For many funding agencies, your readers will usually fit into one of two categories:
- The reviewer is usually a subject specialist. They are being asked to comment on the substance of your proposed research.
- The panellist usually has a significant profile in the field. They won’t necessarily have a knowledge of your area.
Your proposal, then, is going to have to walk a difficult tightrope. There needs to be enough detail to satisfy the reviewer, but enough simplicity to enable a generalist to understand what you propose.
Many think that these two demands are mutually exclusive, but the opposite is true. In fact, they are mutually supportive, as they require the same writing skills: the ability to communicate with clarity and simplicity, and the ability to structure a logical, rational argument. You’re not dumbing down for the panellist, but neither are you getting into the dark forest of detail for the reviewer.
To satisfy both audiences, you will need to get feedback on your application. This may seem like an obvious point to make. In many disciplines, there has long been a culture of collaboration and joint working. Proposals are often developed together, so getting feedback from your co-authors is an entirely natural part of the process.
In others, there has historically been a culture of the ‘lone scholar’. This is changing, but we’ve seen too many cases where a proposal has been worked on solo, and submitted without showing it to anyone.
There can be many reasons for this. It may be a fear of having your great idea stolen by others. It may be embarrassment, perhaps, at being in a position of having to request the help of others. Or it may just be a case of not having had the time to get around to it, and the deadline is at 5 pm today.
Whatever the reason, try to overcome it. Proposals always benefit from a little tough love. Aim to get as much feedback as you can. To do this, you’ll need to start the process of drafting as early as possible. Ideally, get people on board right from the beginning as a form of ‘mentoring’. Feedback is far more useful when your proposal is at a stage where it can be adapted and changed significantly. If you only show it to people once it’s essentially ready to submit and the deadline is looming, you can do little but tweak the edges.
Most universities have some form of internal peer review for funding applications. Use it, but don’t stop there because you need a diversity of perspectives. This is why having a network of critical friends is important. Critical friends are colleagues you trust to read your work (whether that work is a grant application, journal paper, promotion document or research report) and give you rigorous, constructive feedback. They are supportive and invested in helping you develop your track record and career. Tseen has written about how to develop this essential support network (Khoo, 2019) and it’s good to start building one early in your researcher life.
For the critical friends you may approach about your funding application, give some thought to what type of feedback they can give, and how you want to work with their feedback. Discipline experts will give great feedback on the strength and weakness of your ideas but may not have read the funding guidelines very closely or have experience with that particular scheme. Research administrators will help to defend your application against attack and should know the current guidelines but can-not help with theoretical and discipline-specific issues. Friends and family will be able to help you clarify your ideas but will not know the theory or the framework of rules and guidelines around the funding opportunity.
Give readers of your draft application clear instructions about what sort of feedback you want and when you need it. At the start of the process, you don’t need to know about typos; if you have two days to go, you don’t want to know about major structural issues or that you need a new team member.
A good deadline will help your reviewers understand if they can get it done or not, and will prevent you from receiving helpful feedback three days after you submitted the application. It will also help you stage when the feedback arrives. Do you want all of their feedback to come back at the same time, willy-nilly or sequentially? Moving from review to review sequentially will be slower than having it all come at the same time. However, having it all arrive at once may be overwhelming.
You don’t have to accept their feedback, but it’s important to get as many points of view as possible. Does it make a compelling case for those in the discipline? Does it make sense to those without? Does it tell a good story? Do they understand the rationale?
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK used to say that the lay summary of an application should make sense ‘to an intelligent 14-year-old’. It’s a great audience to imagine, and a very honest audience to try it out on. Would a teenager you know understand it? If they don’t understand it, ask them why. Better still, take a moment to take a breath and use it as an opportunity to ‘pitch’ it to them. Having to explain it, either online or in person, forces you not to rely on the written word and fall back into the familiar and comfortable territory of academia.
Author Bios: Tseen Khoo is co-founder of The Research Whisperer and a Senior Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University, Phil Ward is the Director of Eastern Arc, a regional research consortium in the UK comprising the universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent and Jonathan O’Donnell is co-founder of The Research Whisperer and a Senior Research Initiative Coordinator in the Faculty of Science also at the University of Melbourne