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The final countdown

Image: William Warby [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Careful planning can make last-minute bids viable

What’s the problem with submitting last-minute research grant applications? Well, it depends how last minute. The mayhem caused by chaotic on-deadline applications is a good reason most universities don’t permit them, and often have strict timescales for proposal preparation and approval. Another is that the chances of success are very low. Such applications are almost always a waste of everyone’s time.

But some of the stricter timescales and notice periods universities impose can be counter-productive. Academic work patterns tend to be lumpy, moving from intensive focus on one task to the next. The idea that grant proposals will develop in a linear and regular fashion between call launch and deadline is wrong. The bulk of the work—or at least the writing—will logically be done in the final few weeks.

Still, literal last-minute applications are a terrible idea. Online submission systems can fall over, your internet connection can fail, there’s no time for checks and little slack to deal with unexpected issues. 

But being ready for submission by close of play the day before a late afternoon deadline, or at a push in the first few working hours of deadline day should be fine. 

If you want to use as much time as is available, your approach must be controlled. Paradoxically, it takes preparation to be able to successfully bring an application to fruition in a short space of time. Here are seven elements of that preparation that need to be completed before you attack the main body of work for your (relatively) last-minute bid.

1. Relevant people at every university involved should know your bid is coming. 

Research administrators preparing costings, research managers carrying out detailed checks or giving last-minute feedback, heads of school giving approval and central research staff signing off. These people will block out time and work quickly, but only if they know your bid is coming in good time.

2. You’ve had a ‘sense-check’ discussion with your research development manager. 

This is to ensure the scheme and funder is right for your idea. Ideally you should also have had time for comments and feedback on early drafts.

3. Application requirements have been thoroughly checked for anything that takes time and planning to arrange. 

I call this ‘minesweeping’: checking to make sure there’s no unexploded ordinance that could sink the bid at the last minute. Such explosives may include requirements for letters of support, sign-off from the tech transfer office or checks with HR for any bullying or harassment complaints. 

These can be hidden away in the ‘notes for applicants’, and your research administrator or manager will be able to identify them and sort them out for you. The less familiar the funder, the more important the minesweeping.

4. The idea is almost complete, even if the application is not. 

There’s a huge difference between ‘writing up’ a well-developed idea and fitting it into the application requirements and trying to define and scope out your project as you write it. The process of writing the application forces clarity—or at least it should—so it’s almost inevitable that writing it up will expose unclear or underdefined areas that need clarifying or pockets of stray fudge that need unsticking. But you can’t complete the summary section of the application form if you don’t know what you’re summarising.

5. Your partners are on board.

That means they have bought into the project and will provide you with what you need from them in terms of letters of support and so on. Remember, all organisations need time to produce a good letter of support.

6. You’ve had some external input from senior academic colleagues. 

Ideally this will be from a formal internal peer review process, but if not, from informal discussions or comments on a concept note or draft outline.

7. You have time for final checks. 

These will include checks that all the documents are present and correct and in the right format and, closer to deadline, time to sleep on a complete draft and review it fresh in the morning.

The list of features of a controlled approach may look long, but really it’s just about carving out enough time early enough to look at the practicalities and plan intensive and effective work later on and, then letting colleagues know you intend to apply. That way, you can still enjoy the creative maelstrom brought about by putting the finishing touches to your bid at three in the morning, but also give it a fighting chance of getting funded. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight