Narrative of ideas

Old volumes of books: Historian's history of the world volume XXIII, and three volumes of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia
Ideas of the world, by Jonathan O’Donnell

I’ve just been reading a Fellowship application. The applicant is brilliant. She has a great project idea that is urgently needed, and had excellent potential to lead to both theoretical developments and real changes in practice.

I was excited to read her application, because she has done great stuff in the past. She has an amazing international network, both in her research field and across academia generally. She has developed really innovative methods and theoretical developments, as well as doing exemplary work with the community and the profession that her research serves.

Perhaps you can imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find much of that great stuff in her CV. There was one specific question that asks for research achievements and contributions. She had answered that question correctly, but… it didn’t sparkle.

All the amazing things that I knew she had done were listed in her CV, but I had to dig for them. I found the fact that she had been offered two different international fellowships at once buried in a discussion of opportunities to do research, along with the fact that she had chaired an international committee auspiced by the UN. I found some of her theoretical contributions and the translation of her research into practice buried in her list of ten best publications. Her leadership work with African researchers was listed as an interruption to her research career.

To help her turn this around, I suggested that she provide a narrative of ideas.

What is a narrative of ideas?

Ideas are the currency of research. They find form in different ways – books, refereed articles, conference papers, data sets, industry reports, artworks, all sorts of things. But, in the end, it is your ideas that other researchers are interested in.

By themselves, ideas can be hard to understand. It can be difficult to grasp how different ideas come together, or what effect they have had. A narrative can help to clarify all those things. It sets out what ideas you have developed, and why. It puts those ideas in context by talking about some of the projects that you have done, and some of the choices that you’ve made. It provides the reader with a path through your career, so that they can understand how you have developed your ideas.

How does it work?

There are lots of different ways to present a narrative, but two of the easiest are:

  • Start at the beginning (often your PhD) and work forwards.
  • Start where you are now, and work backwards.

I like the backwards approach for grant applications, because the rest of the application talks about where you are now (your idea), and where you want to go in the future (your project plan). The narrative of ideas can pick up that discussion of where you are now and work backwards to show how you got there.

So, for example, you might begin:

In this application, I am investigating…
This draws on several threads of my previous work.

You’ve just linked your CV to this application, and you’ve created an expectation that you will talk about your previous work.

From there, you might talk about what you’ve done before in different ways:

  • My team developed this technique to overcome [a problem]…; or
    …it allowed us to investigate [a particular issue]…
  • The work on … and … allowed me to develop a model for …. That model then led us to investigate…
  • We undertook international work with … at [university] and … at [university]. This work combined our previous work on … with their strengths in… and ….
    The international comparative data allowed us to….
    We found that…, which led us to question….
  • To gather this data, we worked with [industry partner].
    This provided us with a way to understand both their needs, and the needs of their clients.
  • While the government did not respond to our work immediately, our [industry partners] adopted it enthusiastically.
    They provided us with an introduction to [Department of…], and we were gratified to see some the ideas from … and … reflected in new government policies on…

How can I do this?

A lot of applicants find this quite hard to do. Some feel that they’ve followed opportunities as they have arisen, and there hasn’t been a strong connective thread. Others have such a tightly woven narrative that it is hard to separate out the different threads to make something that makes sense. Here are some ideas for untangling your narrative. On a separate page:

  • List your grants by year. What did each of them allow you to do? Who did you work with? What did you publish?
  • List the publications that you are most proud of, and answer the same questions.
  • Think about how you have worked with industry. What evidence can you show for that work, in terms of industry funding, invitations to visit, or reports written?
  • List the international and national visits that you’ve made or hosted, when they happened, who you visited (or who visited you), and why.

Now get some coloured markers and draw lines between the different things that you’ve listed. Use a different colour for each different research theme. These become the threads of your narrative. You mightn’t mention each item, but some of them will make their way into the narrative, making it more real. For example, compare the strength of these statements

  • Working with Prof Needs-Grant, we developed…
    Funding from The Generous Foundation ($3,000, 2017) allowed me to work with Prof Needs-Grant. Together, we developed…
  • Through this work, I developed an extended theory of…
    Through this work, I developed an extended theory of… (forthcoming 2019, Journal of Brilliant Ideas).

The things that led to your ideas (funding, collaborations) and the things that resulted from your ideas (publications, new projects) become the evidence in your narrative, rather than the focus. The focus rests squarely on your ideas.

Isn’t this hard to do?

This might be hard to do the first time. It won’t all be seamless. There will be quirky bits that don’t fit. There will be some things that aren’t linked at all. There will be breaks in the narrative.

However, the advantage of this approach is that it works best within your CV. Your CV is something that you attach (in different formats) to most grant applications. Each funding agency will ask for different information, presented in different ways, but there are very few double-blind funding schemes. So once you’ve done this, you can use it for a lot of applications. You’ll have to edit and update – cut and paste won’t work, but you’ll have done the hard yards. And each time you edit, it will get a bit stronger.

This doesn’t replace your list of publications, grants, awards and other shiny things. It supplements them. It draws the key elements of those lists into something that is engaging and informative to read.

If you would prefer to watch a video of me talking about these ideas, the lovely folk at the Victorian chapter of the Australasian Early Career Urban Research Network (AECURN) have just the thing for you.

AECURN Pub Chat – Building a Narrative around Your Research. 2020, AECURN Victoria, Streaming video. YouTube.

Here are some timing codes that might help you navigate this video.

5:25 – We start the seminar.

5:30 – 12:40 – Introduction and the importance of the evidence.

12:40 – 17:40 – First exercise – assembling evidence.

17:40 – 19:20 – Discussion of the first exercise.

19:20 – 23:40 – Evidence of what?

23:40 – 28:50 – Second exercise – evidence of what?
(I remember to put up the instructional slide at about 24:20).

28:50 – 29:50 – Discussion of the second exercise.

29:50 – 36:40 – Map the journey.

36:40 – 41:30 – Third exercise – draw your map.

41:30 – 49:30 – Discussion of the third exercise and concluding remarks.

49:30 onwards: General chat.


  1. Good advice, but explaining who you are is a basic skill which all professionals should be formally trained in by specialist qualified teachers, and tested for, before being allowed to graduate. Those who miss out on this training will be at a severe disadvantage, especially early in their career. I teach ANU’s TechLauncher students how to write a CV and job application as their final assessment task. Many of the best and brightest students do very poorly at this on their first attempt. This should not be surprising as no one has bothered to teach them these skills before. They do much better after some training, peer and tutor feedback. Those who have already completed a professional communication course do much better.


    • Thanks, Tom.

      I agree. Most of the academics that I’m working with have been in their positions for some years. In that respect, they are somewhat like your students. They might have more experience, but they haven’t needed to dust off their CV to apply for a job for some time. So reflecting on their recent experience can be difficult.

      In one respect, they differ from your students, I think. Most students pursue one degree, and so their experience all lines up. Researchers, on the other hand, can have a more meandering journey. They have often spent years working as research officers on other people’s projects. They may have done multiple post-doc projects. They may have been involved in multiple projects, both their own and others, where the projects pursued may have more to do with the funding gained than any overarching trajectory. This means that they can feel that their narrative is messy, even though they have been working in the same general area for some time.


      • Jonathan, reflecting on your experience is always difficult. The younger students don’t have the problem of summarizing diverse careers, but they complain they don’t have any experience to put in a job application. To help them, I am designing a learning module, equivalent to two days full time study, to insert into some of ANU’s project and internship programs. Over a semester the students would review the skills and knowledge they have, consider what they need to get, how to get what they need, and document all that.


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