Narrative of ideas


I’ve just been reading a Fellowship application. The applicant is brilliant. She has a great project idea that is urgently needed, and had excellent potential to lead to both theoretical developments and real changes in practice.

I was excited to read her application, because she has done great stuff in the past. She has an amazing international network, both in her research field and across academia generally. She has developed really innovative methods and theoretical developments, as well as doing exemplary work with the community and the profession that her research serves.

Perhaps you can imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find much of that great stuff in her CV. There was one specific question that asks for research achievements and contributions. She had answered that question correctly, but… it didn’t sparkle.

All the amazing things that I knew she had done were listed in her CV, but I had to dig for them. I found the fact that she had been offered two different international fellowships at once buried in a discussion of opportunities to do research, along with the fact that she had chaired an international committee auspiced by the UN. I found some of her theoretical contributions and the translation of her research into practice buried in her list of ten best publications. Her leadership work with African researchers was listed as an interruption to her research career.

To help her turn this around, I suggested that she provide a narrative of ideas.

What is a narrative of ideas?

Ideas are the currency of research. They find form in different ways – books, referred articles, conference papers, data sets, industry reports, artworks, all sorts of things. But in the end, it is your ideas that other researchers are interested in.

However, by themselves, ideas can be hard to understand. It can be difficult to grasp how different ideas come together, or what effect they have had. A narrative can help to clarify all those things. It sets out what ideas you have developed, and why. It puts those ideas in context by talking about some of the projects that you have done, and some of the choices that you’ve made. It provides the reader with a path through your career, so that they can understand how you have developed your ideas.

How does it work?

There are lots of different ways to present a narrative, but two of the easiest are:

  • Start at the beginning (often your PhD) and work forwards.
  • Start where you are now, and work backwards.

I like the backwards approach for grant applications, because the rest of the application talks about where you are now (your idea), and where you want to go in the future (your project plan). The narrative of ideas can pick up that discussion of where you are now and work backwards to show how you got there.

So, for example, you might begin:

In this application, I am investigating…
This draws on several threads of my previous work.

You’ve just linked your CV to this application, and you’ve created an expectation that you will talk about your previous work.

From there, you might talk about what you’ve done before in different ways:

  • My team developed this technique to overcome [a problem]…; or
    …it allowed us to investigate [a particular issue]…
  • The work on … and … allowed me to develop a model for …. That model then led us to investigate…
  • We undertook international work with … at [university] and … at [university]. This work combined our previous work on … with their strengths in… and ….
    The international comparative data allowed us to….
    We found that…, which led us to question….
  • To gather this data, we worked with [industry partner].
    This provided us with a way to understand both their needs, and the needs of their clients.
  • While the government did not respond to our work immediately, our [industry partners] adopted it enthusiastically.
    They provided us with an introduction to [Department of…], and we were gratified to see some the ideas from … and … reflected in new government policies on…

How can I do this?

A lot of applicants find this quite hard to do. Some feel that they’ve followed opportunities as they have arisen, and there hasn’t been a strong connective thread. Others have such a tightly woven narrative that it is hard to seperate out the different threads to make something that makes sense. Here are some ideas for untangling your narrative. On a seperate page:

  • List your grants by year. What did each of them allow you to do? Who did you work with? What did you publish?
  • List the publications that you are most proud of, and answer the same questions.
  • Think about how you have worked with industry. What evidence can you show for that work, in terms of industry funding, invitations to visit, or reports written.
  • List the international and national visits that you’ve made or hosted, when they happened, who you visited (or who visited you), and why.

Now get some coloured markers and draw lines between the different things that you’ve listed. Use a different colour for each different research theme. These become the threads of your narrative. You mightn’t mention each item, but some of them will make their way into the narrative, making it more real. For example, compare the strength of these statements

  • Working with Prof Needs-Grant, we developed…
    Funding from The Generous Foundation ($3,000, 2017) allowed me to work with Prof Needs-Grant. Together, we developed…
  • Through this work, I developed an extended theory of…
    Through this work, I developed an extended theory of… (forthcoming 2019, Journal of Brilliant Ideas).

The things that led to your ideas (funding, collaborations) and the things that resulted from your ideas (publications, new projects) become the evidence in your narrative, rather than the focus. The focus rests squarely on your ideas.

Isn’t this hard to do?

This might be hard to do the first time. It won’t all be seamless. There will be quirky bits that don’t fit. There will be some things that aren’t linked at all. There will be breaks in the narrative.

However, the advantage of this approach is that it works best within your CV. Your CV is something that you attach (in different formats) to most grant applications. Each funding agency will ask for different information, presented in different ways, but there are very few double-blind funding schemes. So once you’ve done this, you can use it for a lot of applications. You’ll have to edit and update – cut and paste won’t work, but you’ll have done the hard yards. And each time you edit, it will get a bit stronger.

This doesn’t replace your list of publications, your list of grants, your list of awards and other shiny things. It supplements them. It draws the key elements of those lists into something that is engaging and informative to read.