Despite the fact that grantseeking is an embedded part of contemporary academic life, researchers are often unpractised and insecure about asking for money. They may feel the awkwardness of asking for money, or uncertainty about the value of their ideas or track record as a researcher. We can reassure you that this feeling is common. The process of seeking funding for your work (or for yourself through fellowships) is a basic job requirement for researchers, and a highly desirable skill to have in any professional sector.
Chances are you get to hear about grants and funding as part of incidental academic conversations (hopefully with only a few expletives). It’s almost a process of osmosis: we absorb information from others, often piecemeal and erratically. The fact that it’s often by osmosis means that you’re relying on your research environment for this knowledge. This can be fraught if your environment is unsupportive, unfriendly and exclusive – or just inexperienced in getting funding. Developing strong, diverse networks can overcome these issues to some extent. Cultivating some for yourself – beyond and also within one institution – gives you more choices and better opportunities to gain knowledge about being an effective, collaborative researcher.
When you’re starting out, it’s useful to reflect on the questions below and consider where your research ideas, track record and networks might be at the moment.
- What are you asking for?
- What type of funders are there?
- What sources of funding are out there for my field?
- What stage am I at in my career, and with particular projects?
- What do the funding guidelines say?
- How do you feel about applying for funding?
WHAT ARE YOU ASKING FOR?
Academics and researchers are well-trained to think about their publications and projects in stages; it can be useful to think about research funding in a similar way, as a ‘pipeline’ of current, short- and long-term projects.
This is important in helping to give some kind of framework to the daunting challenge of asking for money. It is very easy to be both intimidated by the task and unfocused in what you are applying for. You’ve been told you need to apply for funding, but it’s essential that you take a step back, breathe and think about what you actually want the money for – and what avenues you will need to take to get it.
You should also think about where you are in your grant-writing journey, and what you can realistically hope to secure. It can be easier to start off with smaller ‘asks’ before moving on to larger requests further down the pipeline. Applying for a conference or travel grant, for example, gives you experience of the funding process and equips you with foundational knowledge about what’s involved in asking for money for a discrete activity. If you’ve ever applied for a scholarship, you’ve negotiated a funding application already.
RESEARCH PLANNING IS YOUR FRIEND
When you’re thinking about what you need to do right now or in the near future for your research, it’s helpful to think beyond the immediate career or disciplinary horizon. Thinking about funding for your career – as opposed to only for a current project – gives you strategic credibility when you’re applying for grants or for academic roles. Seeing your vision for developing the research area and the potential outcomes is much more convincing than a series of seemingly one-off projects.
While you need to know where to look for funding, you can be more effective in your search by thinking creatively or laterally about your topic and who might fund work in it. For example, say your area is visual arts education for primary school-aged children. There may or may not be grants that are an immediately good fit for this topic and its applications. To think creatively and laterally about it, you might consider funding that encourages research on community or school creativity, initiatives that promote engagement with families and younger children, or partnerships with creative arts institutions that want research on how to build their visitor numbers.
If you research in the areas of wellbeing and ageing, you can broaden the possibilities of funding for your research if your topic – and potential research team – can focus on different locational contexts (e.g. urban, rural, regional), specific community traits (e.g. older people from particular migrant groups), or medical conditions (e.g. people with diabetes).
You may be a stats wizard who specialises in urban planning and demographic research. Could this be applied in different countries, or be part of collaborative work with government or industry?
Doing this lateral thinking means that you can open up possibilities for different sorts of funding, and test out the potential for your topic to develop in particular directions. This is especially important if your research requires significant funding. Thinking about possible steps for your research should all be part of your research career planning. Including potential funding streams in your plan makes it a stronger one, even if you don’t get most of those grants.
How can this be? Well, it’s because the value of developing a research career plan lies in the thoughts and conversations behind the plan, not the exact achievement of the plan. You need to be prepared for things to go off-plan or be completely derailed. In fact, in academia, a plan that works out exactly as you would have it may well be the exception rather than the rule.
All our plans for research depend on the roles we occupy and having a salary to sustain us makes a huge difference. The most beautiful research career planning falls in a heap if that fixed-term contract isn’t renewed or casual/sessional hours dry up. Even if you’re in a full-time, relatively secure position, life – and restructures – happen. There are some who declare that they would do their research no matter whether they had a paying job or not: it is a relatively common declaration but a rare reality.
So, make research plans but know that they’re likely to morph into other things. They are not set in stone.
Author Bios: Tseen Khoo is co-founder of The Research Whisperer and a Senior Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University, Australia, Phil Ward is the Director of Eastern Arc, a regional research consortium in the UK comprising the universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent. You’ll find more by Phil at the Research Fundermentals blog and Jonathan O’Donnell is co-founder of The Research Whisperer and a Senior Research Initiative Coordinator in the Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne, Australia.