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Klaas Wynne Klaas Wynne 26 May 2009

Writing research proposals takes a lot of time

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Posted in Tips

Last month, I had a research proposal rejected. I’ll keep a brave face and say that it might be a good thing as it shows that, no, really, I do not get them all funded. But really, it’s a pain the behind, of course, and a huge waste of time. About a month-and-a-bit wasted to be precise.

Writing a proposal has various stages. First there will be a long period ¬– perhaps a year – where I will make notes, collect some ideas, write down the occasional cool sentence, and generally think about what I would like to do next. It makes no sense to start writing for real at this point. First, the core idea of the proposal has to crystallise in your head. I have no idea how this happens but it just does. When it does, you can start writing and you might have a decent first draft in about a week. This is followed by making sure that you reference all the relevant papers (while keeping in mind constraints of total length of the proposal), putting in preliminary results as graphs with suitably upbeat text to go with it, and putting nice graphs that illuminate your main points in some sort of concise and clear way. Next, you will have to get letters of support, letters from collaborators, and quotations for equipments. From starting writing for real to this point will probably take about a month of full-time work. A few more weeks follow where you might tweak the flow of the text and make sure the spelling & grammar is immaculate. In my case, I typically also have to go over the financial details with a fine toothcomb to make sure every single expense is justified and all the salaries costed correctly. I have to make Gannt charts and workplans.

When it is finally time to send the thing off, probably two months have passed since real writing started. This corresponds to about six weeks of full time work. Clearly, you can only do this once or twice a year. As an academic, you have to do a lot of other stuff. Averaged over the entire year, I would guess that 25% goes to research (talking to students and postdocs, working on papers, conferences), 25% to writing proposals (big ones as above as well as various smaller ones), 20% to teaching, 20% to “administration” (departmental stuff, meetings, etc.), and the remainder on other work such as refereeing other people’s papers and proposals. This is the same number as mentioned by FemaleScienceProfessor recently in an interesting blog entry. Anyway, the point is that having a proposal rejected means that you have wasted a pretty significant part of your time.

Then again, “wasted” may not be quite the right way to put it. Even a rejected proposal may have ideas in it that, when mixed up with new ideas and new collaborations and new preliminary results, may make for a fantastic next proposal. It wouldn’t be the first time that a proposal that was rejected the first time, comes out on top in its next incarnation. However, if your proposal comes somewhere near the bottom, it might be time to get some advise.

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  1. Mirjam

    27 May 2009 9:05, Mirjam

    So, I guess the question is how to weigh the return of the 25% of your time that goes to writing proposals. A rejected proposal may mean a big loss of your own personal time, but an accepted proposal will earn you a lot of research time in the form of PhD students, postdocs etc, which completely swamps the time that you invested in writing the proposal…

  2. Unregistered

    1 Jun 2009 22:14, Otto Muskens

    Apart from the time spent on writing a proposal, I am right now experiencing the enormous frustration related to the bureaucratic procedures and (intentional) delay caused by funding agencies. My First Grant proposal was first submitted end of March. End of May the proposal was returned by the Council’s administration on the basis of incorrect accounting of personnel cost (known as the full Economic Costing or fEC). So basically two months got wasted without the proposal even being judged on scientific grounds…

  3. Unregistered

    2 Jun 2009 6:37, Klaas Wynne

    Oh, I should have mentioned that I sent my proposal to EPSRC in October 2008 and had it rejected in March. Delays caused by tiny errors discovered late in the process are standard. One should just not take it too seriously or get a punch bag, shout at cars in traffic, say nasty things about kittens, babies, etc.

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