I recently found out that a bid I’d made for a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant had been successful. I tweeted about this and said I’d be happy to share what I’d learnt in the process of making my application – particularly because I’d had a rejected one in the past and I know what I did differently this time around. There was some interest in me sharing my reflections…so here they are! The amount funded by these awards is very small (only up to £10,000), yet the amount of work that goes into writing an application is huge – so hopefully this will be helpful to others.
I’m definitely not an expert in winning funding bids – far from it! – and I want that to be really clear. There are many resources out there from people with far, far more experience and insight to offer than me – Pat Thompson’s excellent blog springs to mind. The points below are just some things I’ve learnt, and are specific to this particular funding scheme.
The first thing to say is that a huge part of the success of this particular application was having friends and colleagues review it for me – I’m so grateful to them! But, unlike when I made my unsuccessful application in 2013 (for a slightly different project), I also now work at a research-intensive institution with (a) a good track-record of people getting these awards, meaning there were lots of previous examples of applications that I could look at, and (b) a research office with experienced staff who could give me fantastic advice. It’s nice to be able to share the insights that I’ve gained as a result of this good fortune.
What I learnt from other BA/Leverhulme Small Grant applications
The first thing I did when preparing my application was to spend several days reading other peoples’ successful bids, as my university provided me with anonymised access to applications from all different disciplines and for a huge range of projects. I noted down what all these applications had in common. Usually, they:
- Began by making a big claim. For instance, the research project would bring to light previous unexplored/neglected data or texts. Or the research would revise/challenge current debates/ways of thinking.
- Emphasised the timeliness of the proposed project.
- Had abstracts which typically followed this structure: contextual outline, problem, main aims, expected result.
- Had proposals which typically followed this structure: statement of importance and relevance, what the gap is and how the project will fill it (a brief account of the method), what the research aims to do. The details of the method would then be further discussed in the ‘Plan of Action’ section of the application.
- Used a very clear style of language which would certainly be accessible to the layperson – it was more journalistic than academic.
- Didn’t focus so much on the minutiae of theory or give a comprehensive review of relevant literature. Instead, a very brief account was usually provided of the issues or debates in the field (without any or many citations), with more space being given to the relevant findings and data of previous research. The ‘real world’ relevance of the project was often emphasised, here.
- Carefully and thoroughly justified all methods – not just in terms of them being typical to a particular discipline, but in terms of them being the best way of achieving the research goals of the specific project.
- Provided a very clear and detailed timeline in the Plan of Action section.
- Had plans for dissemination that went beyond academic audiences alone and were clearly focused on the maximum exposure of the research (e.g. the project might include a report to a professional body).
- Showed what the short term and longer-term results of the project would be, such as publications and other outputs: they differentiated between the two, making it explicit which would be completed as part of the funded project, and which would be worked on after the project was over. It was usual to have outputs (e.g. publications) which would emerge from the project but not be completed during the period of the grant.
- Gave very specific details of those publications or outputs, showing how/why they would be prestigious, how many words they would contain, and so on.
- Showed exactly why all costs were necessary and made a very convincing case that the project was cost-effective.
- Bid for funds that would cover the direct costs of doing the research. Though this would often include travel, that would typically be to enable fieldwork, archival work, necessary meetings, etc – not to disseminate the research at conferences.
- Showed that the research tied in with the longer-term plans of the author of the application, both in terms of their previous research (i.e. how what they’ve done previously has informed their proposed project) and, sometimes, what they intend to do in the future.
- Were for bids above £6,000, but none that I saw went right up to £10,000. I believe it helps to demonstrate that you can do everything you need to in a cost-effective way, rather than squeezing in more than you need just to get to the maximum spend.
- Gave some mention of public engagement, e.g. talks that they would give, newspaper pieces, work they would do with their institution’s press office.
How my unsuccessful application differed
When I applied to this scheme in 2013, I’d never seen a successful application. So, once I’d looked at all of the ones available to me and had compiled the above list, I went back to my previous application. Here are all the things that I’m now pretty confident I got wrong:
- The vast majority of the money I bid for was to enable impact work and dissemination, rather than the direct costs of the research itself. This was undoubtedly the main reason I wasn’t successful. In my recent application I have included impact work and dissemination, but it’s directly tied in with the fieldwork that the bid will enable; my previous application was more focused on research I’d already done.
- My writing style was far too scholarly. It contained jargon and wasn’t accessible to a layperson.
- My abstract didn’t contain much of a pitch or a claim – it didn’t really shout about what the problem I’d be addressing was.
- My proposal was absolutely full of citations and references to a huge range of other scholars’ work. This detracted from what I was doing, what the main focus of my research was, and probably made it harder to read.
- My plans for outputs weren’t ambitious enough – I said I’d prepare just one journal article and present at a conference (the costs of which were included in the bid). This didn’t represent good value for money for the funder.
- I didn’t show enough how the research tied in with my own expertise and experience – it’s crucial to show that you, specifically, are the most competent and informed person to do this piece of research.
- My methodology wasn’t as clear as it could have been – all the various steps weren’t laid out in detail or well-justified.
Some other tips that helped with my application
Because my project is fundamentally about working with people ‘in the real world’ and trying to have an impact beyond academia, I wanted to involve potential stakeholders. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to involve those stakeholders at the very earliest stage possible – in other words, before I started actually planning the research or writing the proposal. From the perspective of the people reviewing an application, this shows that any claims of impact are realistic, that the research itself is well-conceived, and that a huge amount of ground-work has been carried out already. And in terms of the research project itself, it means you can make sure that what you’re planning to do will be of relevance to the people you’re hoping to inform/influence/support. Potential stakeholders are also far more likely to be interested in a project that they’ve got the chance to help shape and develop, rather than one they’re being tagged onto once it’s complete.
I was also reminded to think really carefully about who my audience was. The people who reviewed my application might have been linguists, but probably not sociolinguists. Or if they were sociolinguists, they almost certainly wouldn’t have had expertise or interest in gender and sexuality, ethnography, or discourse analysis. So I had to remember that I was writing for people who probably knew nothing about what I do, and that helped me to make it clear why I had to do things a particular way or why I couldn’t do them another way. Having colleagues from different disciplines read through my draft application was a huge help in this regard, too.
All the advice I got stressed that funders want to see bids that show originality, solid research design, realistic methods, value for money, dissemination outputs, and impact. I tried to remember that this really needed to jump out from my application while I was writing it.
This particular scheme requires you to nominate a reviewer, who effectively writes a reference for you and comments on the project proposal. I chose somebody who works in a related area and who I hoped would think the project was worthwhile. It’s certainly worth thinking very carefully about who to ask to do this.
The BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant scheme is intended to fund pilot projects, or primary research which requires minimal funding – and in that sense what’s needed of an application here will differ to bids for larger-scale projects. No doubt I’ve missed out some other really valuable advice relevant to this scheme, but hopefully these reflections are useful nonetheless. Good luck to all future bidders!