One of the things that can count for or against you when bidding for research project money is track record.
All funders would like to give their money to someone who they are pretty confident can produce the goods. So all research councils and other big funders look to see whether you can demonstrate that you can handle the amount of money and the particular kind of research that you are applying for. Research Whisperer has recently written very helpfully about the ways in which Australian reviewers make decisions about track record, and this is pretty much the same the world over.
But what counts as track record really does depend on what kind and level of funding you are after; in other words, it’s dependent on career ‘stage’. Different things are expected depending on whether you are ‘early career’, ‘mid career’ or ‘mature’. And different countries do have different rules about who gets in these categories, and they are not necessarily age-related. It’s perfectly possible to be early career and advanced in years, and to be a mature researcher somewhat earlier than might be expected. It all depends on when you got your PhD. However, I’m going to use one of those categories even though they don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. I’m focusing here on early career research project bids – not post docs, and not mid career.
Most research council funders (and a lot of others) won’t give a great deal of research project money to someone who has done a doctorate and nothing else. They want you to have done additional research after the PhD. So you need to think about being part of someone else’s project- someone with good track record. Being a co-researcher is a canny way to start off a research career, as funders often give the PI brownie points for having an early career researcher on board. Alternatively, having some post doc funding or completing an internally funded pilot project are good too. But it’s also worth looking at doing an ‘unfunded’ project in order to get some publications and experience. You might work as an unpaid intern on a big project team for example. But it’s pretty useful to get other kinds of experience too – running a teaching and learning project, editing a special issue of a journal for example – as these demonstrate that you have management skills, can deliver on time, and are developing as a scholar in all areas. Being a visiting scholar is also a sign that your research is seen as important in other institutions besides your own. If there are significant things that you’ve achieved – prizes, special issues and the like – then you need to include those on your cv.
Funders see all of the above as a sign of a good researcher in the making, and they do want to support potential. But a combination of this additional post PhD experience is generally what’s required for a first grant small pot of money (in the UK that’s something like a little British Academy or a charity bid or a small commissioned project).
It’s important to show when applying for funding that the project is going to allow you to develop more skills. Some funding schemes actually ask for a training plan and for a named mentor, and these are really important questions, because here the mentor’s track record is going to be judged as well as yours. There needs to be a good ‘fit’ between you and the mentor, so you need to select someone who is pretty stellar in the field you are working in to ensure that they will have cred with the reviewers.
It really is critical to think of all of the areas that you might learn about through the project in order to anticipate reviewer’s assessments. This won’t just be about trying out some new methods or extending some familiar ones, while getting experience at handling a project bigger than the PhD. It’s also about working with end users and getting better at public engagement activities. In the UK context, and some others, you have to show that you can work with non-academic partners and that you are able to spread the word about your research to various publics and in a range of media and genres – or at the very least that you know this is important and have thought how to do this and have got some help if you have no experience in this area.
However, you do of course need to exercise some common sense about the degree of learning involved. If you’ve only done small scale interview based projects before for example and this application is for a large scale study using complex statistical methods, then you’ll need to get someone else on the team, probably as a co researcher or in a mentoring capacity, to show that you are going to be able to deliver on this, as well as learn.
If you’re applying for a somewhat bigger but still modest sum – maybe time for you and an additional researcher – then you absolutely need to be able to show that you’ve done small projects before and that you can finish them and finish on time. As well, it’s important to demonstrate that the research that you have produced was of good quality, and that the resulting report was readable and interesting. So if this is a second bid to the same funder you need to make really sure that the first end of project report is really good, you need to show the publications and ‘impact’ from the first project – and you need to show how that research has led to the new bid.
Getting advice on what counts as a realistic sum of money in your field and in your area is really, really important. It’s almost impossible for early career researchers to apply for a big hefty wad of money first off, because you need to be able to show that you can lead a team of researchers, manage research and administrative staff, balance a budget, as well as produce findings that make people sit up and take notice. A substantive and significant set of previous project based publications is a prerequisite for a big bid.
Summing up – it’s clearly REALLY important to make sure that you don’t either under or overestimate your track record. It’s vital to match your track record to the bid and show that you can do what’s involved but also that the project will allow you to grow and get some new knowledge/skills at the same time. What this suggests is that a degree of planning is required to make sure that each bid is an advance on the one before.
Developing a five year funding AND publishing plan is more than useful in the process of building track record. Talking through a plan with a more senior researcher and with peers is a good way to develop a workable and realistic set of strategies that will mean you don’t lurch from project to project without fully capitalising on each one or without positioning yourself for the next bigger bid.