Researchers often don’t have time to write a decent application.
That is, with the best will in the world, they can’t devote the time that they want to drafting their application.
As a result, research whisperers often get drafts way too late to be able to provide any useful feedback. People send me their drafts less than a week before the deadline. At that point, all we can do is make sure that it adheres to the rules and point out spelling and grammar errors. There is no time to rework fatal flaws, investigate lacunae in the literature review, restructure the budget, or add collaborators.
It is ‘Submit or Die’ time.
To try to avoid this, I’ve been running Grant Camps for my researchers. Inspired by the award-winning Thesis Boot Camp model, Grant Camps are half-day events that give applicants the time to address the major aspects of an application.
I’ve found that, while people can’t get a half a day to work on their application themselves, they can do it if I send them a meeting appointment and they plan it as part of their schedule.
So far, they have been quite popular. They don’t work for everybody, but the people that do like it keep coming back.
How it works
Normally I run my Grant Camps in the afternoon, from 1-5 pm. Four hours breaks down into eight half-hour slots, of which six address major parts of the application.
- First half hour: Welcome people and explain how things work.
- Each subsequent half hour addresses one aspect of the application.
- Five minutes & one slide – explain what is required for that section.
- Twenty minutes – write as much as you can on that section.
- Last five minutes – take a break, stretch, have a chat.
Halfway through the session, we take a half-hour break so people can get coffee and take a walk. It turns out that a series of 20-minute writing sprints can be quite exhausting. If people don’t take breaks, they run out of puff after about three hours.
I tailor my Grant Camps to specific schemes.
While most grant applications break down into a standard Background, Idea, Methodology, Budget, CVs structure (BIMBuC), I find that each scheme is different enough to make it worthwhile covering specifics.
I don’t cover budgets or CVs. I tried doing that in the first few, but found that they didn’t really fit the format. Budget development often devolves into looking up quotes, and preparing a CV for a grant application is often about updating citation counts. These activities don’t lend themselves to 20 minutes of solid writing.
That means that I am really asking people to write the project description. For example, a Grant Camp for the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project grant scheme might look like this:
- Significance and innovation
- Approach and training
- Research environment
- Project impact
For each of these topics, I use the Three-Minute Thesis model of one overhead slide and three minutes to explain the key requirements of each section. So, for example, for ‘Approach and Training’ (which covers methodology), I ask people to think about:
- What are you actually going to do?
- What are the major tasks?
- What is your timeline?
- Training: the next generation of researchers.
- Detail, detail, detail!
- How many interviews? How long?
- What month will each task happen?
During each 20-minute writing sprint, the atmosphere in the room is wonderful. It’s perfectly silent, with everybody working hard. Peace, perfect peace!
To reinforce that sense of purposeful quiet, I have one rule: if people want to ask questions, or take a phone call, then they have to leave the room.
If you want to run these yourself, you’ll need to do a bit of preparation.
First, you need to find a suitable venue. Even though universities are full of buildings, most of those buildings are being used all the time. It can be quite hard to find somewhere that is available for a four-hour block.
My preferred venue is a conference room on the RMIT Brunswick campus. It is too small to use as a teaching space, so it isn’t always booked out. It has a pleasant feel about it and, because it is away from the main campus, it feels like an ‘off-campus’ venue without the cost of renting a space.
I’ve built up a Grant Camp kit that consists of a cardboard box with a couple of extension cords, power-boards, a roll of gaffer tape (to tape down trip-hazard power cords), a whiteboard marker and eraser, and a few other bits and pieces. This means that I can just grab the kit and go to the venue, secure in the knowledge that I’ll have everything I need to set up quickly.
I normally bring some material that I need to read, or someone’s draft application to review, as I don’t have much to do during each writing sprint. My main role during the writing sprints is to keep an eye on the time. I make sure that my phone is charged – it would be very embarrassing to have to borrow someone else’s phone or watch because my phone is flat.
I have a standard blurb that I send out to people, so they know how to prepare, too.
Can you rough out your ARC project description in four hours? Absolutely you can, if you focus on writing and ignore everything else. Through a series of half-hour writing sprints, I’ll guide you through the key parts of your application. Together, we will bash out a very rough draft of the application.
By 5:00 pm, you should have broken the back of the application. It won’t be pretty, but it will give you something that you can refine and rewrite – this workshop is all about getting the first draft down on paper. If you have already started drafting your application, this will give you a chance to refine your work.
This Grant Camp is designed for people who are currently working on an ARC application. The focus will be DECRA and Discovery applications, but others are welcome. ARC applicants from all Colleges are welcome. Please extend this invitation to others who might be interested.
Please bring a laptop and power cord, or a notepad and a pen. You should be able to use your standard RMIT log-in to connect to the wireless.
Grant Camp will take place at … [location details]
It is designed to warn people that this is a writing workshop, not something where they can sit back and listen, surreptitiously checking their email on their phone.
After Grant Camp
At the end of four hours, the participants have roughed out the major parts of their project description. They don’t have a budget, and they probably need to work up their CV. They haven’t filled in the application form either.
What they do have is a very, very poor draft. A start. Something they can build on. Something they can show to other people.
This is a ‘throw-away’ draft – something that is useful to start with, but which should be quickly supplanted by a more robust, polished text. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Some people cling to their initial draft. Rather than treating it as a starting point, and then working up something really solid, they try to polish their Grant Camp draft into a full application. That isn’t the purpose, and it doesn’t really work that way.
To help people get past that stage, and help them to learn from one another, I’m planning to set up a writing group for grant writers. That is, a place where people can get together, swap drafts, provide feedback, and generally support one another. I’ll come back in a year and let you know how that goes.