What makes a strong rejoinder

A quick opening note on terminology: I use ‘assessor’ to refer to experts who read and review research grant applications, then provide comments into the final decision-making process. Terminology varies a bit between funders, and between countries. We’re not talking about journal reviewers, although some of the advice that follows may also apply there.

Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | http://www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

In 2012, with Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), we wrote ‘Rational responses to referees, our advice on preparing your rejoinder or response to comments on your grant application. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.

As my applicants are busy writing their responses, this seemed like a good time to build on ‘Rational responses to referees’.

This post provides some advice on the specifics that I want to see in a strong response, and how you might deal with some tricky situations. When your response goes back to funding body, it will be considered along with hundreds or even thousands of other applications.

In such a situation, you want to make it as easy as possible for the reader (the funders) to understand your response.

White space

I’ve seen a draft that was a wall of text, 5,000 characters long. There were no paragraphs breaks and no white space. It was exhausting to look at.

Be kind to your reader – cherish the white space. Put white space between paragraphs. Indent first lines. Use formatting (if the system allows it – the ARC doesn’t).

All the normal rules of civilised writing still apply, even if you have a lot to say and a severe limit on how many characters you can include. Invite your reader to engage with your text. Read more of this post

One weird trick to get a research grant

Psst. Wanna know a secret? This one weird trick will let you read other people’s grant applications, even before they are funded. Not only that, you get to decide who gets the money.

And it won’t cost you a cent.

1 tip to get a grant. See applications before they get funded. You decide who gets the money.In the past, when talking about how to write a better application, Tseen has advised you to ‘be the assessor’ – to channel the assessor and understand what they are looking for. It is great advice.

The most effective way to do that is to actually become an assessor for a granting agency. Actually, I recommend that you put your hand up for two – one in your home country and one overseas.

Here’s why:

Write better applications

Grant applications are a particular genre of academic writing. They are carefully structured documents that provide detailed plans for the future. They require information that never appears in other sorts of academic writing, such as budgets, CVs, and Gantt charts.

They look forward, when most other academic writing looks back at work that has already been done.

We don’t write them very often and we don’t read them very often. Compare the number of articles that you’ve read recently to the number of grant applications you’ve read ever.

By reading more grant applications, you will learn to write better grant applications. You’ll see what sort of evidence impresses you and what style of writing engages you. You’ll see what enrages you, too, when an otherwise good application contains obvious gaps or someone submits drivel.

Not only that, it will help you to place your own work in context. If you can see how other people position their work, it will help you to position yours.

Read more of this post

Who are you writing for?

Screen showing a paper crane with sponsors logos, and a speakers podium in front.

Thanks to our sponsors, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Your grant application will probably only be read by half a dozen people who matter.

Sure, you might get your colleagues to read it in draft. It might be reviewed by your local research whisperer. But they aren’t the people who matter! They are not the people you are writing it for; they aren’t your real audience.

They aren’t the six that matter.

Who are the all-important six? Well, one or two people from the funding agency will read it. They might send it out to three to four assessors – not all of them might respond. Between them, those half-dozen people will decide if it gets funded. They will pass a recommendation to a board or a government minister who will approve the funding. Someone from the minister’s office might scan a list of titles and summaries before your application is finally approved. 

That’s it – that’s your audience. Those half-dozen people decide the fate of your application. They are your audience. Wouldn’t it be great if you knew who they were?

Read more of this post

How NOT to pad your budget

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. - May 1942 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. – May 1942 (Library of Congress)

Just before I had completed my previous budget post – “Conquer the budget, conquer the project” – Twitter threw an associated topic my way: padding your budget.

It grew (again) out of the livetweeted session of Aidan Byrne’s talk at ANU that @thesiswhisperer attended. @bronwynhinz responded to Inger’s tweet on Byrne’s admonishment for padding budgets with:

“How is ‘padding’ defined? Waffling instead of being succinct? Unnecessary/tangential material in significance sections?”

At the time, I said I’d write about it and – months later – here it is! Without realising it, the forerunner to this post is actually Emily Kothe’s (@emilyandthelime’s) tongue-in-cheek piece about “Research on a shoe-string“.

In it, Emily talked about some of the ways budgets can be inflated with unnecessary costs to justify the amount you’d ask for from the funding body.

Basically, ‘padding the budget’ means putting unnecessary expenses into your project costings. A good budget is logical, lean and costed with integrity.

Often, a chat with your organisation’s research office people (RO Peeps) can save you a world of pain. I’ve heard that, sometimes, there are RO Peeps who actually do your budget for you. Of course, when I say “do your budget for you”, I mean that you have already thought it through (or talked it through) with stunning clarity and have listed the precise items you want to make your project happen.

No-one can (or should) actually do your budget for your project. Your budget is inextricable from the methods, aims, and personnel of your project – it cannot be done in isolation, and I’ve banged on about this before.

Back to the topic of the post!

Here are my top five ways NOT to pad your grant application budget:


How I assess a funding application: Part 2 – feasibility

Sea of Wisdom temple (Beijing) by Jonathan O’Donnell (on Flickr)

The previous post in this series addressed the issue of how I assess track-records on grant applications. It talked about a range of X-factors that I look for when assessing applications with (typically) excellent research CVs.

This post focuses on project feasibility and whether the project sounds like it’s going to work.

On one level, it’s a dead obvious question: Can the project be done?

It is, however, an aspect that depends entirely on the evidence presented in the application that:

  1. The team (or individual) is good and experienced;
  2. The budget’s credible and appropriately linked to a methodology that has integrity; and
  3. The project itself has significant intellectual rigour and vigour.

One of the trickiest balancing acts that I find with grant applications is demonstrating innovation and creativity in your research without sacrificing feasibility.

This can sometimes boil down to a question of ‘do you have a Plan A and Plan B?’. If we’re talking about the honest face of research, we’d have to admit that things don’t always work. The project direction that’s so assiduously planned may go awry in the first six months when the research team implodes or the data doesn’t do what you’d like it to. Research is often exploratory, which introduces doubt about what its real final outcomes might be.

If you were being completely honest, you’d have to say that the project may not work.


How I assess a funding application: Part 1 – track record

Now that our Discovery applications have been fed into the gaping maw of the Australian Research Council (ARC) competition, I thought I’d take my 2-part series of posts about assessing funding applications out for a spin. Part 1 focuses on track-records and the research team. Part 2 will address an application’s overall feasibility.

“It’s all a lottery!”

“You need to game the system or you haven’t got a hope.”

“Only those who’ve had them before will get one.”

Sea of Wisdom temple (Beijing) by Jonathan O’Donnell (on Flickr)

The urban myths circulating about grant rounds are as tenacious as those about waking up in ice-filled bathtubs and realising you’ve had your kidney harvested.

No doubt, spending so much time and investing intellectual resources in a major application makes the lack of success bite that much deeper.

Having been around the traps as a supplicant, awardee, assessor, and now advisor, I’d have to say that most funding assessment processes do end up giving money to the strongest teams and most compelling projects. This isn’t to say that the processes or choices are always perfect, or that rogue results (in good and bad ways) don’t pop up. There’s always that story of the ARC Discovery that was written over a weekend and got up.

This post is about how I assess funding applications and, in particular, the track-record components. Over my academic career, I’ve:

  • Been part of judging panels for niche academic association committees that gave out travel and small grants,
  • Been invited onto a university’s fellowship selection panel, and
  • Assessed for a bunch of international funding bodies (in Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong).

I’m not claiming that my process is necessarily best practice, but I thought it might be useful for you to gain insight into one assessor’s valuations (and, it has to be said, biases).

Each funding scheme’s selection criteria may differ in detail but the two basic elements of track-record and project idea are always there.

The role of the assessor, for me, is in gauging the quality and feasibility of the overall proposition. The fact that the ARC now gives ‘feasibility’ an overt weighting in the Discovery scheme gives rise to interesting conversation (but that’s for another post!).

What do I look for when assessing the track-records of researchers on grant applicants?


Rational responses to referees

Preliminary evidence appears to show that this approach to responding to referees is – on balance – probably sub-optimal. (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post is co-authored by Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), and Jonathan O’Donnell and Tseen Khoo of The Research Whisperer (Australia).

It arises out of a comment that Jonathan made about understanding and responding to referees on one of Adam’s posts about what to do if your grant application is unsuccessful. This seemed like a good topic for an article of its own, so here it is, cross-posted to our respective blogs.

A quick opening note on terminology: We use ‘referee’ or ‘assessor’ to refer to academics who read and review research grant applications, then feed their comments into the final decision-making process. Terminology varies a bit between funders, and between the UK and Australia. We’re not talking about journal referees, although some of the advice that follows may also apply there.


There are funding schemes that offer applicants the opportunity to respond to referees’ comments. These responses are then considered alongside the assessors’ scores/comments by the funding panel. Some funders (including the Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC] in the UK) have a filtering process before this point, so if you are being asked to respond to referees’ comments, you should consider it a positive sign as not all applications get this far. Others, such as the Australian Research Council (ARC), offer you the chance to write a rejoinder regardless of the level of referees’ reports.

If the funding body offers you the option of a response, you should consider your response as one of the most important parts of the application process.  A good response can draw the sting from criticisms, emphasise the positive comments, and enhance your chances of getting funding.  A bad one can doom your application.

And if you submit no response at all? That can signal negative things about your project and research team that might live on beyond this grant round.

The first thing you might need to do when you get the referees’ comments about your grant application is kick the (imaginary) cat.* This is an important process. Embrace it.