Last Thursday (21st June 2012) I attended a really informative training session on Bidding for Research Funding. I did this training as part of my career development and to quash some of my fears about putting my ideas out there, and very likely having them rejected. I have applied for three postdoctoral fellowships since finishing my PhD and for each was rejected at the first round. Competing with over 850 applications each time is very difficult but indicative of the contemporary academy and its many challenges. While this was undoubtedly emotionally difficult I need to continue trying and obviously need to improve my writing if I want to secure future bids.
Having attended the course I wanted to share some of what I learnt by way of keeping a record, but also to share the advice with others who may be thinking about bidding for research funding or have so far been unsuccessful.
The peer review process for funding
Before I give any tips, I think it is necessary to think about the actual process of peer review for funding bids. This way you know what your audience is and get a sense of what should really stand out in your application. The course I attended simulated a funding allocation meeting where peer reviews and support for particular projects are voiced.
Prior to the session we were given three exemplar bids that we had to assess as individuals. We then assessed these again in groups made up of individuals from a variety of different disciplines having shared our thoughts about them. We got 15 minutes to discuss each bid and to choose which we wanted to fund. We used three criteria to judge each bid and a 7 point scale ranging from Outstanding to Poor; originality, Design and Methods and Outputs/Dissemination. A fourth category is also used in peer review; Value for Money.
A rapporteur then had 2 minutes to sell their groups preferred project to the rest of the groups and the panel. This is similar to what happens in reality according to the session conveners, except usually the reviewers get less time to champion their favourite bid. Knowing how this process worked has helped me to make sense of what reviewers are looking for and has demonstrated that reviewing is not about the person’s work but about how well the proposed research project is written and planned.
With this knowledge in place, we were introduced to some great tips about how to make your bid as fundable as possible.
1. Say up front why your research is important
Assuming your bid is chosen to go to the review panel, the peer reviewer has 2 minutes to say up front to the panel why your research should be funded. Make it easy on them and say up front in your bid why your research is important.
2. Make the reviewer’s job easy: hit them in the eyeballs
In following step 1 you are making the reviewers job easy. Hit them in the eyeballs straight away and you get their attention and hook them in. Throughout the bid make sure you tell the reviewer what you are going to do and why. It is also good to state what will be at issue if they don’t fund this research. Tell them what we need to know and why it is a problem if they don’t fund you.
3. Spell out the key messages
Use straight forward, simple language and really spell out the key messages of your bid. Say why this is important and ensure your aims, objectives and methods are clear and justifiable. The winning bid at the workshop highlighted key messages in bold to really emphasise them to the reviewer.
4. Avoid jargon where possible or at least explain it
The winning bid at the workshop was very scientific but everyone understood what the project was about despite being from diverse interdisciplinary backgrounds. Keeping language simple while conveying the key academic messages is a good skill to develop and use in funding bids. Remember who your audience is for the bids you write. If you need to use jargon, you shouldn’t assume prior knowledge; explain it.
5. Make the reviewer believe you’ll do what you’ll say
This is really important and has a lot to do with the way individuals convey their ideas and messages. Enthusiastic language and appropriate research methods to generate realistic obtainable data make for a strong bid.
6. Know your funder
Know what the objectives of your funder are. Can you get your research ideas to fit with funder objectives? Great advice we were given is that you should never wait for the perfect funding to fit your project idea. It will never happen. Know which funders most suit your research interests and find the right balance between doing your research and meeting the needs of the funders. Check out the funders’ websites and do some research. It is also helpful to know that funders like exciting ‘practical’ ideas. Question whether or not your idea is really selling this to the funder.
7. Know what support is available to you
Questioning the value and clarity of your bid can be really difficult, especially if you are emotionally invested in an idea. The best thing to do is to research and make use of internal support at your university. Many institutions have Research support offices and other staff who can read through your bid. Colleagues are also a good source of support and constructive criticism.
8. Don’t rush bids
Bid writing takes a lot of time and emotional investment but it is best to spend the time needed on them because rushed bids with mistakes and unachievable aims and objectives stand out a mile and risk being thrown straight in the no pile.
I hope these tips are useful. I know I learnt a lot from the day and am now looking forward to using this advice to develop my own, hopefully fundable bids.