Sharing your grant application

Prime rib (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Prime rib (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Back in December 2012, Liana Silva (@literarychica) asked after examples of postdoctoral fellowship applications that might be stored online.

I responded that many institutions, and sometimes researchers, guarded their applications warily. Many are loathe to make them publicly available, or for the use of others outside their own institution (or faculty, or school…).

There are a few reasons for this. Some are valid, and some not so much.

One of the main fears appears to be that other scholars will read your application (or your institution’s applications) and steal your ideas, or straight up plagiarise your text. 

Someone plagiarising your grant application is as bad as someone plagiarising your article. There’s no doubt it’s wrong.

The mitigating factor here, though, is that I’m assuming any fellowship or grant application worth reading is a successful one. You want to see what kind of document wins the prize.

If the researcher or team has won the prize, chances are they’re in the thick of doing the project. The ideas are no longer proposed, they are materialising. Even if some poor sod decided to steal grant app stuff, they’re still dependent on their own track-record to get there, and that successful project team they’re flogging material from is most likely a few years ahead on the research.

In short: those ideas won’t be as valuable to anyone coming along years later, or even to national funding bodies, because the proposed work will no longer be that new or innovative. There’s people out there publishing and working on the project already.

A strategy that would allow you to share your successful grant app, and retain confidence that your ideas are relatively ‘safe’, is to embargo your app for a year or so. Grant scheme guidelines and instructions can change from year to year, but the standard components of an application (including project, team track-record, budget, outcomes) remain fairly constant across time and schemes.

Another reason some people are wary of sharing is that grant applications require you to present yourself and your team in the best possible light.

This often requires talking up your achievements and profile. Most academics find this a hard thing to do, and having this ‘talking up’ shown to the world can be an awkward option.

All I’ve got to say on this front is: a grant application is already a ‘public’ document of sorts. If you can’t stand behind the truth of what you say, then it probably shouldn’t be there. If it’s only a question of how that truth is represented, then you need to get over the self-deprecation. In academia, chances are that no-one’s going to sing your praises for you; if you’ve done good things, let people know about them. As a personal preference, I tend to go with the ‘hey, I’d do great things with your money because…’ route rather than the ‘check me out, I’m fa-aa-bulous!’ one.

While I’ve never had my successful fellowship applications made publicly available, I have sent them to quite a few colleagues who were in the process of compiling their own documents. More often than not, what they find most helpful isn’t my incredibly lucid argument and stunning expertise (quelle surprise). It has been the format of my timeline, or the way I justified my fieldwork, which brings me to my final point:

Most of the time, people don’t want the flesh and blood of your application, they want the bones.

They want the stripped back template of how you moved from one application section to another, how you present career interruptions, and what level of detail you should provide in the budget and methodology. They don’t care who you quoted (or not), whether you described yourself as “an intellectual leader with proven, consistent funding success and a substantial international publication record” (ahem…), or how many research assistants you said you’d need (unless it’s to gauge what kind of workload you’d allocate to them).

Looking at someone else’s grant application spurs you through Blank Page Syndrome, and allows you to conquer the intimidating process of arguing your worthiness to be funded.

It won’t solve all your problems, however, and many applications may present formats that contradict the advice you’ve received from others in your institution. Ensure that you feed your experience with a range of examples, and don’t take any of them as gospel.

The process of sharing and learning from others’ applications can be a very constructive one.

So, if you’re ever approached by your institution to ‘donate’ your successful application to a repository that helps your colleagues and provides development pointers for ECRs (early career researchers), please say yes.

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