Resist the temptation to overstuff early career applications
Known as the future leaders scheme until 2016, the Economic and Social Research Council’s new investigator grants support early career researchers in making the transition to become independent researchers. Grants are worth between £100,000 and £300,000, and there are 30 to 35 winners each year. The scheme is open year-round without a deadline.
Melissa Colloff, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, won a grant for £242,881 from the ESRC to start in January 2021, to study questions relating to children’s testimony in court proceedings.
Tell me about your research
Our grant looks into how legal decision-makers can predict accuracy of information given in honest memory reports from children. We want to see if there’s something we can use to determine how accurate memory reports can be. For instance, maybe children giving testimony might give a non-verbal cue, say a shrug, when they’re unsure about something, or make a certain gesture to show they’re thinking. Another part of the project looks at whether we can train people to pick out those cues to determine accuracy.
Was this your first major bid?
I did a couple of other applications before I heard of this one—not exactly on this topic but on the theme of memory and metacognition. The first big grant I applied for was to the Nuffield Foundation. I wasn’t successful. After that I was successful with a small grant at the British Academy. The pilot data from that project was used to apply for the new investigator grant. I dipped my toe into the topic and built on it in each application.
Nuffield gave brief feedback from reviewers. For instance, one asked how I knew the project would be representative of all children in the criminal justice system—and that pushed me to think about what I am targeting in this research and be more focused.
I had loads of research questions in that application, whereas the ESRC one was pared back so it had the key research question front and centre. I realised that secondary questions can be too much for a reviewer to take in at once. Having that unsuccessful Nuffield application really helped me to determine which bits of the project to sell.
How did you decide what to cut from the bid?
I was a bit strategic. I knew that one idea I’d originally had—which was about police violence—was contentious. I knew there would be people in my field who would like it, but also those who would not like it. Since I’m starting out, I decided to focus on something less contentious.
Will you replicate that pared-back approach in future grant applications?
Definitely. After doing that Nuffield application I saw that I was trying to say, “Look how valuable this could be, how many questions we could answer”, but getting lost in that was, “What’s most the most important question to answer?” I’ll continue to whittle things down to what I want the panel to take home.
What else did you learn from previous applications?
To ask people for advice. When I started applying for grants, the thought of sending someone my ideas was terrifying. I was really embarrassed and didn’t want to waste people’s time. Another thing that was different between my Nuffield and ESRC applications was that I actively asked people for their feedback.
Were there any parts of your ESRC application that were especially challenging?
I’d been to workshops where I heard that applications often fell down in discussion of impact. In my case, I thought that was something I could really make shine because of possible implications for criminal justice. I wound up assembling a steering panel for the project. Initially my aim was to talk to them to learn more about the elements of the project that I’m not an expert in, but those conversations led me to ask them if they would be part of a steering panel overseeing the work.
How valuable was the steering panel to your application?
Very. Basically, this is a group I wanted to meet every so often during the project to make sure we were doing things relevant to practice. For example, there’s a national vulnerable victim adviser, a police inspector, two experts from Birmingham law school, representatives from the College of Policing. The point is to get ideas from all these people to maximise the impact of our research. Our meetings should help fine-tune the experiments. For instance, if someone said, “We never ask children that question”, then there’d be no point in focusing on that.
What extra documents did you submit?
There were loads of letters of support. I’d gone through the effort of setting up a steering group, so I asked the members to write letters. I had 10 letters, two from senior academics I wanted to work with on this project and the other eight from contributors to the project. I’m not sure if this was overkill.
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