This diagram shows the flow of applications during a recent development round for a major government funding scheme. If you are in the US, think ‘National Science Foundation’. In the Commonwealth, think of a major Research Council funding scheme.
Have a look at Team 23, right down in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart. They started their bid at the very last minute. They didn’t make it to submission. They were late. Really late! “Why are you putting in this application” late.
I hate applications like that. Here’s why.
First of all, I (or my boss) will just say ‘no’ to applicants trying to submit this late in the process. Actually, we will start by saying “How about this other scheme?” or “Perhaps next year.” If you persist, we’ll move to the ‘N’-word.
“No, you are too late.”
“No, you cannot write a competitive application in this time frame.”
“No, we will not support your application going forward.”
We don’t like saying ‘no’. We understand that the application is important to you, but sometimes it is our job to say “No”. We won’t sign off on something that isn’t compliant and competitive. We don’t see how you can develop a competitive, compliant application in the time allowed.
A difficult conversation will ensue (actually, more than one). You need to convince us that the application must go ahead. Given that we’ve already said “not this year”, you need to convince us that it needs to go ahead right now, in this funding round. That probably means that you need to bring some pressure to bear. You will need to convince your Center Director or Department Head to intercede on your behalf. So you don’t just need to convince us, you need to convince your own boss, too.
Those conversations take time. Precious, precious time. They also take a surprising amount of energy. You are doing two things at once – trying to draft an application and trying to convince the university that it should go ahead. You are calling in favours, chewing through good-will. It had better be worth it.
This means that you are already starting on the back-foot. Rather than having me as an ally, I begin as your opponent. You need to convince me that this is a worthwhile endeavor, that you have the resources to do this, and that your reason for being late is actually reasonable. Because there is always a reason. From your point of view, that reason will always be worthwhile. You wouldn’t have come to me if it wasn’t a special case. But something that sounds reasonable to you probably doesn’t sound reasonable to me. Not at this stage of the proceedings.
Sometimes, you will be successful. Even at the eleventh hour, we will sometimes say ‘yes’. Either the opportunity will be so good that we can’t pass it up, or the pressure bought to bear will be irresistible (usually the latter). Either way, we will say “Yes, let’s do this.”
Actually, in my mind, what I am really saying is ‘maybe’. Maybe you can pull this off. Maybe it will be worth it.
I can’t really say ‘yes’ to you because I have already said ‘yes’ to other people. I’ve got a dozen teams racing towards the same deadline. I said ‘yes’ to them months ago, and I’ve been working with them over that time. I’m committed to them, and I want to make sure that they make it to the line, that their applications are competitive as possible. I can’t abandon them. They deserve all my attention.
But I can’t give them that attention anymore. Now I need to totally devote my attention to you, to your application. In very short order, I need to review your drafts. I need to pull your budget together. I need to run around, on your behalf, gathering the paperwork for your team – CVs, signatures, the myriad bits of administriva that go into a major grant application. I need to format your application, to squeeze it down to the allowable limit. In extreme cases, I might even be drafting some bits of the application for you.
I’m don’t want to do this. I don’t have the subject-matter expertise to do it properly. You are the expert, but you are too busy forming your team, planning the project, drafting the methods section. You are too busy actually writing the application.
You only have one task – to get this application over the line. You’ve ruthlessly shoved aside your other work, pruned your family life to the absolute minimum and said goodbye to sleep. You are in a terribly unhealthy place, channeling clarity and single-minded determination. It might be exciting, but it takes its toll.
You might feel like I’m a co-conspirator, that I’m there with you. I’m talking to you daily, sometimes hourly, about different aspects of the project. I’m working hard on your behalf. I’m helping.
But I’m not with you. Not really. Even though I’m devoting enormous energy to your application, I can’t shove my other work aside. My other work is people just like you – people who are desperately trying to get their application across the line. The only difference is that they did the right thing. They started early. I can’t abandon them. They deserve my attention much more than you do. So I’m working on their applications in the evenings and the mornings. I’m getting up early and staying up late. I’m losing sleep, too. But I won’t sacrifice my home life for you. Never!
Which brings me to the main difference between you and those other applicants. I’m not angry with them – they did the right thing. I’m incandescent with rage at you. You’ve made my life hell. You’ll never know it – I’m too professional for that, and I’m excellent at sublimating my anger, too. But it is there, burning.
Just in time
In the end, we will get your application across the line. Just. You’ll have harassed your colleagues to death. I’ll have called in favours from the central research office, on your behalf. They won’t be happy either. Everybody will be exhausted. And it will show.
Your application might be complete and complaint. With a bit of luck, it might even be competitive. But it won’t be polished. There will a lurking fear that we uploaded the wrong version, didn’t check the budget properly, or missed a glaring typo in the first paragraph.
Your application will be submitted; it will be ‘in’. But it won’t shine – it will be a dull thing. And that will show. When your assessments come back, there will be comments like “This application seems rushed” or “These mistakes indicate a lack of care on the part of the researchers”. You can’t really respond to comments like that. They sit there, eating away at your probability of success, and there is nothing you can really say. Because they will be true.
Behind the scenes
When you do this – when you bring an application to me at the last minute – keep this in mind. I run two or three of these development programs at once. So it isn’t just the other teams in your scheme that suffer. There are other people who are right in the middle of developing their applications for a different scheme, and others who are just starting out for a third. They suffer, too.
So when I say to you, “I don’t think that you should do this”, please listen. Listen for the good of your application. Listen for the good of your colleagues who are writing other applications. And listen for me. Listen to what I’m really saying – “Not again!”