As we touched on in the first instalment, there is a reasonably predictable checklist for writing successful proposals. That said, it should be considered as a checklist rather than as a definitive framework. Most of the significant work should already have been done by following the guidance about identifying suitable funders.
A successful research proposal:
The task of preparing a proposal and, sometimes, making a presentation will be daunting to people who haven not carried out extensive preparation. The proposal is the tip of the iceberg.
Interviews with funders indicate that while all aspects of a proposal are important, there are several which typically are neglected in unsuccessful applications. The first, most common, problem is insufficient attention to methodology. The second is a lack of appreciation of the people side of the proposal. A third is not understanding how to cost the research. We will look more in depth at these below.
The most common reason for proposals failing is that the researcher has not explained fully how the research will be carried out. Some proposals do not detail a research method at all, or provide only the barest description. This leaves the potential funder with two concerns:
Asked for his "top tips" for application success, Chris Caswill, research director of the ESRC, stressed that method is often the single most frequent cause of failure: "These are applications to do research, so it is extremely important to discuss the research in the application", he remarked, not without a hint of irony. "Some applicants only offer a brief discussion of the subject area and a literature review. The methods must be appropriate and well-designed for the question, but simply mentioning that is not enough. Sufficient detail is necessary to convince the funder the methods have been designed and defined and the applicant knows how to carry them out. The majority of proposals which get close yet fail, do so because research methods are either inappropriate or ill-defined."
Sometimes, funders may specify a method or underlying assumptions with which the researcher disagrees. Researchers often feel they need to challenge what is being proposed. Rather than simply disagree, show how your method ties in with the funder's approach, but improves upon it. Potential funders need to be convinced that the researcher will carry out the research professionally and ethically. They also understand that, in practice, some elements of research design will change as the research unfolds. Researchers need to specify the method in some detail, including the areas which may change with circumstances or findings.
Funders need to be clear about who will actually be doing the research. This is one critical success factor which many people neglect. Think of describing who will do the research explicitly in terms of the project detail. Link names and backgrounds to specific research questions, or aims, or stages in the method. Demonstrate that you have fully explored who will be taking responsibility for what.
Many new researchers are surprised that the success of their project will not depend so much on their personal skills and intelligence, but by how well they work with other people. Funders are well aware that a common reason research projects are incomplete, or otherwise fail, is that management of the project breaks down.
Professor Rosalind Edwards at South Bank University, who is currently directing a five-year ESRC-funded programme on Families and Social Capital, says that is one of the hardest parts of her job. Directing a team of professors and researchers is vital to the success of the project, and she is the first to admit that it is interesting, invigorating and challenging. Leading the first ESRC programme at a new university is an enormous responsibility and privilege, she says.
"But, I often feel uneasy when I listen to the other researchers in the team meetings talk about their work. Part of me wants to be doing the interviews myself, to be interpreting that data."
In its guidance notes, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) emphasizes people skills as well as traditional research skills such as data gathering and analysis. In its section titled Networking and Teamworking, its says that students should to be able to:
Even small research projects involve other people to some extent. A historian working on an archive project, a classicist doing an international exchange, or four people from different European universities collaborating on policy issues, all need "people skills".
It is therefore apparent that the ability to work well with other people is noted as a key skill. This becomes particularly apparent with larger projects which are often complex multidisciplinary, multi-institution, multi-country entities. For European Union funding, which is multi-institution and multi-country, people without previous team management experience will be expected to accept a junior role in any prospective team.
One of the first concerns of many researchers is how much they should ask for in the proposal. Most researchers will receive help from their own finance department and their research support unit. In most cases, the only items which can be funded are "direct costs", which are exclusively devoted to the research itself.
For the most part research funding covers:
Funding organizations will not normally pay such expenses as
Funders always stress value and investment, not cheapness. In its recommendations for applicants in its guidance notes, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) advise:
Otherwise, the proposal will fail, says the ESRC unequivocally: "Unrealistic costings, unconvincing management plans, and a host of other factors will also play a part in the downfall of many proposals".
Finally, ensure your proposal is not simply a good proposal, but on which fits the specifications of the funder. Most funders will have similar checklists, such as the one below from the ESRC:
Before you send off your application, make sure that it has all the ingredients for success. It must:
(Checklist source ESRC)
This exclusive series, written by Abby Day, is based on her book, Winning Research Funding, published by Gower/Ashgate, 2003.