In the first of two articles, Adam Micolich sheds some light on why people do, and do not, share their grant applications, and some of the issues with libraries of successful applications.
One of the toughest skills to master as a young researcher is writing successful grant applications. These are the unicorn in the zoo of documents that one must write in research. Mired in myth, with great controversy about their true nature and appearance, they sometimes turn out to be little more than a donkey wearing a party hat, that was mistaken for a unicorn because it was being ridden by a silverback gorilla.
A big impediment for young researchers is that successful grant applications are rarely openly shared. This can make it hard to see enough of them to truly know what it is that makes the good ones good. Being on a grant agency panel is about the only way to see a very large number of proposals – sadly, that role only comes once you’ve had a lot of successful grant applications.
My institution tries to addresses this void by providing a library of successful applications. However, these are only made available internally by people volunteering to do so in the initial administration of their grant. This means that only a small number are available. The library is selective towards authors willing to share and therefore probably somewhat deceptive. I’ve sunk solid days into mining this resource, taking careful notes and looking for patterns. Truth is, there are few gold nuggets to be found.
Many of the proposals are not amazing; the grant has obviously been won on the weight of the lead researcher’s track record. If this is good enough, it seems that all the things that would be fatal in a junior researcher’s proposal are forgiven. You can literally hear the echoes of the selection panel, saying: “But how can we not fund Prof. X? Sure, it’s the same old unintelligible rubbish, but look at that stellar track record!”
That said, among them are some truly great proposals. In some instances, you can’t tell if that is what made the difference, as the track record is also top notch. In others, you can, but there are few emergent rules – what one proposal seems to do well, another proposal doesn’t, and yet both still got funded. It is also hard to gauge how successful it was – whether it was at the top of the pile or right on the line. One could also mine the funding awarded versus the funding requested, since highly ranked grants tend to receive more of their request. But even that is only slightly indicative.
Picking out the ‘hot tips’ so you can make up for not being able to smash the system with your massive h-index and catalog of honours and awards is tough. Often, despite best intentions, a young researcher walks away from such a library with nothing more than confirmation that some can write anything they want, including more or less the same project, round after round, and always get funded. Others have no hope no matter what they write. And there’s a middle ground with few tactics that commonly yield success in a statistically significant way. This perception, while easy to formulate, is not entirely true. After all, young researchers do break into the system. I was fortunate to be one of them.
This is a two-part post. In what follows, I’ll address the first question: What are the anxieties around sharing successful applications as a young researcher? In the next week’s post, I’ll discuss some of the things I’ve learned about writing good proposals.
Why we are reluctant to share
Competition: Life is tenuous and scary as a young researcher. Many are on short-term contracts; others on tenure-track, a promise that is easily thwarted by not being able to demonstrate an ability to bring in cold hard cash. That cash comes from a finite pool with way too many people looking for a slice of the action. The same goes for the papers that help you get that cash – ideas are easily stolen and pounced upon by more established players with larger groups and more resources who can easily scoop you.
Given this, it’s entirely reasonable that when you do manage to find a rare unicorn, you’re loathe to tell anyone else how you found it. After all, someone else’s unicorn means one fewer unicorns in your stable, and that can put you one step closer to the ‘death of your academic dream’. As they say in the airline safety announcements: Be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Except here, putting on the oxygen mask is a permanent state of existence.
Impostor Syndrome: The worst part of any grant application is the track record section. It varies from country-to-country, and in Australia it is particularly awful. Obscene levels of hyperbole are sadly the norm; many proposals end up resembling thrice-fried foie gras, dripping with molten fat and grease. If you aren’t one of the insane egomaniacs that inhabit the system, you have to generate something that feels truly dirty to write and even worse to read back afterwards. I don’t endorse it, but I find I can only write these after throwing a few non-wee drams of whisky down the hatch whilst binge-watching Kanye West videos on YouTube. I avoid ever reading them again after submission, and cringe at the thought of how grandiose and ‘up myself’ I must sound to anyone who must bear reading them. “Surely I can’t be that good, right? Someone’s gonna sit back and laugh at this young tall poppy who is way too big for his boots.” This gets exacerbated once a reigning silverback pulls you aside at a conference to semi-menacingly ask you if “you think you’re the next <insert name of their most-hated, notoriously-egomaniacal silverback competitor>”, or you overhear them moaning about you in the corridor (I’ve had both). It’s easy to not want to show this stuff to younger colleagues, simply so they don’t think you’re trying to show off or intimidate.
Expectation panic: For me this is the worst of the lot. The unicorn for a young researcher always features a project that’s ambitious and visionary. And while it’s not to the point of being obviously impossible, it’s essentially still unobtainium. Reading back over old successful grants is a moment of horror: “Oh my God, did I really promise to do that?!”. This is particularly the case in the Australian system, where proposals are full of statements of ‘outcomes’ and ‘milestones’. These imply a promise to successfully complete all you propose within the grant lifetime rather than just making some tangible steps towards a far more visionary goal. Reaching the end of a project and realising you’re only slightly closer to your vision, despite doing some great science, can be both demoralising and embarrassing in this light. The last thing you want would be for people to see what you promised in the moments of grant writing madness and subject you to ridicule for your temerity, or worse, tell everyone you’re just a used car salesperson.
For me, it’s a mix of the last two that make me reluctant to share my successful proposals openly. For others it might be another combination. I still share mine, both within our internal grant library and with junior colleagues who ask me directly, because I think it’s a good thing to do so. But I find it hard to stomach and I can see why others don’t. I wish this would change, and hope that it does. One possibility would be an online archive administered by early- and mid-career researchers for early- and mid-career researchers with restricted access accordingly. A restricted library like this could enable those growing out of the early- and mid-career researcher career stage, like me, to ‘pass lessons’ down to the next generation, in a way that makes the ideas and innovations safe from marauding silverbacks looking to ‘eat the young’. It wouldn’t be perfect, but superior to what we have now.
In my post next week, I return to discuss some of the tricks I’ve learned that help young researchers when starting their stable of unicorns.
Adam Micolich is an Associate Professor in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales.
He has a long-standing interest in issues affecting early and mid-career researchers, some of which he has written about on his blog “Fear and Loathing in Academia“. He can be found on Twitter at @ad_mico. His ORCID is 0000-0003-2855-3582.