The nitty and the gritty

‘in a dark place’ by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

How did you feel when you finished your last grant application? Let me guess: you were exhausted, running late, and sick of the sight of the thing.

Hold onto that feeling. Embrace it. Understand it.  Because that might have been how your assessors felt when they were reading your application.

They probably had a stack of applications too high to jump over, and reading them in the gaps between the rest of their life (i.e. late at night, when they were traveling, when they were tired). Unless you were very lucky, they might have been reading them piece-meal, a bit at a time. And they would have been rushing, because they needed to get their reports back in time and there were other things calling on their time.

As a result, they might not have been in top form when they reviewed your application.

But that’s enough about them; let’s get back to you!

“This application needed a good proof-read before being submitted.”

When you get a comment like that, it isn’t much comfort to remember that you only just submitted the application in time, an hour or so before the deadline. However, that is exactly the sort of thing that assessors say in their reports. Given that you’re asking for several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of funding, they have a point.

When an assessor is tired, or disappointed, or feels that you are wasting their time, they can often become quite critical.

Spelling mistakes and typos distract normal readers. If your reader is tired, at the end of a long day, simple mistakes will do more than distract them, they will actively annoy them. They might move from being an open, generous but tired assessor to being a tired, nit-picking, hostile assessor.

Most often, hostile assessors criticise your methodology. I’ve never seen an assessor write: “This application doesn’t have enough background”.  I’ve often seen an assessor write: “This methodology needs more detail”.

What makes a good methodology?

If you want your assessors to approve of your methodology, give them as much detail as you can. Don’t just show them the landscape – get down and dirty. Show them the grit.

  • Tell them how much data you’ll be collecting, why it’ll be collected, and what you’ll be doing with it.
  • Describe exactly how each stage of collecting and analysis work together to solve your central research question.
  • Show them the links between your different stages, how each element will advance you in solving your research question.
  • Clearly state what outcomes there will be from each stage. Be explicit.

Convince them!

Tell them how many people you will be interviewing, samples you’ll be taking, documents you’ll be examining, and sources you’ll be investigating. Give them numbers and people, and make them feasible. You need this detail level of detail to estimate your budget and your timeline. Don’t force the assessor flip to to those sections to see these details. Put them up front, in your methodology, so the budget, timeline and methods section all reinforce one another.

These are some of the questions you should be pre-empting in your methodology:

  • What sort of methods will you be using?
  • How many studies do you need to resolve your central question?
  • How will the observations be collected and analysed?
  • What sort of insights or themes will you be looking for, and how will you map them?

Describe your techniques, and why they were chosen. Assessors will want assurance that you are more than competent with these techniques. Saying that you are is not enough; include references to peer-reviewed articles where you have used these techniques before.

If you use the term ‘mixed methods’ (just what does that really mean?), tell them in detail how you will marry your quantitative data with your qualitative data. They will need to know that so that they can decide what chance you may have of achieving your research goals.

Give the same level of depth for the full period of this project. Don’t describe the first six months in detail and then go fuzzy as you push further out. Conversely, don’t drift back into the past. Your methodology should build on the background, but it should also be focused on the immediate future. Anything that talks about the past is probably talking about background, and should go into that section or be deleted.

Most importantly, the assessors will want to understand why you believe that your methodology will work. Why is it going to work when other people have failed? Why it is clever and innovative, but feasible? Expose your thinking. Lay out simply and clearly what you are going to do.

This level of detail is important for two reasons:

  1. It shows the assessors that you have given real thought to what you are going to do, and
  2. It allows them to evaluate whether the approach and processes of your research will fulfil your project’s aims.

For you, it is the best chance to think it through before you get into the project. If you don’t do it now, there might be some nasty surprises when you do get to start up the actual work.

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  1. Don’t know anything about the grant formates in Australia, but I find one of the chief challenges in US with new applications is balancing detail with space constraints. For postdoc proposals, we’re looking at 6 pages for intro, prelim data, and research strategy! I’m working on one now where the 6 pages includes specific aims too. Any general suggestions on deciding where to trim and where to expand – especially in methodology?


    • Hi Biochembelle

      I’ve never seen an assessor write: “This application doesn’t have enough background”. I’ve often seen an assessor write: “This methodology needs more detail”.

      So refocus your background (introduction) and preliminary data first. It should tell the story that led to this project, this particular research question. I see a lot of applications that provide a general literature review as background, rather than telling the story of this project, with literature pulled in to support that story.

      If you have cut your background (introduction) and preliminary data as far as you can, and want to apply a razor to the methodology, then there are a couple of things you can think about:

      • Is there anything that can be referenced, rather than written? For example, are you describing a technique that is clearly described in a published paper? If the technique is novel, leave it in. Otherwise…
      • Look out for repetition. If you are doing the same thing in different years, you may not need to repeat the description.
      • Are you editing, rather than rewriting? Recently, page limits have been reduced for some schemes over here. People who tried to edit a 10 page description down to an 8 page description often ran into trouble. It might have been faster and more effective to rewrite from scratch.

        Finally, if you can’t fit it into the page limit and other people clearly can, is your project just too complex?

        I don’t know if any of that helps. Good luck.


  2. This sound like great advice for large grant applications like an ARC or DECRA.

    I was wondering if you could say more about small applications with a strict word limit. I’ve just submitted a research proposal for a overseas postdoc that had a 1800 word limit (the panel clearly are expecting a flood of applications which I’m almost certain will happen).

    The rough break down of words in my proposal was Aims and Background (1100 word); Significance and Innovation (400-450 words) Methodology (150-200 words) and Outcomes (50 words).

    I now feel my account of methodology is somewhat short – I simply noted that I will be deploying a particular form of visual analysis and I provided some argument for the strength of this type of analysis.

    I guess its possible for me to elaborate on my methodology in the off-chance I get asked to front up to an interview. But I’m wondering what panels expect from a 1800 word research proposal … What proportion of the proposal should the methodology take up?


    • Hi F.

      Sometimes I see a lot of words but not much detail. Sometimes I see lots of detail in quite a concise manner.

      Your application is like a pyramid, with significance being half the size of your background, the method being half the size of the significance and your outcomes being half the size of the method.

      Maybe your method is very straightforward, and doesn’t require a lot of words. But if that is the case, how are you going to do anything really clever?

      Every application is different, and there is no recipe for success. Also, every selection committee is looking for something different.

      The last application that I wrote that had a similar limit broke down this way:
      + Background and objectives: 273 words.
      + Relevance to the mission of the organisation: 103 words.
      + Research significance: 242 words.
      + Literature review: 257 words.
      + Methods: 138 words.
      + Timetable: 65 words.
      + Outputs: 75 words.
      + References: 457 words!

      Converting that into your headings:
      Aims & background = Background & objectives + Literature review: 273 + 257 = 530 words.
      Significance & innovation = Relevance to mission + research significance: 103 + 242 = 345 words.
      Methodology = Methods + Timetable: 138 + 65 = 203.
      Outcomes = Outputs: 75 words.

      And those 450 words of references? When I go back and look at the rules, I was limited to two pages, but references weren’t counted. So I could have had ten pages of references.

      So really, your application and mine aren’t that different. My pyramid is a bit slimmer than yours. But I would still cut back on your background and put more detail into significance / innovation / method if you can.

      Good luck.


  3. I find advising on methodology one of the trickiest aspects of our roles, Jonathan. Mostly, this is because methodological detail and discursive flow can be very discipline-specific. Working with academics who consider models/theoretical figures to be de rigeur is very different to those who prioritise ‘narrativising’ their process/method (which is what’s done in the humanities, for the most part). I’m still learning a lot on this front.


    • I know what you mean. There are some methodologies that leave me all at sea. In those instances, I cling to the basics: timeline; links from background through significance to method; enough detail in method to make sense of the budget.

      In the end, I rely on the researcher to demonstrate their expertise in the method. If that isn’t the case, we are all lost.


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