Describing your research project.

In this post I want to discuss how to build up a full description of a research project. The description of the research project is the last and biggest part of the generic case for support. Its length should be about 50% of the total and, as I have explained, it is the part you should write first.

In my last post I explained that the easiest way to start writing the case for support is by describing a sub-project, a discrete set of research activities that will discover something. I also put a sub-project checklist in the resources section. In this post I want to discuss three issues:-

  • the actions you take after you have written the description of each sub-project,
  • how you string your descriptions of sub-projects together to produce a readable narrative, and
  • how you top and tail the list of sub-project descriptions to produce a complete draft of the description of the research project.

In chapter 7 of  the book we explain that the description of the research project should be built up from about four sub-projects. This is true whether you are conjuring the sub-projects into existence by describing them or whether you have already designed the entire project and you are breaking it down into sub-projects in order to write the case for support.

As you complete the description of each sub-project you should do two things. You should record the information you will need for writing other parts of the case for support and you should check whether your project is heading to be too big or too small..

In order to record the information you will need,  you should maintain five lists.

  1. A list of discoveries: each sub-project should lead to one discovery. In the next section of the case for support that you should write, you will need to cite evidence that will convince the reader that we need to know the things you are going to discover. For convenience, the discoveries should be listed in the same order as the sub-projects that will discover them.
  2. A list of the research competences needed to carry out each subproject. Somewhere in the case for support you will need to convince the reader that your team has these competences. The best way to do this is to cite publications in which you have used the competences.
  3. A list of methods used. The list should include a note of whether the method has been explained and which sub-project description contains the explanation.
  4. A list of the resources, including staff-time and your time, that will be paid for by the grant. As soon as you start writing this list you should seek help from your institution’s research office in compiling the costs.
  5. A list of institutional resources that will be used by the grant, including your time. You should discuss with your institution’s research office which of these will be provided free and which should be paid for by the grant.

In order to check whether your project is likely to be the right size, when you update your lists of resources you should calculate whether the time and cost required for the research project are likely to be within the range of that you can request in your application. You should also check whether the institutional resources – including your time – are likely to be available to commit to the project and will be seen as a reasonable commitment by your colleagues and your head of department.

If it looks as if either the institutional commitment or the requested cost will be too high, think about curtailing the overall project so that you end up with commitment and cost in the right range. On the other hand if it looks as if the cost will be too low, think about adding more sub-projects so that you can scale up your project. Alternatively, think about finding a funding scheme for which your project will be the right size.

If you don’t know the funding agency’s limits you can get advice from the funding agency and from your institution’s research office. If you don’t know which agency to target you need to get advice or read chapters 1-3 of the book; chapter 12 also has advice on how to assemble your budget.

Stringing the sub-projects together to make a coherent project is a matter of deciding whether there is a natural order for doing the research, or for describing it. It is often the case that the execution of one subproject will depend on information to be discovered in another, which will dictate a natural order. However, you should be very careful to avoid designing a sub-project that depends on a particular outcome of a preceding sub-project. One of the commonest reasons for rejecting a grant application is that the committee forms the view (correctly or otherwise) that if the first sub-project finds z instead of x or y, then the other sub-projects will not be worth doing.

If you are lucky, you will reach a point where you have a budget in the right range, and four sub-projects that make a coherent project when they are combined. If you are unlucky, you may need to adjust the number of sub-projects by combining them or splitting them. You may also need to set one or more sub-projects aside for a future grant application and generate one or more different sub-projects to get a better fit. Don’t worry if you have to do this – it is good to maintain a library of ‘do-able’ sub-projects in case you have to write a grant application very quickly.

When you have got four suitable sub-projects linked together in the right order you are ready to write the opening sub-section of the project description. This needs to do the following:-

  • State the general research approach.
  • Introduce the sub-projects in order.
  • Describe any general methods. Use the list of methods you have compiled (see 3 above) in order to ensure that all the methods that will be used in the project are described just once.
  • Discuss any necessary general issues – for example ESRC requires a special justification if new data are to be collected and most funders will require statements about how ethical and data protection matters are to be dealt with if research involves experiments on animals or research on humans or information about individuals.

Finally you should write the tail end of the description of the project which should describe what  you will do to make sure that your research findings are appropriately disseminated and any actions you will take to ensure that they have appropriate impact. Any activities which will require resources from the grant should be described in much the same way as a sub-project and the resources should be added to the resources list.

The resources section contains a checklist for the project description. The best way to use it is to get a friend to read through your project description and fill in the checklist.

As soon as you have written the project description you can begin to work out the detailed costings with your research funding support office.

In my next post  I shall describe how you write the research background section. We shall see that the fact that you will already have written the description of the research project makes it much easier.

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2 Responses to Describing your research project.

  1. Pingback: Writing by Numbers: the Case for Support in 7 Easy Steps. | Research Funding Toolkit

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