This post sets out some advice for academics on how often you should submit research grant applications. The advice I give is not what most people expect to hear from a dean, so I will start by stating what I think is an important principle and contradicting a common idea about what deans think.
The principle is that a good university strategy can only work if it promotes strategies that are good for individuals within the university. So whatever a university strategy requires academics to do in terms of submitting grant applications has to be beneficial to those academics. It follows from this that, contrary to a widely voiced complaint, no sensible university wants academics to waste valuable time writing grant applications that have a very high probability of failure.
I don’t want to dwell here on cases where the probability of failure is high because of inexperience or lack of skill. Last week I argued, on the ResearchFundingToolkit blog, that nobody should start writing a grant application unless they have the skill to write a good description of the research project. I will also be happy to discuss ways in which people can improve their skills if they need to do so in order to pursue a sensible strategy, but not right now. Right now I want to concentrate on explaining what is a sensible strategy for an individual to adopt. In line with the principle I outlined above, I will also argue that university strategies should support individuals and encourage them to adopt good individual strategies.
A sensible grant application strategy has to start by asking whether you yourself will need a new grant around the time that you would get the result of the application. We can consider how you answer that question elsewhere but the important point is that if the answer is no, you shouldn’t write any grant applications at all. On the other hand, if the answer is yes, you need a strategy that will get you a grant quickly. To get a grant quickly you will need to submit several applications in quick succession.
The failure rate makes it necessary to submit several applications to be reasonably certain of securing a grant. Even the best-written grant applications from the strongest applicants have a reasonably high chance of failure – maybe as high as 50%. This means it would be foolish to risk too much on a single application – or to be too disappointed by a single failure. I think that the best strategy is to submit four or five grant applications in quick succession, all based on the same set of ideas. Then, if you get five straight rejections, you can be reasonably sure that it is time to change your approach.
I have seen many departmental research strategies recommend that academic staff should write one grant application every year. This is a very poor strategy for individuals. Writing one grant application per year is a recipe for misery.
It’s not hard to understand why this should be. As I pointed out above, most grant applications get rejected. The decision process takes about 6 months. As I have said many times, grant rejections are utterly demoralising. It takes months to recover. Submitting another grant application within six months of a rejection would be a superhuman effort of will. With rejection rates approaching 90%, a strategy of submitting one grant application every year gives an excellent chance of spending several years alternating between demoralisation over each new rejection and anxiety about the next potential rejection.
Another important point is that, if you only submit one grant application per year, it takes too long to get evidence that you need to change your approach. You cannot tell on the basis of a single rejection that a particular set of ideas is unlikely to get funded. You really need four or five straight rejections. Then you can be reasonably sure. If your strategy is to make annual applications it could take five or 6 years to discover that you need to change your ideas. On the other hand, if you follow the strategy that I recommend, you will know within a year.
So I think the best strategy for an individual is straightforward. You shouldn’t write any grant applications until you need a new grant. As soon as you do need a new grant, you need to write several grant applications very quickly. The best strategy for a university is harder to define but one thing is clear. Your university should have a strategy that supports you to make and implement the decisions you need for your individual strategy.