Saturday, 21 January 2012

How to write a research proposal

As anyone close enough to academia knows, the only thing that matters nowadays it external funding. You may publish tons of award-winning books, be invited to zillions of prestigeous conferences, be elected to illustrous societies, but if you don't bring in external funding to your institution, you are worthless. It shouldn't be like this, especially since so much of an academic's life is spent on writing research bids instead of doing research. Some lucky people have research assistants who write the bids for them, but in order to have a research assistant you need to have received a research grant in the first place.

From this point of view, I am a worthless employee. The kind of research I am interested in will never win large bids, and the kind of projects that win large bids don't interest me. I am an individualist and can't work in teams. I cannot hire a research assistant to do my thinking for me, because the whole point of my thinking is that I am the only one who can do it. If someone else does it, it will not be mine anymore. I cannot even ask an assistant to do a literature review for me because they won't know what I am looking for.

Still, since I have agreed to play this game I must follow the rules. I keep submitting research proposals, which take a lot of my precious time and leave me with a track record of unsuccessful bids. What I am doing is not measurable and therefore unpredictable. Following the rules, I state that such and such target groups will benefit from my research, and I know that it is a bag of %£&!!%£, so of course it doesn't sound persuasive.

As a reseach leader, I need to encourage my team to submit bids and preferably participate in some. Right now we are in the final phase of submitting a proposal that I would definitely support if I were a referee, but then I felt like that about all my proposals. Note, we are not given extra time for writing proposals so we are either doing it in our spare time or instead of other tasks we are supposed to do. If I were a department head under the present circumstances I'd give all my employees a day every week for writing proposals. What luck I am not a department head.

Anyway, yesterday we had a proposal-writing day. For the purpose, we used some old grant money to retreat to a conference centre with ambient atmosphere and nice food. We had already filled in all the items in the online form, and we had written a dozen of versions of the 6-page proposal statement to be attached. You wouldn't think it takes a whole day for a team of five people to edit a 6-page document, but it does. First we talked through it, projecting the text from computer onto a screen. Then we split in two groups and worked on a bit each. Then we got together again and put our bits together and read them, sentence by sentence. Then we had lunch and talked about unrelated topics. Then we had another go. We made huge progress, but we still had to take some homework with us when we parted.

Now, you may ask, is this a good investment of time? Five people working a whole day is actually a whole week of work, and it wasn't the first week and possibly not the last. Certainly if we do get the grant, we'll hire two research assistants and a research sstudent to do our thinking for us, pay people's travel and hotels, arrange workshops and perhaps even come up with something measurable. But if we don't get it, all these weeks will have been a total waste of time.

Never mind. The lunch was good.


Ness Harbour said...

This is a scenario I know only too well. I wish you and your team all the luck in the world with the proposal.

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Research Proposal