Telling research career stories – Part 2 – Common mistakes

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)
Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Hopefully, after reading Part 1 of this ‘Telling research career stories’ series, you’ll know that I’m sympathetic to the difficulties of accounting for life’s curve-balls, and ambivalent about the process altogether. I know that it doesn’t feel fair or humane in many instances to reduce major upheavals to a few formalised lines.

Even through this sympathetic lens, however, and with my grant assessor and developer hat on, I can see that there are better, smoother ways to present your ‘track-record relative to opportunities’ narrative than others.

Grant applications are, at heart, very utilitarian documents to which you have to give a measure of life.

That said, giving reviewers the background to why your capacity to produce research was compromised doesn’t mean getting affirmation about your particular situation or life choices.

It’s a grant application, not a support group.

Here are the common mistakes researchers make when talking about career interruptions:

1. Spreading bile throughout your application.

Many applications give the impression that the academic is working within a situation that is ten times worse than the bleakest Siberian gulag. They are working in departments that are oppressive and anti-them, usually run by punishing authoritarians who have made it their life’s work to stop promising young sorts from achieving any grant success.

Even if this were true, what you say in the statement should stick to facts and strive for an objective voice. Don’t get your vitriol on in a grant application because, no matter what the situation, reviewers won’t want to read a rant or whinge. What you project in these statements stays with the reader for the rest of the application.

And, of course, never get libelous. Most grant applications aren’t double-blind reviewed. Readers know who you are, and can probably track your reference to that ‘heinous excuse for a research director’ back to the actual person.

2. Telling too much of the story.

However emotional the situation (e.g. parent dying, divorce, loss of partner), grant applications don’t need the whole story. All that’s necessary is the event, time out that was taken, and why it’s relevant to that section.

When I was working on one of my research fellowship applications a few years back, I asked a senior colleague to review it for me before I sent it off. He tried to point out as tactfully as he could that, while there’s no doubt my father’s illness and death should be included as part of my ‘track-record relative to opportunities’ story, I probably didn’t need to give it a huge paragraph (nor did I need to provide that much detail). At the time, I remember railing (internally) about what a heartless place academe was, and how it didn’t give any quarter for life’s troughs. By the time I reached submission time for that application, I knew what he meant, and I’m glad he nudged me to rewrite it.

3. Giving vague measures of time.

Some of the research stories I’ve read have been much too gestural about how events may have affected them. For example, the researcher might say: “Two years ago, I was injured in a car accident and underwent major surgery and a long rehabilitation.”

There’s no doubt a major accident will compromise the momentum of your work, but you need to help a reader ‘know’ what this means.

This would be better: “In February 2010, I was injured in a car accident. I was on sick leave for three months, and came back to work on a 0.6 FTE fraction from June-August.”

When talking about disruptions or interruptions, it is important to provide a specific length of time (e.g. name months/years). Make the ‘time out’ as trackable as possible. If it’s a complicated research career trajectory you have to  represent, it might be worthwhile presenting it in a table, with summarised ‘time-out’ at the end (or ‘time-in’ if you want to run a line about how you’ve really only had 2 research-amenable years as an early career researcher, even though you’ve been post-PhD for 3.5 years…).

4. Forgetting that the section should adopt a ‘that was then, this is now’ attitude.

A few of the grant applications that I’ve assessed paint a very bleak picture of their departmental research cultures – see reference to gulags, above. Major schemes can include a section about the quality of the research environment in which you are working, so this honest but depressing context will inform readers’ impressions of whether you are a well-supported researcher (and, therefore, whether you will be carrying out the funded research in an encouraging & optimal environment).

For example, if you describe your research as compromised by teaching-intensive periods of employment, there needs to be a ‘happy ending’ to the section. Has the ridiculous teaching load been addressed? Will you have time to do the work if they give you the funding? If the situation still appears dire for your research activity, assessors may not think you are a good investment for highly competitive funds.

That said, if you are in a continuing situation of fractional work due to carer’s responsibilities, parenting, illness, or anything else (again, with specific time allocation listed), it’s worthwhile talking about how you’ve remained productive and done good work despite these other demands on your time. That is, you’re a still a good investment and will deliver on the project’s outcomes/outputs.

5. Listing common situations (such as having kids) as those that compromise your research.

I’m not talking here about taking a discrete parcel of time in the form of parental leave, or carer’s leave. What I mean is that there are some common situations that don’t garner particular accommodation or consideration, and may even attract irritation.

One that pops up all the time is “high teaching loads”. Just about every single teaching/research academic I know thinks their teaching-load is too high, so make sure you have a very strong justification for including this. If you had unusually high admin/convening duties over a certain period, capture it in a succinct way (e.g. had to re-vamp a course, get a new major up) but make sure you can flag the ‘that was then, this is now’ context.

Similarly, capturing the ongoing ‘disruption’ of being a parent or carer might work better if you can state that you are working a reduced fraction  to accommodate family or carer’s responsibilities (e.g. 3 days a week rather than 5). If it’s just general domestic chaos (or ever-impending chaos) because of parenting (such as I have at home), it doesn’t work well as a justification for reduced research output.

Because that’s just life.


  1. Hi Tseen,

    Thank you for your excellent tips. As someone who won’t be back into full time academia for a while – I’ll spare you the story 🙂 – these are really useful.




    • According to the limited and bureaucratic processes that major funding bodies have in place to try and recognise career interruptions and disruptions: yes. The whole first post of this series was devoted to how academia is not a sector that deals well with people’s real, overcommitted lives. This phrase at the end of the 2nd post was a sarcastic nod to that.


  2. Thanks Tseen Khoo for the tips. I am about to embark on a PHD pathway..after being a full time career woman in academia and juggling between being a mother and a homemaker. Reading your research career stories makes me feel positive in pursing research.


    • Very glad to hear the post was useful to you, Kumudh! It’s a daunting step, taking on the PhD, but if you like the highered sector in general (despite knowing its faults), it’s certainly a path many take. Best of luck with your research, and with building a new identity as a doctoral candidate!


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