Monday, 17 December 2012

Essential Elements of a Good Application

Kent's Essential Elements. If only we could bottle it.
And put a Clown Fish on the label.
Everyone’s research is different, but successful funding proposals share a number of common elements. Mastering these is essential if your application is going to get the consideration it deserves, no matter how good your underlying research idea is.

The speakers for last week’s Grants Factory session came from very different disciplines, but it was their diverse backgrounds which was their strength: it showed that, whether you’re applying to the AHRC or the BBSRC, you need to understand these key elements. Paul Allain is Professor of Theatre and Performance in the School of Arts, and Mick Tuite is Professor of Molecular Biology in the School of Biosciences.

For Mick, there are three elements that make a project fundable:

·         Firstly, it must ask an important question;
·         Secondly, it must offer a realistic chance of a solution within the time;
·         Finally, it must be run by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Demonstrating these three elements should be the main aim of your proposal.  The application itself is a complex patchwork of sections, but all of these must tie together to achieve this aim.

·         Lay Summary: this is the key to the proposal. It gets the reviewer and panel interested enough to read on. It should make the case, in a few paragraphs, as to why your project is exciting, timely and crucial, what you’re going to do, and why you’re the person to do it.
·         Background: don’t spend too long on this, but make it clear that you understand the context, and show – once again – why you’re well placed to undertake the research. However, avoid too much self-citation, but do disclose preliminary data or analyses.
·         Aims & Objectives: ideally, there shouldn’t be more than five, and that there’s a logical flow between them. Give a sense of timelines, of what you’re going to do when.
·         Work Plan: the idea of ‘work packages’ is becoming more common. Each of these should have its own aim and outcome, and there should be sufficient detail in each for the reviewer to be able to judge the work. Don’t be shy about highlighting what is innovative or ground breaking. Be ambitious but realistic.

Paul took over to look at the essential language of the application. He made the analogy of seeing a bank manager. You don’t need to justify why you need a house, but you do need to show that you can handle it, that you’re the one, and you’ve got a good ‘investment’. ‘It’s the language of money’, but your proposal should also ‘tell a story’ with a clear and compelling narrative.
The nuts and bolts that hold this narrative together should include:

·         A clear layout, with bullet points, short sentences, paragraph breaks, spell check.
·         Questions, sub-questions, priorities. Use numbering. Show that you’ve thought it through.
·         Diagrams, visual representations for timelines. If they’ve looked at hundreds of applications, they will be drawn to it.
·         Frames and signposts – create flow and interlink phrases. Show that you have control over the process.
·         Repetition and emphasis.
·         Value for money. Applications can fall down on this, but it’s not necessarily a ‘dealbreaker’. If things cost, they cost. Think through everything you will need.
·         Milestones. Clear demarcations, progress markers.

A compelling narrative needs to be assertive.
·         Don’t hypothesise too much – research needs ‘steps towards the unimaginable’.
·         Use active verbs, not aspirational ones. Not ‘I would like to...’, or ‘perhaps I will...’ Be assertive.
·         Depict a momentum that can’t be stopped now (pilot/investigatory/preparatory project). It’s their chance to give this idea some legs.

It also needs to be certain.
·         The project team is the right balance of expertise. If you’ve got a shortcoming in any area, bring in external help.
·         The structures and timescales are sensible and achievable.
·         For your outputs, play to your strengths; make them achievable, and don’t overstretch yourself. However, there is a need for a ‘mixed economy’: academic, impact, public engagement.

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