Friday, 8 February 2013

Notes from a Mock Panel

'Save me from my friends'. Never truer than in the bearpit
of academic peer review
I took part in the University's PGCHE research funding module today, which took participants through a 'mock panel'. This is always a useful exercise as it gives potential applicants a feel for the issues that peer review panellists are having to grapple with in real life.

There were about thirty participants, and we divided them into five panels: one of humanities academics (looking at AHRC applications), two of social scientists (looking at ESRC applications)  and two of scientists (looking at EPSRC applications).

In preparation I did some reading around the ESRC process, and I'll write these up in a post shortly, but in the meantime it's worth noting some of the key points that came out of the session:

  • Firstly, no matter what your discipline, you can spot the weaknesses in the applications. This is interesting: I chaired one of the social science panels, and all those who took part were in disciplines that were very different from those of the applicants. Nevertheless they picked up on a lot of the weaknesses, and were pretty accurate in the ranking of the applications.
  • Secondly, seniority matters. We pretend it doesn't, but if a PI has an impressive CV, we're more likely to let some vagueness in the application slide. This was a bit disheartening for the ECRs present. However, I pointed out that two of the best applications under consideration were from ECRs who had overcome this difficulty by either have a strong, robust and well thought through project design, or had more senior co-investigators on board to give it gravitas and reassurance. 
  • Thirdly, time is short. You imagine the panellists have all the time in the world to consider your application, but time's snapping at their heals. Decisions need to be made, compromises struck, and the agenda moved on. You - as the applicant - have to help the introducers by giving the the information they need to support your application in a format and place that they can grab it quickly. Cut to the chase: what's your research question, why's it important, why's it timely, why are you the person to answer it, how are you going to do it, and how are you going to disseminate it.
  • Fourthly, confidence shines through. If you believe in yourself and your research, it really helps. Don't be tentative, uncertain or - let's be frank - academic. You need to sell your proposal, and to do so you've got to believe in both its worth, but also in its achievability.

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