Second time around

more-detail-2Yesterday, I was providing advice to a researcher for a grant application resubmission.

You know how it goes: they had put something in last year, it had been reviewed, then rejected. I offered to have a look at it, to treat it as a first draft for this year’s application round.

It turned out that I thought that the researcher needed to:

  • Clarify the core research question,
  • Cut back on the background, and
  • Flesh out the project plan.

This is pretty standard. I tell people this a lot!

I’m thinking of getting a ‘Detail! Detail! Detail!’ t-shirt made up.

As I was writing all this to them, I realised that they may not know how to do those things.

I assume so much in my job. I assume that you know how to research. I assume that you know how to edit. I assume that you know how to do all the things that I tell you to do.

Looking at the search terms for this blog, I suspect that I assume too much at times:

Research Whisperer search terms

  • what is research
  • research budget
  • what is your discipline
  • how to draw a gantt chart by hand
  • key party rules
    [because of Inger’s post, Don’t just throw your keys in the bowl]
  • research budget sample

(I also suspect that we get a lot of students doing assignments.)

Below is what I wrote to the researcher to help them with their grant application resubmission:

Find focus

You know what you want to do. Unfortunately, that isn’t coming through clearly at the moment so I don’t know what you want to do. You need to clarify your research question, which is the central nub of your proposal.

Answer these questions:

  • What is the compelling idea?
  • Why should the funding scheme support it?
  • Why does it have to be done now?
    Four (4) lines maximum on each of the following points:
  • What is your methodology?
  • Why is this work significant?
  • Why is it clever?
  • What will come out of this work?

There are some rules when you answer them:

  • Maximum of four lines per question, and an overall maximum of two pages.
  • Start with a fresh sheet of paper (or pixels, I guess). Do not edit what you already have.
  • Do not cut and paste. Every word must be written from scratch.

The discipline of writing within two pages should help to hone your thoughts. Writing from scratch should help you to clarify your ideas.

We get so used to recycling text that the luxury of writing from scratch is almost arcane now. A lot of your previous text felt like it had been cut and pasted, then edited. It sounded like it has come from a book or a journal article.

Your grant application is not a mash-up. It is an exercise in concise clarity.

Follow the recipe

You received written assessments of your application. As you said, the assessors wrote some nice things. They also provided you with a recipe for improving your application.

Go back to the assessments and highlight every single criticism. Ignore all the nice comments and grab everything that is critical. Cut them out and attach them to the appropriate part of your application. This will give you a visual sense of which parts of the application were weakest.

Now, do what they say in each case.

For example, Reviewer Two said:

I expected this section to provide support for the claim made elsewhere that the project has implications for matters of policy.

So, do this. For the relevant portion of the application, ‘provide support for the claim … that this project has implications for matters of policy’.

Do this for every criticism and you will vastly strengthen your resubmission.

More future tense

Finally, reverse the weight given to the elements of the application. At the moment, you have four pages of background and a page of project plan. You need to reverse that. I want to see half a page on aims and research question, a page of background at most (page and half all together) and the bulk of the application devoted to project plan. Using the assessor recipe will help.

Another trick is to think about tense. Anything in the past tense is background. “As Cicero said…” and “I developed…” are both statements about what has come before. Anything in future tense is part of your project plan. “We will…” is a statement of what you plan to do.  I need to know exactly what you plan to do.

Here are some useful ways to create a detailed project plan:

BUDGETS are all about what you are going to do in the future. Write a short paragraph about every item in the budget. Describe what its role is in the project. Include when you are going to buy it (or start paying the person, in the case of salaries), why it needs to be bought at that time, why it is necessary, and what you are going to do with it. That should give you a skeleton of the project plan.

Then go to your TIMELINE. For each item in the timeline, add it to the appropriate section of your skeletal project plan and give it a paragraph. In this case, concentrate on detail. How many fieldwork sites? Scheduled when? Where? With whom? For how many days? What will happen there? What data will you collect? How will it bring you closer to answering your research question?

Then look at the OUTPUTS from the project. Add them to your skeletal plan and then give them each a short paragraph. For articles and other written outcomes, concentrate on what they will draw upon, and what you will need to produce them. For example, you might find that peer-reviewed article #1 cannot be written until you’ve collected the data from fieldwork site #1 and #2. For each thing that you are going to produce, provide details of the expected audience and how you expect that audience to use it. This is particularly important for non-academic outputs like websites and policy briefs, but it is also useful for academic outcomes.

Finally, pull the whole thing together with a simple Gantt chart that covers your project, month by month, for every year.

Make sure that you have as much detail at the end of the time as you do at the start – it is really easy to write detail for the start of a project, but things get murkier as you proceed. You want to aim for an even level of detail throughout, so push yourself to imagine what is going to happen every month, all the way through to the last six months.

Don’t worry about the fact that things will change once you start the actual project. We know that. It isn’t research if there isn’t risk. But you need to start with a plan, and you need to demonstrate that you can plan.

If you have a plan, you’ll be in a much better position when things go haywire. If you don’t have a plan, then you are guaranteeing that things will go haywire.

I hope that this helps. I look forward to reading your revised draft.

Some other handy posts on this topic:


  1. Hi Jonathan – this is really helpful advice, whether someone is starting from scratch or looking to resubmit. I agree that often re-submissions feel like cut and paste jobs and people lose sight of the fact that time has moved on. This can result in funder priority changes, the relevance of the research may have changed (increased / decreased etc) and your own track record may have changed too, amongst other things. The points you raise are really sensible and easy to implement – as long as you start from scratch! Thanks, Lachlan.


    • Thanks, Lachlan

      Your point about changing priorities is really important. It drives me crazy when applicants don’t pay attention to priority areas. The funding agencies don’t just write down priorities for the fun of it – they really care about them!

      The relevance of the research is something that I don’t think we talk about enough, either. Unless you are steeped in your subject, and are watching really closely, it can be easy to think that your work is relevant, even though the field has moved on. That’s hard.

      In the round of grants that we just submitted, I was concerned about the number of resubmissions. I think that people are getting pressured to put in applications, and are responding to that pressure the best way that they can, rather than making their applications as competitive as possible. That worries me.



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