting part of the argument. By putting the conclusion first you are more likely to entice them to read.
  5. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write an accurate summary.
    The assertions from each paragraph comprise a draft summary. If you want a shorter summary you may be able to leave some of them out.
  6. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write a good introduction.
    The assertions from each paragraph comprise the core of the introduction. You may need to add some linking text and some signposts.
  7. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write short sentences.
    You can write in simple, clear statements. You don’t need to frame them and qualify them.
  8. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write short paragraphs.
    In argue-conclude writing you have to spend a lot of words preparing the ground for the argument. If you start by asserting the point you want to make, you leap straight into the argument without spending any words.
  9. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write.
    I used to spend a lot of time staring at my screen wondering how to get started on each section. In assert-justify writing you can write the ten key sentences that start each sub-section of a grant proposal in an hour.

There are probably more and better reasons to write in assert-justify style. When I started writing this post a couple of hours ago I only had three!  If you have any doubts about whether assert-justify style is correct, it may help you to read Andy Gillett’s recommendations  on the Use of English for Academic Purposes blog.

Let me finish with an example of what I think you should avoid. This abstract of a funded grant application is short and clearly written but it is in argue-conclude style; consequently the piece of information that the reader most wants to know – what will the research project do – is buried away in the second half of a sentence in the last paragraph. A speed-reader would not see it.

These arguments were posted first on the Parker Derrington Blog.
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Posted in Language and Style, Writing Research Grants, Writing the Case for Support | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Tell them; then convince them.

Committees and Referees

Committees Like a Simple Story: thanks to Science and Ink http://www.lab-initio.comThe Journal Nature reported yesterday that scientists have complained that there is a mismatch between expert referees’ evaluation scores of research grant applications and funding decisions.  Different interviewees claimed that this mismatch either does or does not indicate either a flaw in the system or mistakes by referees or by committees.

There may be flaws in the system and mistakes probably happen, but there is a more obvious reason that referees’ scores should not be expected to predict funding decisions. Referees and committees do different jobs which impose different constraints on the way a grant application is written. Very few proposals are written in a way that satisfies both sets of constraints, and so, for the majority of proposals, there is no reason to expect a close match between the referees’ score and the committee’s score. Before I explain the constraints and how to meet them, I’ll clarify the story and explain its relevance.

The story was based on 302 grant applications to the Medical Research Council. It states that some applications that received high scores from the referees were triaged (rejected without being discussed by the committee). Of the proposals discussed by the committee, the story states that the group of applications that were successful and the group that were rejected had ‘a nearly identical spread of scores’. It’s worth noting that the story focuses on a statistic of the scores that is not particularly informative (spread) and does not mention any other statistics. It is relatively common that the referees include both friends and foes of the applicant, which can cause the spread of scores on a single application to range from the lowest to the highest possible. Consequently, nothing that the story says about this rather small data sample indicates a general failure of referees’ scores to predict committee decisions.

However, whatever we may try to conclude from this small dataset, most funding agencies (the EPSRC is an exception in the UK) ask referees and committees to do very different jobs. These jobs depend on different aspects of the way the proposal is written.

Referees work alone and each one works on a single application. The referees are expected to be experts in the same research field as the applicant and their evaluations are typically seen as coming from within that field. Their main task is to test the detailed rationale of the proposal. Are the research questions important? Is the research approach feasible? Does the research team have the ability to carry out the project? What is their standing in the field? Has their previous work made a significant contribution? Is the approach novel? Are other teams likely to get the answers first?

To get a good score from a referee, a grant application must contain relevant detail. Evidence that the questions are important and relevant must be cited. Any evidence to the contrary must be dealt with effectively. The research approach must be described clearly and in sufficient detail to convince a knowledgeable sceptic that the project is feasible, can be carried out with the resources requested, and will lead to the promised outcomes.

The committee works as a collective and takes a view across all the applications before them, typically about 100 for a single meeting. They must also take a view across all the different research fields that the committee supports. They need it to be clear that the project will deliver an  outcome that will have importance beyond the immediate research area and that the applicant has identified an approach that is likely to be productive and that the research team has the skills to deliver it. They need to know what the research aims are and how they relate to the overall outcome. They need it to be clear that the research objectives will satisfy the research aims and deliver the overall outcome and that the results will have appropriate impact

More importantly, the committee also works very quickly. They have to reach an agreed view about grant applications which most or all of them may not understand completely. For the committee to score an application highly they need it to be possible to understand it on the basis of a single hasty reading – or even a quick skim. The case for support should have a very clear structure that states clearly what will be the research outcome, why it is important, what are the research aims, what are the objectives and what will be done with the results.

Of course the best possible case for support works for both committee and referees. It has a clear structure that enables the committee to understand it and appreciate its strong points. It uses the structure to guide the referees to the relevant detail. In my experience cases of support written in this way get very high scores both from referees and from committees. Unfortunately they are very rare but we are doing our best to change that.

 This post has been published on the Parker Derrington Ltd Blog
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Reshape Your Draft Grant Application

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Reshaping

Last week I explained how to tell if your grant application is misshapen. Here I describe how to get it into shape.

Let’s start with the most difficult kind of draft to deal with, one in which it’s hard to tell the shape of the proposal because it’s written in such a way that you can’t tell what a paragraph is about until you have analysed its meaning. Last week I described this kind of writing as zombie text.

The first step with zombie text  is to identify the topic of each paragraph. The next step is the same with zombie text and with text where the paragraph starts with the topic. It is to find the best grouping of paragraphs into larger subsections.

Dealing with Zombie Text

The first step with zombie text is to use the reverse outlining  procedure described on @thesiswhisperer’s blog about the zombie thesis to identify the paragraph topics. There is another description of reverse outlining on @explorstlye’s blog, Explorations of Style.

  1. Number the paragraphs in your draft. Open a new document, give it a different title and copy the whole text of your draft into it.
  2. Replace each paragraph in the new document with a single short sentence that states its point. Keep the numbering so that you can copy across the remaining text from the original document when you need to.
    • If you can’t state the point of a paragraph with a single sentence then you probably need to revise your approach to paragraphs. There is good advice in the explorations of style blog and also here. For this exercise just split the paragraphs into smaller chunks that can be summarised with a single sentence and give them compound numbers (2.1, 2.2 etc).

If your draft is written so that the first sentence of each paragraph states the topic of the paragraph then you simply number the paragraphs and create a new document containing just the first sentence of each paragraph, still numbered.

In the reverse outlining process you rearrange the order of the topic sentences until you find the best structure for your document. With grant applications we already know what the best structure is, so the task is to arrange the text in that structure. We start with the largest component of the case for support, the description of the project.

Description of the project: key sentences and topic sentences

The next step is to sort the topic sentences of the paragraphs on the research project into five or six sections. In order to do this you will need to have worked out the main details of your research project. At the very least you will have divided the project into three or four sub-projects and you will know what outcome each sub-project will produce.

ZombieGrantWarningIf you haven’t done this then I am afraid I have bad news. This post will not help you: you have a zombie grant. There is no point in rewriting it until you have designed a project.

I’m sorry if this is disappointing but I can’t change the facts of life. The best I can do is to help you deal with them. A grant application is a marketing document for a research project. Without a research project, it can never be more than an empty shell, a zombie.

The best help I can offer is to say that the text you have written may be useful but you need to design a project  in order to use it. This post tells you how to design and catalogue sub-projects and  this post tells you how to check whether a particular group of sub-projects makes a viable project. I will deal more specifically with zombie grants in a future post.

So, if you have a potentially viable grant application you need to sort the topic sentences into five or six sub-sections as follows:-

  • a general introductory section,
  • three or four sections describing the specific sub-projects, and
  • a section saying what you will do with the overall results of the project.

You should now select, or draft, a key sentence that will be the first sentence for each of these five or six sections.  This post tells you how but here’s a rough outline.

  • The key sentence for each sub-project should say something about what the research activities are in the sub-project and it should say what they will discover or what the outcome will be. It has the form [Very brief description of research activities in the subproject] will [show, discover, reveal, or other suitable verb] [whatever the outcome of the research in that sub-project will be]. If you have written such a sentence, by all means use it, but if you haven’t, you need to write it now.
    • As you write each of these key sentences you should write a corresponding key sentence for the background to the project and paste it into the corresponding sub-section of the background of the case for support. This sentence states that we need to know whatever the corresponding sub-project will discover. The general form is We need to  know [or discover, understand or similar verb] [the outcome of the research in the corresponding sub-project].
  • The key sentence for the introductory sub-section on the research project as a whole should say what kind of research it will involve, something about the facilities it will use – especially if these are distinctive in some way, and what it will discover.
  • The key sentence for the sub-section on what you will do with the overall results may be about publication or about dissemination or exploitation of the results in some other way.

Once you have the key sentences in place you should copy each numbered topic sentence into the section where it fits best. Then arrange them in the best possible order. Now you are ready for the detail.

Final shaping of the description of the project

Once you have the topic sentences in the right order you  should take text from the body of each original paragraph and edit it so that the paragraphs flow internally and from one to the next. The introductory subsection should contain a description of your general research approach together with any necessary preliminaries. The sub-sections corresponding to the sub-projects should contain  a coherent description of your intended research activities that makes it clear how they will lead to the result mentioned in the introductory key sentence.

This is the point at which you adjust the length. Remember, the full description of the project should be at least 50% of the case for support. If it is more than about 65% then you either have too much detail or too big a project. Keep adjusting and trimming until you have a description of your research project that is the right size.

The next step is to produce a background section that convinces the reader that we need to know what your research project will discover. You already have key sentences that  define three or four of its five or six subsections. I will tell you how to produce the rest of it next week.

An earlier version of this post was published on the Parker Derrington Ltd Blog.
Posted in Writing the Case for Support | Comments Off on Reshape Your Draft Grant Application

The misshapen monster and the zombie grant

Nuke_fishWhat do you do when your grant application (or your colleague’s) turns out to be a misshapen monster? How do you even know if it has? Can you tell if it’s just a little bit deformed? Read on. This post is about how to test whether your case for support is the right size and shape. Size and shape go together for three reasons.

  • If your grant is a monstrous size then it’s probably misshapen too.
  • Even if it’s a perfectly formed monster, you will need to cut lumps out of it to get it down to size, so you need to check that the cutting doesn’t destroy the shape.
  • If it’s the right size but the wrong shape then you need to cut some parts and grow others.

Incidentally, if you think that the solution to an overlong case for support is to shrink the margins and the font size I have no argument with you. None whatsoever. But you are reading the wrong blog. This blog is about grant-writing. Here are some blogs about typography.

Gross malformations: missing parts

The easiest malformation to spot is if one of the parts of the case for support is missing or the wrong size. In the research funding toolkit book we make the point that a generic case for support has three components.

  • An introduction that very quickly states the main objective of the project, why it is important, the aims, the objectives, and what will be done with the results. This should be less than 20% of the total. The commonest mistake is to omit it completely. Less commonly it is so big that it unbalances the case for support.
  • A background section that makes the reader feel that it is important to do the research in the project by showing how the aims contribute to a big important question. This part should be no more than than 30% of the total. It’s fairly common for it to be hypertrophied – and hideously deformed by philosophical quotations, particularly when people start by writing about the question they want to answer rather than describing the project that they want to do. I have seen a case for support that was 90% background.
  • The description of the research project, which describes the research in sufficient detail to convince the reader that the aims will be met. This should be at least 50% of the case for support. It is often too short and sketchy. It is rare for it to be too long except when the project itself is over ambitious.

Lesser malformations: malformed parts

The parts of the case for support must be the right shape as well as the right size if they are to work effectively. There are two major aspects to this.

  • The background must match the project. Each component of the project (there should be three or four such sub-projects) should have a corresponding sub-section of the background that makes the case that the outcome of that sub-project will meet one of the specific aims of the project. These sub-sections should be in the same order as their corresponding sub-sections in the description of the project and they should be preceded by one or two  sub-sections that explain the importance of the overall objective of the project and link it to the specific aims.
  • The statements in the introduction should be in the same order as the subsections of the background and description of the project to which they correspond. The introduction sketches a picture of the case for support and the other two sections fill in the detail.

The Zombie Grant

If you have generated your draft without thinking too much about structure and particularly if, like most academics, you tend to write statements as conclusions, rather than as assertions to be explained and justified, it may actually be pretty hard to work out what each section of the text does. If you are in this situation your draft is the research grant equivalent of what Inger Mewburn, Director of Research Training at the Australian National University  (AKA @thesiswhisperer), calls the zombie thesis. Let’s call it a zombie grant.

I have explained that you can avoid writing a zombie grant by writing key sentences and using them to impose structure on your draft.  But once you have it, you need to take drastic action to avoid getting sucked into a quagmire. As @thesiswhisperer says says “The worst thing to do with a Zombie Thesis is to do a line by line edit. This is like trying to fight a jungle war – you will find yourself hip deep in mud somewhere, with a sucking chest wound, too far for a helicopter to reach.”

To revive a zombie thesis @thesiswhisperer recommends a rebuilding process based on reverse outlining, which is explained in this blog post. To revive a zombie grant you need a combination of reverse outlining and retro-fitting key sentences which I will explain next week.

An earlier version of this post was published on the Parker Derrington Ltd blog.
Posted in proposal structure, Writing Research Grants, Writing the Case for Support | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Research Grant Cookbook

Is there a recipe for the 10 key sentences?

RECIPEThis post is about an easy way to work out how to write the 10 key sentences that define a grant application. There are two reasons I think it’s worth writing even though I have written about the key sentences several times recently.

  • A good set of key sentences is half-way to a case for support. A really good case for support consists of nothing more than the 10 key sentences and the text that fills in the detail and convinces the reader that the key sentences are true. Of course this extra text is much more than filler, but it is a great help to have the key sentences because they define the task of the rest of the the text.
  • I have been working with a couple of clients who, even though they are clever people and they get the idea of key sentences, find it really hard to write them. So I have been on the lookout for a good way of making it easy to write a good set of key sentences.

Skeleton sentences, which Pat Thomson’s excellent blog recommends as a way of handling difficult but often repeated writing tasks such as framing a thesis introduction, or introducing a theoretical framework, look perfect. You take a key sentence that works; you separate it into its component parts and identify the parts that are specific to its current use and the parts that are generic. Then you turn the generic parts into a skeleton and replace the parts that are specific to its current use with equivalent parts that are specific for your use, and you have your own equivalent sentence.

Complication warning

ComplicationWarningI should perhaps warn you at this stage that although this post really does simplify the process of writing key sentences, it is quite detailed and it doesn’t do anything else. So if you aren’t trying to write a grant application   you should probably just bookmark the page and return when you start writing your next grant.

Finally, before I get down to the nitty gritty, I have two strong recommendations.

  1. It is very risky to start writing key sentences before you have worked out the details of your research project. As you develop the project, you should divide it into three or four sub-projects. Each sub-project will find something out, establish something, or develop something. This post tells you how to do that.
  2. Although it makes most sense to read about  the key sentences in numerical order, it’s pretty hard to write them in that order. I’ll make some suggestions about writing order as I explain the recipes.

So, what would skeletons for the 10 key sentences in a grant application look like? I think I can tell you in 9 of the 10 cases. I will describe them in numerical order, which is the order in which the reader will encounter them.

Key sentence 1, the Summary sentence

The first sentence of the proposal, key sentence 1, is probably the most complex and variable of the key sentences. It gives a simple overall statement of what the project will achieve, ideally it will relate that achievement to a big important problem and will also include something distinctive about how the project will achieve it in a way that will make it clear that you are a suitable person to do the project.

A minor variation of a sentence I suggested in an earlier post about key sentences, does all this. It has four parts, which are numbered.

  1. This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke
  2. by identifying, synthesising and testing suitable molecules
  3. from a family of novel synthetic metabolic inhibitors
  4. that we have discovered.

A skeleton representation of the four parts would be:

  1. This project will [your own description of  how it will make partial progress towards solving a  huge, important problem – in the example it’s “develop a potential solution”]
  2. by [ your own much more specific description of what it will actually do]
  3. [your own assertion that the project is novel or timely – e.g.”novel synthetic metabolic inhibitors”]
  4. [your own claim to “ownership” of the project – e.g.”that we have discovered”].

I would suggest that you leave the first key sentence until near the end. I would also suggest that you content yourself with a rough draft initially. You will have plenty of time to refine it as you flesh out the detail in the case for support.

Key sentence 2, the Importance sentence

Key sentence 2 states the importance of the specific outcomes promised by the project. The following sentence does this in two ways. The first clause gives some evidence that the big problem is really important. The second clause asserts that the specific problem that will be solved by the project is an important aspect of the big problem.

  1. Stroke is one of the commonest causes of death and disability in the working population;
  2. one of the most promising new avenues of treatment is to shut down brain function reversibly using a metabolic inhibitor, we have yet to identify a suitable molecule.”

Its skeleton is

  1. The [huge important problem] is [your own statement that demonstrates with evidence that the problem is very important for one or more of health, society, the economy and the advance of knowledge and understanding];
  2. [your own statement that the project outcome will contribute to solving the huge important problem].

I think that the key sentence 2 is probably the last one to write – although it might just come in ahead of sentence 10.

Key Sentences 3-5, the “We need to know” sentences

Key sentences 3-5 would be the first and the easiest sentences for you to draft. They are the “we need to know” sentences. There is one for each sub-project. An example from our hypothetical stroke project would be:- We need to identify which molecules in this family are most effective as reversible inactivators of brain tissue. The skeleton for a “we need to know” sentence would be something like this.

We need to [know or establish or develop]+[your own statement of whatever the sub-project is going to discover or establish or develop].

Each of the “we need to know” sentences introduces a section of the background to the project (the bit where you justify the need for your research) in which you convince the reader, by citing relevant evidence, that the key sentence is absolutely, starkly and compellingly true. You would also re-use the same sentence in the introduction to the case for support and in the summary.

Specific Aims

Some funders – notably NIH and the UK research councils, like you to talk about aims, or even specific aims. For this you create a compound of all 3  “we need to know” sentences of the following form.

We have three (specific) aims:-
1) to [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the first sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish]
2) to  [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the second sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish]
3) to  [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the third sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish]

Key Sentence 6, the Project Overview sentence

Key sentence 6 introduces the description of the research project by saying what kind of research it will involve, something about the facilities it will use – especially if these are distinctive in some way, and what it will discover. It may say something about the resources it will use if they are distinctive. It is very similar to sentence 1 but it might have a bit more information about the kind of research and the specific outcome.

The following sentence, in italics, is an example related to our example of sentence 1. The proposed project will be a mixture of synthetic chemistry to produce candidate molecules and in vitro physiology to test their efficacy in producing reversible inactivation of brain slices in order to identify a potential treatment for stroke. The skeleton sentence, is The proposed project will [general description of research activity] to [specific description of research outcome] in order to [weak statement indicating partial progress towards solution of huge important problem].

I think that the project overview sentence should be written after the sub-project overview sentences.

Key Sentences 7-9: Sub-project Overview sentences

Each sub-project has a “this will tell us” sentence that matches the “we need to know” sentence but is a little bit more complex. It begins with a clause that summarises what you will do in the sub-project and continues with a main clause that says what it will tell us. For example:- We will use voltage sensitive dyes to assess the activity and responsiveness of brain slices in order to measure the effectiveness of different molecules as reversible inactivators of neural activity.

The skeleton would be:- We will [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].

If your funder asks you to list research objectives as part of the grant application, or if it suits your writing style you can phrase (or rephrase) your “this will tell us” sentences as statements of objectives. They would read like this.

The research objectives are as follows:-
1) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].
2) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].
3) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].

Key sentences 7-9 can be written as soon as you like. You should have everything you need to write them right at the start. However, they are a bit more tricky than key sentences 3-5, which is why I recommend that you start with those.

Key sentence 10, the Dissemination sentence.

The dissemination sentence should introduce a description of the projects dissemination phase. It may say something about what you will do with the results to create a platform for future research – by you or by others. The range of possible dissemination strategies is too great for me to construct a skeleton, however I will comment on the relative importance of dissemination versus building a platform for future research. The relative importance depends somewhat on key sentence 2.

Dissemination beyond the research community is important if key sentence 2 claims that the importance of your project is related to some practical problem or opportunity (curing a disease, making a technological breakthrough). Your dissemination plan will need to include steps you will take to make sure that the results are put to use and your project. You may also be requesting funds for dissemination activities.

On the other hand, if the importance of your project is purely to do with its potential to advance your subject, you probably do not need to say much about dissemination activities although it might be important to talk about communicating the results to your research community by publication and conference activity.

An earlier version of this was published on the Parker Derrington Ltd Blog
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The Summary: Your Direct line to Committee Feelgood

18534682_sNot many people realise that the summary section on your grant application is a direct line to the most influential member of the committee that decides where it sits in the funding priorities. You can make this person feel really good about your application, just as they start to read it. Let me explain how it works.

Grants committees everywhere are overloaded, thinly stretched and work very fast. Committees I have worked on would decide on a £300K grant in less than 10 minutes. Sometimes a lot less. I can remember a panel that decided on 72 applications in 6 hours. Meetings commonly last two days, so committee members will often have more than 100 applications to read for a meeting.

The subject spread of the applications is an even bigger problem than the numbers. Everybody on the committee is an expert on something. But expertise tends to have a very narrow focus, and for any individual member, most of the applications are outside that focus. Committees cope with this by designating a member, sometimes two or three, to become an expert on each grant. It is the job of these designated members to present the grant application to the committee.

The designated member is crucial to the success of your application. They explain to the committee what the grant is about. They say what the applicants propose to do, what are the specific research aims, how the proposed research project will meet those aims, and what will be done with the results. They summarise the referees’ recommendations and they recommend a score. It takes about 5 minutes. This presentation is hugely influential. Most of the committee will go along with the recommendation.

This system, or something like it, is widely used in the UK and overseas. There’s an excellent video illustrating how the US National Institutes of Health does it on youtube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBDxI6l4dOA&feature=youtu.be and a blog describing what it feels like for a junior academic to participate in the process here.

The nature of the review process means that the summary of your grant application has a huge influence on the designated member who presents your grant. Let me put you inside the head of a one-time presenter.

Presenting a grant is not easy. It’s always a stretch to get your head around someone else’s research ideas. There is a lot to keep straight in your head. And you are presenting in front of colleagues whose respect is important to you. You don’t want to look as if you are out of your depth in front of them. You feel that you want to do a good job.

Actually, you have to do more than one good job. Usually you have to prepare several presentations and keep them all straight in your head. Then you present them as each grant comes up. I once had to do 12 in one day.

As you pick up each application on which you have to prepare to speak, you have in mind both a nightmare and a dream. You can probably guess what the nightmare is. I want to tell you about the dream, because you have the chance to make it come true.

The dream is that the summary, which is the first thing you read, will start by saying exactly what problem the applicant proposes to solve and how. Then it will say how important the problem is, what are the specific research aims, how the proposed research project will meet those aims, and what will be done with the results. In short, the designated member’s dream is that the summary would be the ideal set of notes for a talk to explain the grant to the committee.

The dream continues: the introduction to the case for support makes exactly the same statements as the summary. Then the remainder of the case for support convinces the reader that the statements are true with detailed, evidence-based, argument and explanation.

So think about this dream as you write the summary of your next grant proposal. Make it come true. It will give your grant a huge advantage in committee.

This was first published on the Parker Derrington Ltd Blog
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Aims and Objectives: What you want to achieve and how you will achieve it.

640px-01_Fujisan_from_Yamanakako_2004-2-7

01 Fujisan from Yamanakako 2004-2-7” by AlpsdakeOwn work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Aims and objectives provide an excellent framework for the case for support in a research grant application.

A well-written case for support states an overarching aim based on a big research question. It shows how this big question gives rise to three or four smaller questions and then describes a research project that will answer those questions. The compelling logic for the reader is that the project deserves to be funded because it has been intricately designed to answer the big question. The truth may be that the intricacy lies more in the writing than in the project’s design. Matching sets of aims and objectives can be crafted to link a pre-designed project to a pre-existing big question.

Before we consider how to do this, let’s be absolutely clear about the difference between aims and objectives. There’s an excellent discussion of the difference in the context of a PhD project,  by Pat Thomson. She defines the aim as “…what you want to know…” and the objectives as “…the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim..”  This definition works perfectly for our purposes and is consistent with other web sources such as differencebetween.info.

We can apply this distinction more or less directly in a grant application as follows.

  • Aims are the knowledge and understanding that you need in order to answer your research question. Well-designed aims create clear links between your research project and the big, important question that motivates it.
  •  Objectives are specific research actions that you plan to carry out in your research project. The objectives define the structure of the research project.  This means that if you design your project carefully, it will be clear that your research objectives will fulfil the aims defined by your research question.

The easy way to link up the aims and objectives is to start by describing the research that you want to do and what it will find out. You should divide your research project into (or assemble it from)  three or four sub-projects. Each sub-project will lead to a clear discovery or outcome. Each  outcome generates an exactly corresponding aim. If you want to do a sub-project that will discover how neurones in the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours, you have to have the aim “We need to know how neurones in  the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours”. Working backwards from the objectives in this way means that aims and objectives match perfectly. No skill is required

Skill is required to tie together the three or four aims and make the case that meeting  them will make a significant contribution to solving a larger research problem that is important to your target funder. That is the real skill of writing grant applications.

For completeness, in addition to this set of three or four aims with precisely matching objectives, I would recommend another four sentences which are a more complex mix of aim and objective and which would be used to set the context in any full statement of the aims and objectives. So a full statement of the aims and objectives would be as follows.

  • The first sentence, which would be the first sentence of the case for support, would be a one sentence summary of the whole proposal. It would state the overall aim of the project, which is to take us closer to solving the larger research problem, and the overall objective, which is to carry out the research project. This is a very difficult sentence to write but a very important one, for two reasons. First, it gets the reader excited about the project by telling them its aim and its objective. Second, because it tells everything in a single sentence, it can afford to gloss over uncertainties, helping the reader to form a positive view of the project.
  • Second, there is a sentence that states why the research problem is important and which may also introduce the specific aims.
  • Immediately after this sentence you would state the three or four specific aims.
  • Third, after stating the specific aims, you need to set the scene for stating the specific objectives with an introductory sentence that describes the nature of the research project.
  • The three or four specific objectives, stating research outcomes that exactly match the specific aims, would be stated immediately after it.
  • After the objectives, there should be a sentence that says what will be done with the research outcomes. In a sense this is an overall objective which should ensure that the overall outcome of the research project  contributes to solving the larger research problem that motivates the entire project.

Finally I should make it clear that, although it matters for understanding this post, for the purpose of grant-writing,  it doesn’t matter that some authorities, including the Oxford dictionary, do not distinguish between aims and objectives in exactly the same way as I do. What matters in a grant application is how you present the argument that links your project to the important question. Whether you call any individual link an aim or an objective is neither here nor there.

This was previously posted on Parker Derrington Ltd Blog
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Put Some Meat in Your Feedback Sandwich

Meaty Feedback Sandwich

Meaty Feedback Sandwich

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.

This piece was first posted on the Parker Derrington Ltd Blog
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Review a research grant-application in five minutes

Cartoon from Nick Kim's collection at http://strange-matter.net

Cartoon from Nick Kim’s collection at 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 theimportance 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 ofaims sentences, about four sentences setting out the aims of the project. The aims sentencesshould 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  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, you have 2 choices. You could tell them it’s wonderful and give it back. Or you could review the detailed content, which will be pretty easy because the structure is very clear. And 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 the grant application is not yours, you need to write a feedback sandwich. You could try saying “You have put so much detail into this that I find it hard to get a clear understanding. It would help me to understand it if you could write an introduction that summarises the proposal in 12 key sentences, one that summarises what the whole project will achieve, one that says why it is important, four that set out the aims and so on. Then to help me understand the text you have written you could link each section to the relevant sentence from the summary”.

Whatever you do don’t use the phrase “completely rewrite”.

Re-posted from parkerderrington.com
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Get the Framework in Place – Quickly

House Framework Photo

The framework defines the end result

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 twelve 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 12 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 deliver. A good way to do this is to state the overall goal 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 state importance of the problem to be solved. A good sentence 2 (assuming it’s true) would be “Stroke is the commonest cause of death and disability in the working population: each year it kills x and disables y people.” 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 solve the problem.

Sentences 3-6 state the aims of the research project. Their function is to make the reader appreciate how important it is to carry out each of the four sub-projects for which you are seeking funding. Each can be a simple statement that “We need to know” whatever the sub-project will discover.

Sentence 7 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 8-11 introduce each of the sub-projects. Each sentence needs both to say something about what the sub-project entails and something about what it will discover. It is crucial that the discoveries match exactly the things that sentences three to six said that we need to know.

Sentence 12 says something about what will be done with the results 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. As you develop these sections you should refine your key sentences. Only when you think they are perfect should you copy them into the introduction.

If you have prepared an outline of your proposed research project in the way I have recommended, it should be possible to get rough drafts of your key sentences in less than an hour. Here is how.

Sentences 3-6 should take you less than 5 minutes. It is simply a matter of writing “We need to know” in front of what you have written as the discovery that will be delivered by each sub-project.

Sentences 8-11 should be almost as quick. Each sentence has two clauses, the first says something descriptive about the nature of the research in the relevant sub project, the second clause begins “this will tell us” and then continues with whatever follows the words “We need to know” in the corresponding sentence from 3-6. I think that 15 minutes should be plenty of time to draft these.

Sentence 7 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 8-11. 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 12 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 3-12. 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 7. 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 foolish to claim an actual treatment. Claiming a cure would be madness.

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.  If it 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 two hours, then you are not ready to write the grant. Find out how to get ready by reading this post.

 This was first posted on Andrew’s blog at Parker Derrington Ltd
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Are you ready to start?

Are  you ready?

Are you ready?

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 maintain a catalogue of possible sub-projects. A sub-project is a discrete piece of research; four sub-projects make a nice, saleable research project.

I explained that the catalogue should consist 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 have a catalogue of sub-projects, you should prepare an outline of your proposed research project that contains exactly the same information as the catalogue before you begin to write about it. That is, you should compile the 5 lists of information for the four sub-projects in your proposed research project.

The advantage of using these lists is that they make the task of writing and submitting a grant much more efficient. The lists contain the information you need for the three main tasks involved in writing and submitting a grant application.

  • They contain the information you need to check the viability of your proposed project, which is the subject of this post.
  • They contain the information you need to negotiate, and to calculate in detail,  the resourcing of the project.
  • They contain 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 standard test is whether there are  peer-reviewed publications that demonstrate the use of the skills. If not, then you need to enhance your team or reduce your project.
  • 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’s post on 5 minute peer-review.  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.

This is reposted from Andrew’s blog at Parker Derrington Ltd.
Posted in Sub-Project Catalogue, Testing your proposal, When you should NOT write a grant, Writing the Case for Support | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Five Minute Feedback

With the popular British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant deadline looming, I am asked to comment on several draft applications per day.

My comments are surprisingly consistent as I read each new draft and give feedback using ‘track changes’:

Comment (JA1) Your assessor may not know anything about your subject area so assume the person reading your abstract has no particular interest in your area and very little knowledge.  Provide some context about why your topic is important (e.g. headline statistic about the growth of online shopping), use lay terms or define your terminology (e.g. you can’t guarantee that your reader will know what ‘crowdsourcing’ is).

Comment (JA2) ‘Under-researched’ is not a good enough justification for your study.  You need to explain why more research is warranted.

Comment (JA3) This sentence is very important and explains exactly what you want to do and why.  However, it is buried away at the end of a long paragraph.  It would be perfect as the opening sentence of your project summary.  Perhaps consider moving it?

Comment (JA4) Your methodology section is very brief and should be longer than the introductory background section.

Comment (JA5) Include more detail about how you will collect and analyse your data.  For example, you mention semi-structured interviews.  Who will you interview?  What topics will you explore in the interviews? How will you obtain access to your interviewees?

In each case, the amendments only take a few minutes to action and make all the difference to the final draft.

Posted in Writing the Case for Support | 4 Comments

Be Prepared

3383951_sIn this post I want to tell you how you can be prepared to write a grant application quickly and with minimum effort. Last week I warned you about the trap of the never-ending grant application. This week I am telling you how you can make sure you never fall into it.

The essence of the approach is that you compile a personal catalogue of possible research sub-projects. Each sub-project consists of a piece of research that you would like to do, but for which you don’t currently have the time or the resources. If you can create a suitable catalogue you will be able to design a viable research project very quickly. If you cannot create such a catalogue, you are not ready to write a grant application and you should not waste the time.

This approach is the easiest way to discover whether you are able to start writing the description of a research project. I will discuss how you create the basic building block of your research project, a sub-project, and how you create a catalogue of sub-projects.

The definition of a sub-project is very flexible and is very much up to you. We point out in the book that a research project is much easier to write about if it can be broken down into about four components. These components are the sub-projects. So for the 2-3 year research project of a typical grant-application a sub-project will be about 6 plus or minus 2 months full-time research.

Sub-projects should be conceptually discrete but they might overlap in time and in resources. For example, imagine a psychology research project to test whether particular numerical and verbal skills develop at different rates in boys and girls. It might consist of a series of discrete sub-projects each of which measures a different set of numerical and verbal skills. Each sub-project can be defined in terms of what research will be done, what resources will be needed and what the sub-project will discover. However, the sub-projects might well be carried out during the same time period using the same equipment.

The point of the sub-project is that, when you are explaining a big research project, it is very helpful to break it down into a small number of discrete components, which together build up into a significant package. And when you are trying to design a significant research project, it is usually easier to build it up out of a number of sub-projects.

In compiling the kind of catalogue you need for writing research grants it is essential to record 5 sets of information about each sub-project. These are:-

  • What the sub-project will discover or establish. Ideally a sub-project will discover something that can be expressed in a single sentence. For example, one of the sub-projects in our hypothetical psychology project might establish whether ability to solve arithmetic problems is equally related with ability to write complex sentences in boys and girls.
  • What activities the sub-project consists of. For example, our hypothetical sub-project might involve the design of testing materials; the development of suitable testing apparatus; the selection of a suitable group of schools to be involved in the project; liaison with the schools; selection and screening of suitable children within each school; administration of the tests; processing of test results; writing of reports and papers.
  • What skills are needed to carry out the activities.
  • What resources will be used in the sub-project. This should be separated into two lists, resources that are already available and new resources that must be paid for by the grant. These lists should go beyond the obvious resources of equipment and consumables and include things like your time and the time of other staff who would be involved, which should be quantified both because some funders will treat it as a cost that can be funded from the grant and because your employer may need to know what they are committing to the project. They should also include facilities that may be needed like laboratories. In our hypothetical sub-project on child development it could also include the relationships which you will have established with schools that provide you with research participants – if you have them, otherwise you will need to budget for the work that must be done to build such relationships.

These 5 lists include all the information you will need about a sub-project in order to write about it as part of a research grant. I strongly recommend that you develop the habit of turning your ideas about possible research projects into a catalogue of sub-projects. The essence of the catalogue is that you maintain the 5 lists for each sub-project. As soon as you have a few sub-projects you can consider whether you have enough to generate a coherent and fundable research project. I will tell you how to make that decision next week.

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The trap of the never-ending grant application

Winding Road

“I wouldn’t be starting from here.”

This post outlines my theory of the trap of the never-ending grant application.

There’s a very old joke about a tourist, driving in Ireland, who asked the way to Dublin. “If I were driving to Dublin” was the response, “I wouldn’t be starting from here.” In a metaphorical sense, my theory tells you what the Irishman told the tourist. It tells you whether you are in the right place to start writing a grant application.

If you are not in the right place, it’s better not to start writing. You will almost certainly never finish. Even if, by a herculean effort of will, you do finish the grant application, you should not get your hopes up. It will almost certainly be no good.

The theory is based on my own observations but I think it explains a lot of anecdotal stuff that is out there. The main observation is that grant-writing workshops with self-selected participants often have a very low success rate. I don’t think this is because people don’t have the time to write. If you are ready to write a grant application there is no reason that the writing should take more than a couple of weeks. I have seen dedicated, hard-working colleagues show up month after month at grant-writing workshops and never finish a grant application.

My analysis of the drafts of these still-born grant applications was also informative. Typically they consist of a good deal of writing about the research question and not much about the research project. Extreme cases, and I have seen a few, say nothing whatsoever about the research project. They are all about the question and how important it is.

Reading these malformed drafts led me to propose, a few months ago, that the first part of a case for support that you should write is the description of the project and that it should take at least half the allowed space for the case for support. Further thought has led to my theory of the trap of the never-ending grant application, which can be stated in a single sentence. Here it is, in bold.

It is impossible to make effective progress in writing a grant application unless you are in a position to write a good description of the research project at the outset. 

It follows directly from the theory that if you do start writing a grant application without being in a position to write a good description of the project, you will never finish because you cannot make effective progress. You might just produce a non-viable application, crippled by hypertrophy of the background information sections and an atrophied description of the project.

Sadly, this malformation is likely to occur even if, after writing the background information sections, you manage to put yourself in a position to write a good description of the research project. The reason is that unless the background sections are constrained by knowing exactly what project you are trying to justify, they expand, massively. They do not leave enough space to describe the research project adequately.

Trying to salvage an over-long case for support by reducing the font size, abbreviating everything, and eradicating whitespace is a bad plan. What is needed is a fresh start. Start by describing the project properly and then tailor the background sections to justify it and nothing else.

My view is that much of the heartache, frustration and wasted effort connected with grant applications could be avoided by making sure that you never make the mistake of starting writing until you are ready to describe your research project. And if you have made this mistake, even if you are close to finishing the case for support, you should get someone that you really trust to read it before you submit it.

Be careful who you ask: if you have produced a weak grant application at huge effort, very few people will dare to tell you that what you have written is no good. Instead, they will find something nice to say about it and encourage you to submit it and let the funding agency tell you it is not good enough. Only if you are very lucky will you get feedback from someone brave enough to tell you that you need to start again. Of course you may read this post carefully and realise that for yourself. You can always use the case for support checklist to check your own work.

In my next post I will write about how you to lay the ground for being able to describe any research project you can do. With the right approach, I think that it is possible not only to get to the right place to start writing a grant, but to live there. Of course if you are ready now then you might as well get cracking. Here’s how.

Posted in Testing your proposal, When you should NOT write a grant, Writing the Case for Support | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

How Kent Beats the Research Funding Odds

Posters for Grants Factory Events

Posters for Grants Factory Events

When I participated in a live chat about grant-writing a few weeks ago, I was surprised at the widespread – and forcefully expressed  – view that HE managers want academics to write reams of pointless grant applications which face inevitable rejection. So I was delighted last week to encounter a presentation by Phil Ward, Research Funding Manager at the University of Kent, that shows what we really want.

The presentation (the slides are available here) describes how the Grants Factory at Kent has produced a perfect storm of goodness. The numbers of RCUK grant awards won by Kent are rising while application numbers fall because success rates are going through the roof. They have more than doubled in the four years since the first Grants Factory was organised by Jacqueline Aldridge, who is now research manager at Kent Business School.

The basic principle of the Grants Factory is that experienced academics share their insights with junior colleagues in workshops, master-classes and mock panels. In the inaugural event in 2009, Jacqueline and I developed an approach to writing research grants that was designed to exploit the specific conditions under which funding decisions are made. We describe it in the book, The Research Funding Toolkit, published last year by Sage. More of how it works below.

Grants Factory masterclasses and workshops are designed to improve grant-writing skills but the effect they have on morale is probably just as important. Attendees learn how to respond to referees, write a ‘pathways to impact’ statement, or calculate a budget. They discover the intricacies of European funding or applying for fellowships. Attendees value what they learn but, more than that, they value the sense that they are being supported by their senior, more experienced colleagues.

The Grants Factory events with the biggest impact on attendees are mock panels. The mock panel teaches you that a research grant application is completely unlike any other piece of academic writing. Its task is to give a committee of people who are expert about, and interested in, other areas of research the confidence that your research is worth the money it will cost to do it. No matter how many times you tell somebody that fact, they don’t really get it. However, when they participate in a mock panel, they get it straight away.

A mock panel mimics the events of a grants’ committee at high speed. Panel members evaluate draft proposals written by each other. A senior academic, experienced in grants’ committee work, chairs the panel. Panellists discover how difficult it is to give a coherent explanation of what research an applicant will do, why it is important and what will be done with the results, on the basis of 30 minutes spent reading their proposal. The realisation that it is even more difficult for a colleague to explain what research you will do after reading your proposal is truly a lightbulb moment.

Once the lightbulb goes on and people realise how hard it is to write a good grant proposal they become eager for the research funding toolkit. Tools in the toolkit help them to write a document that can be speed-read, that is easy to read completely, that is memorable and easy to reconstruct. There are also tools that will convince a grants’ committee of the four propositions: importance (of the research problem), success (of the proposed research project), value (of the project) and competence (of the research team). Phil Ward’s presentation contains a brilliantly witty pictorial exposition of the main tools and is worth viewing for that alone.

RCUK Success rates at Kent are overtaking the rest of the sector

RCUK Success rates at Kent are overtaking the rest of the sector

For me though, the best is kept till last. Success rates for RCUK grant applications at Kent have increased from 15% to 35%. Fewer grant applications are being submitted and more grants are being won. That was my dream when I started the first grants factory and that is what HE managers really want!

Phil Ward blogs and tweets about research policy and research funding.

 

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Guardian Live Chat

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a live chat, on the Guardian Higher Education website, about how to write successful grant applications. It was very interesting for me because the rapid flow of questions made it impossible for me to stop writing, whereas my normal situation is that I find it impossible to start.

I suppose it should be no surprise that a real question from a real person is a very potent stimulus. And the complete absence of questions and people isn’t. Maybe there is a research project in this…..

It’s worth reading the chat, not just for the wise words of the expert panelists but also in order to see what other people who are applying for research funding are thinking and worrying about. The chat is archived here and Claire Shaw has distilled the advice of the panel into ten tips here.

Reflecting on the chat, it occurred to me that many academics wander unwittingly into the trap of the never-ending grant application. I think it happens if you start to write a grant application before you are ready. It’s a version of catch 22. You can’t write a grant application if you aren’t ready. And you can’t get ready to write a grant application if you are trying to write it  instead of trying to get ready.

So my next post will be about what you need to do before you commit to writing a grant application. It’s about how you will know that you can finish the job in a few weeks and avoid falling into the trap of the never-ending grant-application.

I think I’m ready to write about this. I’ll post by the beginning of next week.

Promise……

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Writing by Numbers: the Case for Support in 7 Easy Steps.

This post is a step by step guide to writing the case for support in a research grant application. It describes the structure of the generic case for support and tells you what steps you should take to write it efficiently. At each stage it points you to a previous post that describes in more detail what you should do.

Over the last few weeks I have been helping a couple of colleagues write grant applications. This post is what I wish I had told them before they started.

The generic case for support consists of three sections.

  1. The first section gives a headline preview of sections 2 and 3.
  2. The second section explains why we need to know the things that the project will discover.
  3. The third section is the most important. It describes the project, the resources it will use, what it will discover, and how those discoveries will be disseminated.

In essence, the third section explains to the reader what will happen if the grant is awarded. The second section explains to the reader that we need those things to happen. And the first section tells the reader what will be explained in the second and third sections. The easiest way to write the sections is in reverse order. Here’s how.

  1. Start by describing a work-package or sub-project, a piece of the research that you will do. This post explains how to write and test your description. The work package should be about 25% of the total project. If you are hoping to get a 3 year project grant the work-package should be about 6-8 months work.
  2. At this point you should start talking to those colleagues whose support you will need, the colleagues who will help you to cost the project, and those whose formal permission you will need in order to submit it through your institution. Find out about deadlines, whether there is an internal peer-review process, whether your line manager is happy for you to commit yourself and whatever institutional resources you may need to the project.
  3. Follow the instructions in this post to build up another three or so work packages and link them together into a coherent description of your project. The description of the project should be at least 50% of the allowed text. Most people make it too short – usually because they have made the mistake of writing it last.
  4. The description of the project allows you to work out what resources you need to apply for, so as soon as you have written a draft of it you can get the project costed in the way recommended by your institution. You can also check that your institution is happy to commit the internal resources that your proposed project will need.
  5. Write the second section of the case for support, the background,  by following the instructions in this post. The background should be about 30% of the total text.
  6. Follow the instructions in this post to make sure that what you have written is in ‘assert justify’ style.
  7. This post explains how to write the first section. It should be less than 20% of the case for support.
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Writing the introduction:- Getting your Foot in the Door

This post is about the easy way to write the first part of the generic case for support for a research grant application. As I have explained in a previous post the first section of the case for support should be written last. I also explain how to write the other two main sections of the case for support,  the description of the research project, which comes last but should be written first, and the ‘we have a problem’ section, which comes second and should be written second.

In the book, we call the first section the ‘Foot in the Door’.  It gives the reader an immediate preview of the whole research proposal, as when a travelling salesman sticks his foot in the door and tells you what he is selling and why you should want to buy it. The ‘foot in the door’ section must grab the reader’s attention and then hold it for long enough to deliver its message.

It is important that the message delivered in the ‘foot in the door’ section is the same and uses the same words as the subsequent sections of the case for support. For this reason, it is almost impossible to write the ‘foot in the door’ section until you have written the other two sections, so if you haven’t written them yet, go and do it now.

Once you have written the main sections, the ‘we have a problem’ and the description of the research project, writing the ‘foot in the door’ takes three steps.

  • First, you ensure that the main sections are written in  ‘assert-justify’ style: see my last post for how to do this.
  • Then you copy and paste the dozen or so ‘message sentences’ from the main sections into the new section at the beginning, the ‘foot in the door’.
  • This gives you a first draft of the the ‘foot in the door’, which you can edit so that it reads well. In editing, it is best if you can avoid changing the sentence order.
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Assert-justify Style:- Why and How?

Grant applications should be written in what we call assert-justify style. The first sentence in each paragraph carries the message of the paragraph. The sentence makes an assertion or statement. The remainder of the paragraph justifies or explains the statement that was made in the first sentence.

There are two obvious reasons to use assert-justify style for grant-applications.

  • Speed-readers, who typically only read the first line of each paragraph, will get the message because the message will always be in the first line of the paragraph.
  • Assert-justify style sustains the interest of the reader because it tells them what is important immediately. Then, if they need to be convinced they can read what could be a relatively lengthy justification for the statement.

The only difficulty about assert-justify style is that many writers, particularly academics, find it difficult to write a statement until they have written the justification. For this reason it is necessary to check what you have written and, if necessary, convert it into assert-justify style as follows.

  • Read each paragraph carefully.
  • Find the sentence that carries the message.
  • Move the message sentence to the beginning of the paragraph.
  • Then edit the remaining sentences so that the paragraph still makes sense.

In my next post a less obvious reason for using assert-justify style will become clear. It makes it possible for you to generate a first draft of the most difficult and important part of the case for support with no effort at all.

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Lacuna, hope and other words to avoid

Here are five common writing mistakes gleaned from a wide variety of real life grant applications:

1. Fancy synonyms such as ‘lacuna’, ‘felicitous’ and ‘finitude’ make your proposals both harder to read and harder to understand.
2. The language of uncertainty (‘hope’, ‘would’, or ‘intend’) implies that you cannot deliver your proposed project and  leave assessors less convinced by your plans. Use ‘will’ instead.
3. Equally, over-use of ‘generally’, approximately’ or ‘tentatively’ makes your project look poorly designed rather than honestly described.
4. Sweeping statements such as ‘the general consensus’ or ‘it is agreed’ are likely to annoy those assessors who do not form part of the consensus and who do not agree with your point.
5. References to ‘the academy’ or ‘the faculty’ may lead assessors to query the importance and relevance of your research both within and beyond these vaguely-defined groups.
This post is the first in a series and thanks to my colleague Sarah Slowe for her contributions to this one.  Further suggestions welcome.

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