Little Chickie

Seven or eight little chickens with their mother hen
Chicks, by Rob Faulkner on Flickr

This post was co-written with Rosemary Chang. Rosemary is an academic developer. In her current role, she helps university staff with the scholarship of learning and teaching (SoTL) and teaching award applications. Her PhD research focuses on anxieties in creative writing practice and mindfulness. She tweets about uni matters, writing, and mindfulness @RoseyChang. Her ORCID is 0000-0002-6426-4836

Jonathan: Last year, Rosemary and I were talking about her grant application. I explained that she needed to get two different types of advice – advice to make the core idea stronger (which I couldn’t give her), and advice about protecting her core idea from attack (which I could).

We talked about the central idea of her research project as being like a tiny little baby chicken. A precious and very, very fragile little chickie.

Rosemary: The ‘little chickie’ metaphor was very helpful advice. When I went to Jonathan I was in the thick of writing. My research partner and I had honed the project idea over many months. For me, it was a new area of interest. The writing process felt like molding quicksand. Although I’d written a successful grant application before, I did that for someone else. Writing my own was different. What pointers could Jonathan give me?

Strengthening the core idea

Jonathan: Rosemary needed other people to understand how precious her little chickie is. It is a new idea – it has just hatched  so it can’t do much yet. It needed time (and funding) to grow up and get stronger, to reach its full potential. Rosemary needed to describe her chickie in terms that other people would understand, so that they would love the little chickie just as much as she did.

Rosemary: Jonathan was dead right. When we met, I was deeply in love with my little chickie. But my love affair wasn’t translating onto the page.

Jonathan: To work out how to do that, Rosemary needed to talk to subject matter experts – people in her own discipline who could help her to express how clever, novel, or useful her idea was. She also needed some experienced people from outside the discipline to make sure that her core idea was intelligible to everybody – so that she wasn’t just talking to her discipline and nobody else.

Those people would help her to present her little chickie in the best possible light. It was clear that she loved her incubating chick, but that wasn’t enough. She needed all the other bird lovers (people in her discipline) to love it, as well as being able to convince cat lovers and dog lovers (grant committee people) to love it, too.

Rosemary: This made me realize that the subject matter experts, or discipline insiders, I’d talked to were all on my project team. They understood our little chickie. Workshopping your argument with discipline insiders who are unfamiliar with the project was incredibly useful advice.

The second audience, the people outside the discipline, are also a key audience. It’s most likely that they will make up the panel who assesses the grant application. Are you making sense to them?

Protecting from attack

Jonathan: Unfortunately, the academic world is a dangerous place for little chickies. Grant reviewers and funding agencies might not like it, but their job is to work out which chicks get to grow up, and which don’t. As well as getting people to love her little chick, Rosemary needed to protect it from attack.

That is where your local research whisperer can help. We don’t know anything about your discipline, so we can’t really help you to preen your little chick. However, we have seen a lot of them in our time, and we know how to defend them from attack.

Rosemary: Your research whisperers are gold. As well as individual sessions, check if your university offers structured sessions for grant writing. Jonathan and his colleague, Melanie, led a grant camp. This was a half-day intensive similar to a thesis bootcamp. The difference was that Jonathan and Melanie focused on the key aims and expectations of each section of the grant application. I found it very useful.

Jonathan: Whether you’re writing at grant camp or at home, you need a nest for your little chicken. The best nest is clear, simple writing. This gives your little chick a comfortable place to rest, where people can see it at its best. If your writing is too dense, too turgid, then people won’t be able to see how beautiful your little chickie is.

A good nest needs careful tending. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Clarify, clarify, clarify. You need clean straw and a good foundation. You need a fresh nest. Don’t try to take last year’s nest (an old article or unsuccessful application) and refurbish. Start afresh. Write clean.

Rosemary: Rewriting was key. I came away from grant camp fired up and with a full and improved draft. However, that’s merely text to keep working on. Hone it. Improve it.

Remember: deleting a sentence won’t hurt. No one will ever know. I went back to the basics in rewriting. Is my paragraph starting with a topic sentence? You can adapt thesis writing advice to be more focused for a grant application.

Jonathan: Your nest should sit inside a stout chicken coop. Make sure that your application is well structured, so that there is nothing missing, no logical flaws. Sometimes this can be hard to do because, as the mother hen, your little chickie looks perfect. That is, your idea seems internally consistent and complete. Someone reading from outside might spot a hole in the wire, though. Does your research question already contain an assumed answer? Have you chosen your sample set for convenience, rather than completeness? Is there a better methodology that you could use? All of these are holes in your coop, and they could let a fox in. You need to make sure that you spot them, so that you can block them up.

Rosemary: This is where outside readers help. Build time into your writing plan to get a trusted friend to read through. There’s no short cut around this.

Jonathan: Your little chickie needs the right food to grow. Your budget needs to provide sustenance for your little idea. After all, this is what you are writing your application for – the budget is at the core of your grant. You want to have enough feed to sustain your little chick. You also want it to be the right type of food, too. Check the rules to make sure that all your items are allowable. No good trying to feed your little chickie GMO corn if the store doesn’t sell it.

Rosemary: Again, there are expert professional staff at many universities who can advise on this. Does your uni have a budget how-to guide? There are many details to cover off. How are salaries calculated? Does your uni require on-costs? I work in a public university and we had to allow for a pay increase that was scheduled for the following year.

Jonathan: When hiring, make sure that you have the right farm hands on the payroll, too. Your research team needs to be conversant in the techniques you will use. If you are working in foreign countries or different cultures, then you probably want to bring together a culturally diverse team. Ideally, should have some experience in working together. Everybody wants a smooth-running project – bringing a bunch of people together at the last minute can seem a bit risky.

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to keep a shotgun by the door. In this (increasingly strained) metaphor, I think of the funding rules as your shotgun. Read those rules. Know them well. They will help you fend off attack in two different ways:

  • They will make sure that you don’t get eliminated by breaching the rules in some silly way. If you can only have one active grant at a time, it doesn’t make sense to put in an application until the first grant is finished.
  • They will give you an insight into the mind of the funding agency. Read how they define ‘research’. Look at how they describe ‘quality’. Stay well within their norms. If they say that ‘laptops are an allowable expense, but will need to be very well justified’, that is probably a hint that they don’t really want to fund the purchase of laptops.

I’ll stop there, before my metaphor breaks down completely. I remember that when Rosemary and I were talking, we ended up with her little chick surrounded by gun emplacements and all sorts of stuff…

Rosemary: This has been a fun metaphor. I’ve enjoyed aiming my rhetorical gun at chickie’s attackers.

But I’ll add in something from left field. As the chickie farmer, you’ve got to take care of the mother hen during grant season, too. And I’m talking about everything from the basics – sleeping, eating vegetables, exercising, for parents saying ‘hi’ to your kids – through to (craziness!) having a night off.

I ran hard at this grant. Next time round, I’m going to play with producing a high quality application while being kinder to myself. That’s gotta be good for chickies, too.

Jonathan: As we love to say, “It’s not a test, it’s a contest” (quoting Mark Bisby, former VP Research, Canadian Institutes of Health Research). You aren’t aiming for a pass mark – you have to beat all the other people who are applying. That means that the funding agency is continually seeking to kill your application. You need to make your idea as strong as possible, and defend it from attack.


  1. “In this (increasingly strained) metaphor…”

    Ahahaha, I actually laughed aloud at this part and my office mates now think I’m crazy…

    This is fantastic advice though, and I think probably applies to lots of academic writing styles. It certainly resonates for the way I feel about my thesis idea. Thanks guys!


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