Laying the research groundwork


When I’ve asked researchers about their funding streams, many want to talk about the projects they want grant money for. Drilling down a bit further, however, it becomes obvious that many of the projects aren’t actually projects…yet.

Some researchers have ideas for projects, while others have started initial discussions but haven’t gotten their collaborators to commit to the project yet. Some researchers have said they have a full-fledged project in their head but haven’t talked with anyone else about it. Often, even if the team has come together, the thinking around the project itself has not.

This makes it hard to talk to your university’s grants team because the research project you want funded isn’t properly baked. It’s all still a bit doughy and unformed. I’ve written before about why you should only submit golden-brown applications, and I know how much work it can take to get to that stage.

Most grants teams are fabulous and want to help you submit strong applications to those competitive funding rounds. However, it’s often neither their job nor do they have the capacity to get you to the project grant application starting block with a red-hot project and a team ready to go.

Grey areas

The problem here is the grey area of where this research development happens.

Particularly for early career researchers who may be fresh out of their PhD, starting that next big project—without a supervisor or the scaffolding of a degree—can be a significant challenge. Major, prestigious schemes such as the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) assume that candidates are past this stage and target researchers who have already proven themselves as independent scholars. This is a basic requirement of DECRA candidates, given the high competition (it has about a 16 per cent success rate) and stated ‘excellence’ requirements in the scheme.

The skill of staging research and knowledge of the processes that this requires comes with practice. Established researchers tend to know the steps they need to take to make it to the gateway of major grants-ville, or niche grants-ville depending on the project. And there’s the rub: established researchers tend to already have a research programme and rich profile in a particular area, so that what they do next and who they might collaborate with has a logic to it.

What to do?

What early career researchers do next can be tricky, particularly if they’re not attached to a lab or department that is offering them exciting extensions or progressive project work that allows them to build their skills, networks, and research plans. Or they’re on precarious employment and their research plans are not supported in any way.

Deb Brian’s post about building your track-record as an early career researcher is an excellent starting point for research planning and mapping out the possibilities for funding. It’s useful for early career researcher in the process of doing it, and for those who want their early career researchers to succeed and, therefore, should be advocating for and providing resource and infrastructure.

This post focuses on the steps that come before plotting out where project funding might come from. It offers two main elements that can support early career researchers in pulling a project together in the first place, and the things that are useful for emerging researchers to look for and ask about.

1. Getting money to talk about it

Often, savvy departments or faculties will fund developmental activities for research. This includes building the collaborations with potential non-university partners and collaborators from other universities.

Find out whether there are schemes in place, or any discretionary funding available, for these kinds of initiatives. In Australia, there are often whole units devoted to building relationships with industry partners.

Researchers will need to have an idea of what kind of project they want to carry out, but the good thing about these schemes is that they’re for the specific nutting out or thinking through of the research project and where it might go. Even if the initial result isn’t a major project, there may be other outcomes that are valuable, such as events, presentations, knowledge transfer, small projects or funding opportunities.

Remember that anyone who gives you money wants to see good things happen because of it; be ready to talk about how much good came of it.

It would be really good to see universities recognise the highly conservative nature of most of the research they do and that, for all the rhetoric, very little is invested in truly innovative ideas or approaches. These schemes for the early stages of cohering a research project should be open to failure or complete redirection. After all, we all know that a seamless research narrative is fiction. Giving researchers the chance to try out good ideas and fail with no punitive consequences would require a sea change in academia as we know it. These instances would certainly result in important new knowledge, just not in the way we’re used to evaluating it.

2. Finding colleagues who care

What early career researchers are really hungry for is good mentorship. Strong research mentors who can be good critical colleagues about emerging projects and potential research teams are gold. If you want to grow your early career researchers’ confidence and activity in this area, you need to ensure that there are opportunities for finding and consulting with research mentors consistently in this way.

I’m not talking about internal review panels for major grants (more on this below) but a much earlier, supportive, constructive dynamic that helps emerging researchers test out ideas and receive advice about what might or might not work. Some departmental seminars work beautifully for this, but it needs to be a prioritised, cultivated part of a unit’s research culture before it can do this.

Is there a recognised cluster of strong, established researchers with predispositions to mentoring whom early career researchers can access and build connections with? If not, why not? Manage this so that mentoring early career researchers is a recognised collegial necessity, not a chore or an extra-curricular role. Be open to sharing mentorship across disciplines to erode the silo mentality that’s so apparent in our universities.

Inclusive review panels

Review panels for major grants are all well and good—and can be very useful when done right—but early career researchers can often miss the benefits because it can be a while before their momentum culminates in a major submission. At this stage, what can be good for early career researchers who are forming their own research plans is being a part of the panel rather than in front of it.

Seeing the mechanisms of how a review panel works—warts and all—can be good education on many levels. It provides insight into the pitching of projects and their logistics, how to give and receive feedback, and what constitutes strong work. In addition, having early career researchers on review panels can improve the behaviour of more senior researchers.

At a basic level, units need to grow a community that cares about the success of its emerging researchers and invest in proactive ways to do this.

If these two simple components were more prevalent in our institutions, early-career researchers would have a much stronger, supported, sustainable path in developing their research programmes and plans. I know these are simple components with a complexity of implementation, but it’s worth doing and doing right.