Choosing the unicorns – An ECR’s perspective on grant reviews


The other day, I read the guest blog on Research Whisperer by Adam Micolich about capturing unicorns, a.k.a landing your first successful grant application. I found it really helpful for early career researchers such as myself, and wanted to offer another perspective on the funding process: that of a grants reviewer.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing two grant submissions.

Once my initial imposter syndrome worries evaporated, I found it was a useful learning experience.

I wanted to share what I’ve learned with other early career creatures on their journey towards capturing that mythical unicorn of a successful grant application! It’s really interesting to compare Adam’s and my tips, given our differences in career stage and grant application experience.

The first application I reviewed this year arrived on my desk in autumn. Two colleagues were submitting an expression of interest to a charitable organisation and I was asked to be the internal reviewer. As in many departments, this internal review process is a quality check prior to external submission.

The second opportunity to review a grant application came after a colleague recommended me as an external reviewer to another charitable body.

The first proposal was outside my research area whereas the second was a close fit with my knowledge and experience. Both reviews provided a great opportunity to learn about what happens after grants are submitted and what reviewers expect.

1) The Review Process

I had experience with funding submissions pre-PhD and as a postdoc, and I know the gladiator-like obstacles that we have to overcome in submitting a grant. This ranges from gaining the courage to begin writing the application, to getting university finance to accept your budget. Here, as a reviewer, I saw the other side of the fence: the post-submission review and feedback process (think “revise and resubmit” in research publications).

For the internal review, the process was rather informal with a back-and-forth of documents with comments attached.

The external grant review process was more formal and somewhat more informative. The funder clearly laid out their review criteria and expectations and the review was completed in a pre-formatted document. Once the reviews were submitted by the three independent academics, including me, comments were collated by the funder and the proposer was given the opportunity to address the comments. The rebuttal and revisions were returned to the reviewers for a second time. We were asked to comment on whether concerns had been addressed and whether the project was now fundable. This process had a conversational feel about it and, while this may not be the process for all funders, it is encouraging to know that there was the opportunity to engage in such dialogue in order to improve the research proposal. When submitting grants, it’s useful to ask colleagues with previous experience of that funder to guide you through the likely process.

2) Details, Details, Details

Grant application guidelines are exacting. If the guide asks you to put your pet’s initials in the header next to the page number and use obscure headings like “Aspirations” and “Methodological Pedagogy” then use them. Define your acronyms, use appropriate writing style and be consistent across the many documents you may need to submit. Failure to stick to the process laid out in the guidelines will hopefully be picked up by your co-investigators, internal reviewers or university research office before the application even gets out of your organisation. At best, this is a waste of your colleagues’ time when they could be focusing on your pedagogy. At worst, it results in a bounce-back by the gatekeeper at the platinum-plated email gates of the funding body.

3) Budgets

As a reviewer of a grant for a charitable organisation, I felt like one of the trustees of their pot of money. In the reviewer guidance, we were asked to examine whether the proposed research was achievable within the budget and time-frames specified. Given my experience in the field and knowledge of the population to be studied, it was obvious where items in the application were not accurately costed and where time-frames were inadequate. Research proposals should, of course, be appropriately ambitious in our grant applications (as Adam notes in his post), but attempting to hide costs or trick the funder might be a high-risk strategy if you get a reviewer who’s familiar with the field (and chances are, sometime, you will).

4) Know your funder

While reviewing for the external funder, I dutifully examined the funder’s website to try to understand their funding rationale. I was able to find the only loosely defined criteria for potential applicants. On receipt of the reviewer information, I found the review criteria to be much more specific. The areas to review included: the relevance of the topic to the call; the competence and reliability of the researchers; the significance, novelty and viability of the research; and the practicalities and appropriateness of the approaches, methods, hypotheses, dissemination strategy. It was surprising that this detail was not available to applicants pre-submission.

Any ambiguity in judging criteria puts early career researchers at a clear disadvantage, although this can be easily overcome by engaging with those who have more experience of the selection process. This might include discussions with collaborators, mentors and your research group and going to grant-craft workshops or grant writing retreats. In order to improve your own knowledge, visibility and reputation with funders, you could also seek out grant reviews through your network.

The expression of interest I reviewed for departmental colleagues turned out to be unsuccessful on first submission. After seeking clarification from the funder, my colleagues were encouraged to resubmit and were provided with further guidance on what was described as “the right way to do things around here”. It is helpful to know that the “right way” might not be at all obvious but that resubmission, with a potentially stronger application after feedback, is often possible.

5) Expertise

As mentioned in Adam’s piece, it is important to ensure you have adequate expertise in your research team as this could be a red flag in the review process. You will be judged on both the theoretical and practical experience held by your team of investigators. In small research fields, it is likely that at least one of your reviewers will know someone on your research team. Hopefully, this will be you if you’ve been networking like a high-spec super-computer. For the external review, I was aware of the PI’s work but found there was minimal practical experience within the team of working with the specific and challenging population of interest. Had the researcher addressed this area of expertise more specifically in their initial application, the initial reviews might have been more positive.

6) Self-affirmations

Even writing this post makes me feel like an imposter. An early career researcher giving advice to other early career researchers? On the basis of a couple of reviews? Ridiculous!

Having said that, the process of reviewing the grants was a great tonic for imposter syndrome. Seeing the comments made by other reviewers who were established in the field gave me confidence in being equally competent for the role of reviewer. Many of my concerns were reiterated by the other reviewers, and other comments I made were carefully acknowledged and addressed by the investigators in their resubmission. Take that, imposter syndrome! I’m giving myself a “Well Done” sticker!

While the review process is confidential, you are (as a reviewer) given privileged access to the secret plans of other research groups. This can broaden your awareness of the future theoretical and methodological directions being taken in your field and allows you to reflect on the skills and knowledge you have actually amassed as an early career researcher.

I would highly recommend that other early career researchers seek out grants to review, both internally and externally, in spite of the time costs of conducting them. Indeed, to offer this learning opportunity to more early career researchers, I would like to encourage all established researchers to regularly recommend early career researchers to funders as reviewers.

I hope I have dispelled some of the more mystical aspects of the grant review process.

May your next unicorn hunt be successful!

P.S. The grant application for which I was internal reviewer is due for resubmission after duly addressing the feedback. The external grant I reviewed was funded – unicorns do exist!

Author Bio: Emma Birkett is a Teaching Associate in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham and lives in the quiet backwaters of Derbyshire, UK