The neo-liberal agenda of the university now dictates, almost without a hint of a question, that we must bid for money to carry out research, an activity that used to be a core, central pillar to an academic’s role. This activity cannot be taken lightly. It is immensely arduous work, infuriatingly frustrating and is often without reward (success rates for applications to research councils vary from 32% down to a disappointing 13% in social science). However, like a gambler who wins once in a while, the faint hope of winning a bid and the very occasional success, draws you in and keeps you hooked in to the system. Is there anything we can do to improve the success of bid writing, to preparing a proposal that has a better chance of winning? I’m unsure there is a magic formula, despite what some people may think, but I can share some tips based on my own success and, moreover, my own failures at bid writing. There are probably better tips than I can lay out below for bid writing in general , for academic bid writing, and how not to win a bid, but I give an honest account here!
It always takes longer than you expect
There are no short cuts. Writing a bid is going to take long hours and often hours that we don’t have in a busy world of teaching, mentoring, tutoring, project management, administration, writing papers, peer reviewing other bids and papers, sitting on learned and important committees, carrying out research, being a social media guru, undertaking public engagement, being impactful and writing blogs. You simply have to give yourself a deadline, whether or not one is imposed by the potential funder. It is easy to let bid writing slip for more immediate pressing activity, the rigid timetable of teaching, the deadline for a paper to be submitted or another caffeine fix, for example. Block out some dedicated time in the diary, perhaps two hours a day, perhaps every Thursday and stick to it! Make sure it is blocked out as much as, say, the most important lecture is and allow nothing else to happen!
Don’t underestimate the hours it will take to write, think of a number then double it. Funders, through inevitable mission creep, demand more and more. It simply isn’t enough just to say what you are going to do anymore, you now need to say something on how it fits to the funders’ objectives, what you’ll do with the data afterwards (data management plan), how you will ensure the findings from it will change the world for the better (impact) how you will do this (pathways to impact) and who will help you achieve this (partners). I always start with the project idea and build the rest around it; other academics may do things differently, but the ideas starts with me and my partners help shape some of it. Partners on a bid are tricky and I’ll come on to them later.
Impact and Expectations
Impact is more important than ever. Academics, especially those in the social sciences, used to get away with having a practitioner or policy workshop at the end of a project; perhaps more enlightened ones would have a steering group of policy and practice bods throughout, to ensure the project might have some impact and that the project would be useful to the “real world”. However, this approach is generally frowned upon these days and proper, lasting and varied impact needs to be discussed. Engagement with the real world is likely to be expected throughout the project, perhaps having people from policy and practice as co-researchers or giving them a dedicated role on the project. They are often willing to lend a hand, sometimes put their hand in their pocket or at least provide something for the project, data, a person for a few hours a week, some expertise, access to participants or simply just rooms to host meetings or fieldwork in. These people are invaluable and great to have named on a bid, I have found managing expectations of the partners to be a big issue. People out in that there real world don’t understand why academia takes so long; they may think they’ll get to work on the project next week and it’s a given it’ll be funded. Explain the process and likelihood of funding early on in the relationship. Explain what might happen if the bid isn’t funded.
In modern day multi-, inter- or even trans-disciplinary research, partners are likely to also include other academics. Relationships with these partners are usually built up over a period of time and you’re likely to already know them or have a relationship with them, so you should know whether or not you can work with them. Don’t work with people you don’t like or won’t deliver what they promise; you need hard-working, supportive people around you throughout the bid writing – to work with if the bid is successful but also to console you if it isn’t. Sometimes new partners come on-board just for the project and you quickly have to assess whether they are right for that project or not. You might be lucky to have found some brilliant people at one of the sandpit style events funders love these days (sadly no actual sand is used), so you’ll have a chance to see them in action and talk with them. Don’t just pick people out of thin air (aka an internet search!)
Dealing with disappointment
If the bid should be unsuccessful, which more often than not is the case, then this needs to be managed. First, it is absolutely fine to rant and rave, or rave and rant if you prefer, about not getting the bid. Always look at the reasons why and press for feedback. It simply is a very poor show that academics and other partners put in hours of time into the application, often to be met with only very bland and generic feedback. I will always ask for, though rarely get, extended feedback. When you do get extended feedback for a failure, you’ll often find some reviewers got it and loved it while other reviewers hated it. Always take their feedback into account, even if they haven’t got it, ask yourself why? You do need to do some protecting of yourself here to reduce the tears and heartache. Academics are not extra specially sensitive but failure is taken hard, mostly because the work going into the bid comes from the heart, and winning research is integral to the identity of an academic. Hence, failure of a bid feels like a failure of the person who led it. Partnerships working with the right people can help share this heartache – have a wash-up meeting afterwards if you can face it and discuss where to go next. When the disappointment disappears, have a re-read of the feedback (if there was any) and read between the lines: could something have been written more clearly, did you miss something or put the wrong emphasis on something? Rarely should a failed bid be the end of that stream of work. So much work has gone into it, with partnerships formed; it needs to be looked at and adapted for further bids, and perhaps the literature review might form a paper, a chapter in a book or even a blog post. Make that hard work count!
Who can help?
One of my first ever grant successes, the EPSRC and BBSRC funded SPARC project, addressing older people’s transport and driving needs, which acted like my post-doc, run by the enigmatic and benevolent duo Peter Lansley and Richard Farragher, was suggested to me by bid writer at my then university, Bournemouth University, Jenny Roddis (now a lecturer at Portsmouth University who then helped me write it). We got on well and are still friends now, in fact she’s married my best mate from school, so matchmaking can happen during bid writing too! Here at Swansea University, we have bid writers who can make your work sound wonderfully better. Find such people, befriend them, use them. Of course they’ll be in great demand if they’re any good, so you have to use lots of powers of persuasion. Going for huge pots of money helps (as does matchmaking in love, though that isn’t always appropriate!) but if that isn’t your bag, then buying gifts (they don’t have to declare them) and taking them out for coffee helps.
Another great place for help is talking to those who have been successful in similar areas to your own area of interest. Ask to see their bids, spend time with them and absorb their thinking and how they approach writing bids. If you can get to review bids, then this is equally a great way to help. You gain confidence in that you’ll see bids are rarely perfect, and your ideas might be just as good actually, but also you gain insight into which bits you liked about the bid, which bits you didn’t and can reflect on these building them into your own work.
Bid writing has very mundane activities in it these days. Costing, data management procedures, justifying the costs etc. can seem very turgid. Intersperse work on these sections with the more enjoyable creative sections, such as the actual research itself. Again use resources here; your university team may have prepared templates for some sections or help you write these. Academics’ forte may not, shock horror, be in justifying costs! Use those people who do have such skills.
Consider who the reviewer is and write for them. It can be helpful to imagine the reviewer as that most difficult member of your faculty or college. Write for them. Justify everything you want to do, make a very clear argument as to why your work deserves the money, why you and your team can do it and why you deserve it and why it is important to fund it now. Be confident in your writing and who you are and your idea. Many academics are not good at self-publicising, in the UK especially it isn’t really the done thing. Look, though, at those that are successful, many are pretty self-confident right? You don’t have to be conceited about it, but be more self-assured and assertive in what you’re doing and what your bid can offer and it’ll be felt by those giving you the money. No one wants to fund something that “may” do this or “perhaps” could do that.
In it to win it
Finally, remember that there are random chance factors in all this. A great proposal may not get funded, indeed an exceptional proposal might not get funded, while mediocre ones sometimes do. In fact this has led for calls for research to be handed out in a random lottery style manner, simply weeding out really poor ideas and subjecting the rest to chance as to whether they are funded or not. I have certainly had some of my best grant writing turned down and some of my poorer last minute efforts funded (but also vice versa!) But like any lottery you have to be in it to win it. There is one guarantee of non-success and that’s non-submission. And with that I must get on with my next application. Thanks for reading this and happy writing.