Writing an ARC DECRA Rejoinder: An Unofficial Step-by-step Guide


NOTE for those who don’t know what the ARC (Australian Research Council) or DECRA (Discovery Early Career Research Award) are: The funding body and specific scheme is not the crucial part here. Research grant cycles often include a step where you can respond to what reviewers say about your funding application. While this post focuses on rejoinders for ARC DECRAs, it’s relevant for most schemes where you get the chance to address reviewers’ (or assessors’) criticisms. 

If you’ve just received your Australian Research Council (ARC) DECRA assessors’ reports, here’s a step-by-step guide to help you write your rejoinder.

It’s based on my experience, having gotten a DECRA (on second try) and a Discovery Project, and written but not gotten Linkage, Future Fellowship, and NISDRG grants. I’ve written a total of seven rejoinders for ARC projects in the past nine years.

This guide won’t explain what a rejoinder is. Your research office can advise you on that, or you can read the formal ARC guff on it. This post is mostly an accumulation of the advice I’ve received, focusing primarily on the human and social dimensions of the writing process. 

1. Understand that you’re actually great

I know you don’t like platitudes but it’s important to start out by acknowledging that, empirically, you’re actually great. There’s no way you could have made it this far if you weren’t. You’re sunk in a terrible, collapsing research funding system that disproportionately awards funding to men named Dave, and you’re probably not even a Dave. You work, or want to work, in a tertiary education system that has been casualizing its workforce straight into the sea for decades, obliterating security, increasing competition for fewer and fewer jobs, and undermining your capacity to be sane and productive at the same time. You’re amazing and the system is broken.

2. Take heart and/or steel yourself

Nobody I have ever spoken to actually understands how the ARC really works, or what precise role the rejoinders play. I also do not understand. Mysteries and miracles abound. People with good reports sometimes don’t get funded, and people with bad reports sometimes do. This doesn’t mean you should become a nihilist. Just try to remember that the process isn’t necessarily transparent or entirely logical. If you have good reports: steel yourself for failure. Bad reports: take heart.

You might want to get ready for the next steps by making a list of what you anticipate the criticisms of the project might be.

3. Assemble your team

In addition to the support of your university research office, you will need to assemble your own team of people to help you with your rejoinder. Don’t try to do it by yourself. You’ll need three support teams, each with 1-3 people. I recommend:

  • an emotional support team;
  • a spitballing team; and
  • a reading team.

I’ll introduce each of those teams as they come up in the proces. You should have your emotional support team in place before moving onto the next step.

4. First read

Open the RMS (aka grant application portal), read through the assessors’ reports once, and then close the RMS. Contact your emotional support team immediately.

The emotional support team can be people in or outside academia. Their role is to listen to you vent – which you will almost certainly need to do. Now is the time to gnash and grind your teeth about those f***ing ****holes and the ridiculous s*** they said about you and your project: their multiple misunderstandings, stringy interpretations, unkind evaluations, spelling mistakes, poor punctuation, and general incapacity to appreciate your brilliance and the glaringly obvious magnificence of your project.

5. Skim it (over and over)

Once you have regained equilibrium, you should skim over the rejoinders multiple times, taking breaks between them if necessary.

I usually cut and paste the rejoinders from the RMS into a Word or Google doc so I can avoid staring into the void of anxiety triggers that is the ARC research portal for any longer than necessary. I then usually reorganize the rejoinders by criteria rather than assessor.

Next, I skim over the reorganized reports several times, taking little or big breaks between skims depending on how mortified I am. In the first pass, I highlight all the positive comments green. Next, I highlight all criticisms in red and then I highlight all the queries in orange. Finally, I look for any places where the assessors contradict each other, and use comment bubbles to put those contradictory comments together (keeping track of who said what).

6. Consider structure

The start and end of your rejoinder should always be positive. Reiterate the good things that reviewers said and reaffirm the significance of your project and your capacity to do it. People always advise me to thank the reviewers and I do that but I don’t know if it’s actually that important, given how limited space is.

Apart from a peppy start and finish, structure can vary. There are at least three different structures you can consider.

One: Big to small.
Start by addressing the major criticisms and then work your way down to smaller and smaller issues, so by the end you are dismissing a few trivialities before reminding the reader why your project is awesome.

Two: Assessor by assessor.
Respond to the comments of each reviewer one by one. Start with the most critical reviewer and then you can work your way down to the least critical, or, you could switch immediately to the least critical in order to juxtapose your worst and best reviewer.

Three: Criteria by criteria.
Respond to the criteria one by one. You can either respond in the order of their weighting (so starting with the candidate), or you can order them from most negative to most positive.

Your choice of structure should depend on whatever you feel is most effective.

7. Spitballing

Before you start drafting, spend some time spitballing different versions. Your spitballing support (I usually just ask one person, but you could ask a few) should be someone who knows you and your work, and has time to talk things through. They don’t necessarily need experience writing rejoinders or getting ARC funding. A large part of their role is to help you clarify your ideas to yourself, but if they have rejoinder-specific experience to bring to the conversations, that’s even better.

Send your reports to your spitballer, using the highlighted version, explaining what the colors mean. Give them a day or two to read it, and then set up a meeting to talk through the different structural approaches you could use. Talk it over until you’ve selected the best  structure for you, making sure you’re clear about why that approach is best. It’s also a good idea to ask if your spitballer has seen anything in the reports that you haven’t noticed.

8. Drafting

While drafting, keep in mind your character limit – you might want to use a nonsense text with the correct character limit, and write over it so you know how much space you’ve got left. If you’re going to worry about something while drafting, worry about style more than substance – you’re only allowed to repeat things that are already in the proposal, so concentrate on saying things as succinctly and convincingly as possible.

Wherever possible, use the assessors’ comments against each other, pointing out that (for example) A’s criticisms of your publication record are contradicted by C and B’s praise for your productivity relative to your career stage.

Points that cannot be addressed by the assessors’ reports should be addressed by referring back to the proposal, giving page numbers rather than wasting space with quotes.

If possible, leave no criticism unaddressed, no matter how small or how hard it makes you roll your eyes.

And wherever possible, turn the negatives in the reports into positives: for example, ‘that’s not an oversight, it’s a deliberate omission for entirely justifiable reasons’… and so on.

If you’ve skimmed the reports multiple times and spitballed possible structural strategies, you will hopefully be able to draft the rejoinder fairly quickly (like, half-a-day quickly). Then let it sit for a day and maybe give it another edit.

9. Getting feedback

This is where your reading team comes in. Your readers should be people with ARC experience – the more experience, the better. Cast your net a little wider than your usual networks so you can hopefully get feedback from at least one person who doesn’t know you and your work well. I usually try for three readers.

I send all the readers the same draft at the same time, and I let them know that I’m doing that. I give them a couple of days to read it because usually they are busy people. I let them know that I’m happy to get feedback in writing or in conversation. I might also say that I’m happy to receive any sort of feedback depending on how much time they have, ranging from very broad and general to detailed edits and comments on the wording.

10. Moving on

Once you’ve incorporated the feedback you should now have a good draft to send to your research office, who will also give you further feedback and provide you an opportunity for another set of edits and tweaks.

When you send it off, mark the occasion in whatever way you can. Tell your support teams and say thanks. Have a nice meal. Read a book you had put aside. Close your tabs, or delete the PDF folder on your desktop. Maybe go for a walk. Whatever makes it special.

If you have another chance to submit again next year, start making preparations for that by making a few notes about how you can tweak your proposal based on the reports you got this year.

Once you’ve got those notes down somewhere, remember that you’re amazing, that not all Daves deserve their DECRAs, and that no one should have to compete in the Hunger Games just to have a job.

Author Bio: Dr Gerald Rocheis an award-winning political anthropologist and casualized academic worker. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, Media, and Philosophy at La Trobe University, Co-Chair of the Global Coalition of Language Rights, and a La Trobe Asia Research Fellow.