I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

How to build your track record and write a great application: it'll only take about three years...

Yesterday I attended a lunchtime seminar run by Pat Grimshaw (the Faculty Grant shepherd), Vera Mackie (a member of the ARC College of Experts), and Ken Gelder (an Assessor for the ARC and the other grant shepherd in the department). Their talks are available on the MRO site and the Faculty website, so I'll offer just a few reflections. Some of the advice was very specifically directed to the ARC application process; some was relevant to anyone starting to establish an academic career.

Vera stressed that the grant applicant's track record, which counts for 40% of the overall score, is assessed "relative to opportunity". We know that a recent PhD can't be judged by the same standard as an established lecturer, and we also know it's impossible to say what is a reasonable or good track record (how many articles is enough? it's a bit like undergraduate students asking how many critical references is enough) but we also know that it is very hard to give a high score in this category if there is not much in the way of a track record. Some PhD students (probably the ones on full scholarships and the ones without children or sick parents) are able to publish articles as they go; but it's often quite hard to do this. Vera suggested one article a year would be good; add a book contract, and you are starting to look competitive as a post-doctoral applicant. These are not golden rules, but they are an indication of the kind of track record that some people are able to compile, against which you may be measured.

Vera stressed the cycle by which publications are produced. First the idea, that leads to the conference paper, that leads to the article, that leads to the report about the article. This is an "outcome" in grant speak. Vera thought it important to develop this cycle, so that in your application when you are asked about your contribution, you can show this process of conversion. And the golden rules of documenting your c.v.? 1) Update it constantly: 2) Keep everything. Positive comments from students, referees' reports, teaching scores, reviews. The more you have, the more you can select from it.

What became clear all over again in listening to this seminar was the complexity and contradictory nature of the imperatives before us all, not just postgraduates. We are to be consistently innovative (the ARC buzzword) and consistently productive. It is not a system that allows for the long gestation of a project on the back burner, unless you also have another project throwing out spectacular flames on the charcoal grill at the same time. We are to publish in high-status international journals; and we are to communicate our findings in ways that are meaningful to the Australian community. When Ken Gelder spoke about planning the research project, the same contradictions were played out, between writing into the perceived gap in your field, and writing for the 'national benefit'.

But this shouldn't be too discouraging. OK, so it's a little contradictory. That just gives you the chance to work with and around these rules, to set them against each other, to play up different aspects of your research at different parts of the application. I think of it as an elaborate genre-game: how can I get past the guardians to get the funding to do the research I really want to do.

One of Vera's other points was the idea of thinking in a three to five year cycle. At first blush, this makes more sense for people employed for at least three years, but it is in the nature of the grant cycle to have to think far ahead anyway. According to the Arts Faculty's new guidelines, we should ideally have a first draft by September 30 2006 for an application in the February 2007 for funding that would begin in 2008. This is perhaps hard for PhD students, to think their way forward into a world where they might have different projects on the go, at different stages. But many experienced grant applicants are effectively doing this: working on the next application while they are still being funded for the previous. It's pretty rare for an application to get funding that has been first thought of in the six weeks before the application is due. By the same token, the most successful applications are often those that draw on something already done: a pilot study or an article. This is a common finding in the humanities, that it's only once we start writing that we know what we think.

But this is another reason why for first- or second- time applicants, in particular, it might be a good idea to start writing the application early (that is, now!), as this gives you a few months to refine and distill your ideas, and to find the key phrases that will best sum up your project.

If you are starting to put an application together for next February, it's a good idea to check the application guidelines and start organising your project around the central headings now, not forgetting the "National Benefit" section. If you go to the Department of English grants page you'll see the first skeletal outline of my own application, put together in this way. I'll try and post another version of this by mid-August.

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