If you’re an early career researcher and looking for advice on writing research proposals, Mari Martiskainen shares what she’s learned about how to write a good funding proposal.
Mari Martiskainen, Senior Research Fellow at the Sussex Energy Group, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, recently won £1.25 million for her FAIR programme (Fuel and transport poverty in the UK’s energy transition). She agreed to share what she’d learned about how to write a good funding proposal with the CREDS early career researchers. It was so good we thought we’d share it more widely – here you can listen to her talk (or read a transcript of what she said) and take a look at her presentation. We hope you find it helpful.
Webinar recording, 23 October 2019
Okay, so I just wanted to give you a quick intro of who I am in case you know don’t know me or if you haven’t met me before. I’m a senior research fellow and I’m based at Sussex Energy Group at SPRU at the University of Sussex. We have a team of about, I think, 60 members now…
We do a whole host of different kinds of mainly social science research on energy, and specifically focusing on energy transitions, seeing how we can make our energy systems more sustainable. SPRU, where we are located is very well known for its work on innovation, so we do a lot of research on innovation.
So, I’m based there, I did my PhD at SPRU and I finished my PhD in 2015 on Community Energy. I’ve been a member of CREDS since June 2019, working on 2 different projects. I’m already working on a project on Smart Homes, and starting the new project in January – we’re going to be looking at Fuel and Transport Poverty and I’ll talk about that a little bit later.
My research has always focused somehow on Energy, specifically on how people use their energy systems. I’m more interested in the people who use the systems – I’m not an engineer, I’m more of a social scientist. I have an interest in energy policy, energy poverty, energy justice, community energy grassroots innovations, so, that’s been the bulk of my work.
I’ve been involved in a total of 19 proposals in my time. I started in SPRU back in 2006 – I was a research officer first for a couple of years, and then went on maternity leave and came back and started a PhD. I began my PhD in 2010 and finished in 2014, but 2015 was my graduation. I’ve been always on research contracts so I don’t really do much teaching, but I do supervise PhD and MSc Students. I’ve been involved in 19 bids and of those we’ve had 10 projects that have been successful and 9 projects that weren’t. In those projects I was either a named researcher, a CoI or a PI and I got my first project as a PI in 2015. That was a very small project of £5K, then I got my second project as a PI last year, which was just over £200k as part of a bigger Horizon 2020 project, and now the CREDS challenge which is a very large project of £1.2 million. It’s exciting but it’s going to be a big project.
I just wanted to give you a little background of my own experience and what it’s like to do funding applications and this it definitely not something that you know, but something that you should be doing. I think everyone has a different view, but I thought I’d share what’s kind of worked for me and what I think about funding applications and doing research bids in general.
One of the first things is that as a researcher, or if you are a lecturer and looking for funding as well, the first point to realise is applying for funding is really hard and I think that’s something really important to accept. It’s hard because of the competition out there, there’s a lot of people applying for quite small pots of money. We are lucky in that we are focusing on energy research and there seems to be quite a lot of funding available, but also there’s a lot of people working in this space so there’s a lot of competition. It’s hard, and I think you just have to accept the fact that it’s going to be really hard.
I think it’s really important that you have a good idea, in terms of whatever funding applications you will be doing. You need to think about: is this something that is new, and not just the idea, but also thinking about the methods that you will be using and the theory you will be working on. Are you going to be developing new theory? What is the actual work plan going look like in terms of the empirical part of the work and potential impact?
You know there’s a huge focus on impact and you have to show that your research does have some impact on the world, and that’s probably one of the most difficult elements when you are doing research proposals because often impact can be accidental, and sometimes it only happens a few years after you’ve done the research. So actually writing and putting impact into your proposal needs quite a lot of thinking and quite a lot of realising that what you are proposing will have impact at some point, but not necessarily at the point that you were expecting it. I think that’s something really important to keep in mind.
With empirics there are also a lot of funding calls that will fund secondary data applications, so for instance if you are really good at stats. I am at the moment trying to learn stats myself, I did some basic stats in my PhD but now I actually have a survey to analyse – I’ve mainly been a qualitative researcher up until now, so I’m learning a bit more survey methods. At this moment in my career I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable about applying for funding on a secondary big database because I don’t have that specific skillset, but it’s something to keep in mind, that once you get more skilful in certain areas new opportunities might arise in where you can look for funding. So, the secondary data sets are probably an area that haven’t necessarily been that much explored in our field in terms of writing proposals.
I think it’s really important that you have a really good team to work with and you have to think really carefully who you want to work with. I have had experience of putting together proposals with people where during the development I realised that actually I really hope that this proposal does not get funded… because I don’t necessarily want to work with these people. I think this something that will sometimes happen, that you are working with a group of people and you don’t know until you’ve done some work with them whether it’s actually going to work or not.
I think the proposal stage is also a really good way of finding out what other people are like – do you think that you may actually be able to work together well? In my case what’s really turned me off when working on one specific un-named proposal was that the coordinator of the bid was really badly organised, so we had a lot of delays, we had a lot of really painful 2–3 hour Skype calls and several of those didn’t seem to really go anywhere. From that I thought well, if this is already the situation at the application stage then I wonder what it would be like in the actual research proposal / research project stage? But that was a really good learning experience because it taught me that when I’m doing my own bids and proposals, things that I definitely want to avoid doing.
In terms of when you apply for funding, it’s really important to think about a proposal in the same way as a research project. Effectively, it’s a mini project so you need really good organisational skills. I think it’s really key to understand that you can’t write a proposal in 2 days – you might be able to if its just a really quick 1 pager, but I think it’s really good to approach it in almost the same way as you would a research project, so, you have to have really good organisational skills to be able to do that I think. You need a really good eye for detail because you have to check deadlines, you have to check the funder requirements. It’s really important that you check eligibility and especially if you are going for any fellowship applications because some will have specific details in terms of requirements, for example, how many years is it since you finished or submitted your PhD. All of those need to be really carefully checked.
The same thing goes for practical things in your application, like font size and margins and page limits and all of that – you definitely need to adhere to them very strictly, you can’t go over the page limit, for example. You have to be really careful checking those and I think it’s really important also to have a really hard skin because when you submit funding proposals you are more likely to get rejected than you are not. I think it’s really important to learn that when you apply for something you have to expect that’s its going to get rejected. So, I would say not to take it personally because reviewers will have a view on certain things and some people might love what you are proposing and other people might not. I would say it’s something to keep in mind.
I’ve done numerous different applications and types of application, and I think possibly the most difficult ones to get are personal fellowships, for example, ESRC, EPSRC and Welcome Trust. I think EPSRC is probably sort of better, they have a better success rate for our field, because I know, for example, they prioritise energy demand, and they fund quite a lot of applications in terms of fellowships, and they don’t have strict limits for how many years it was since you did your PhD, for example. I would encourage any of you out there who have an engineering background to look at EPSRC fellowships as a first try out, because they want you to embrace engineering or ICT, so I think they have a much better success rate than ESRC, for example.
I applied for both ESRC and Welcome Trust funding, and with ESRC I got short-listed and with Welcome Trust I was invited to do a whole proposal but neither of these were funded. So specifically, I think it’s quite good to mention that if you are thinking of applying soon after your PhD those are the obvious places to start and they often welcome applications several times a year.
One good thing to say about Fellowships is that they often require you to have a mentor: it’s really good to check what kind of person you can have as a mentor and who you would want to actually mentor you. In terms of the application process, with ESRC it was a lot less work for the mentor than with Welcome Trust, where we needed a huge amount of information from the mentor so it was quite a tedious process. So, check what kind of requirements they have not just for you but also for the potential mentor that you might have supporting that PhD.
I think really key, and I think people sometimes forget this, is that when writing a bid there is not just one person working on it, even if you are doing a fellowships application. I would really strongly encourage you to ask for help and use all the help that you have access to, and definitely do not be afraid to ask for assistance. My one tip is that if you have a proposal, I would not circulate it around to people unless you trust them because they might steal your idea – I know this sounds quite harsh. It hasn’t happened to me, as far as I know, but I have some colleagues who are very cautious about circulating proposals to people they don’t know: so, I would say trusted colleagues, people in your team, definitely ask them for help, ask for their view in terms of reviewing your ideas.
Definitely ask your research development office people who will be doing things like pulling together your budgets or looking at your impact plan, for example. Those people are really key in proposal development and quite often I think they are sort of forgotten a little bit because they work so much behind the scenes. But I have found that they are really important – one of my colleagues who has now left Sussex University helped me with CREDS proposal that was funded, and she always saw her job as a mid-wife role to research fellows – that they kind of help you to give birth to these “proposal babies”, so to speak. I think that if you’re lucky to have a really supportive research development office team, then definitely get their help – that’s what they’re there for.
So, I want to give you a very quick overview of my experiences:
We were really lucky to be funded by CREDS and I’m eternally grateful for that. We got £1.25 million for a three-year project starting in January and looking at the linkages between fuel and transport poverty in the UK. There is a lot of research already on fuel poverty and there’s an emerging field of transport poverty in the UK, but there hasn’t really been any research looking at the potential links between the two: we think that because we are becoming more electrified in our energy systems that there will need to be more links between energy use in the home, for instance, and to transport. This is something that we are really excited to be looking at: there are six different universities involved and three external partners as well so it’s a really exciting project.
The idea is something we actually tried through another funder a couple of years ago but we didn’t get funded – obviously once you get a rejection from the funder your initial reaction is always a little bit “oh damn, we didn’t get funded,” but because I have had my fair share of rejections I thought well, actually, it’s a good idea, I still liked the idea. So I looked at the review comments quite carefully and when I saw the CREDS Challenges opportunity come up I thought actually, we have something in the drawer that fits with this really, really well.
We extended the team that was involved in the original proposal. I took on board some people with skills that I don’t personally have, I found people that I would really want to work with, people that have complimentary skills and people that that could help me, for instance, with methods that I don’t have expertise in.
In terms of just very practical tips, what I found really useful in this proposal was that we first had an in-person meeting. I’m based in Brighton and we had someone that was based in the north of England so we decided to meet in Birmingham. I had some internal funding available from SPRU where if you want to go to a conference or if you want to setup a meeting or some other small kind of development-type work then you can apply. So, I booked a meeting room in the centre of Birmingham and got some biscuits and coffee, and we sat there for a few hours and had a think about what we would do and about what the key parts of our proposal actually would be. And I felt that this was really important to have the key people really committed to the bid from the start. There was one particular person, Professor Stefan Bouzarovski who is really, really busy and I got him to come along to the meeting – I thought it was really good to get him committed right from the start.
I would really advise that if anyone is developing a bid that in-person meeting at the start is really, really helpful.
I gave you an example earlier of a research proposal where I didn’t really like the process: what I learnt from that is that I definitely wanted to avoid really long Skype calls, so we only had 2 or 3 Skype calls during the proposal process, and we kept it to 1 hour maximum so that we didn’t waste anyone’s time. I didn’t want to waste really busy peoples’ time and I also didn’t want to waste my time – so we found it was actually much more useful to spend time writing the bid then send the bulk of the comments over email followed by catch-up phone calls / Skypes just to make sure that we were all on the right page – and that really worked well for us. So, having had that experience of really painful 2-hour Skype calls – I wouldn’t want to work like that necessarily, though having said that, it might work for other people really well.
What I put in place was a really clear workplan when we were doing the proposals – I mentioned before that treating it as a research project was a really good way to think about it: having a clear workplan, having clear responsibilities. We had specific work packages in the project with specific people responsible for leading specific work packages, so they were also responsible for developing those specific areas of work in the proposal. I had people leading the packages but I kept a tab on all of them all the time – I had an overall view, where we were with the bid. So, that worked really well in my view.
Another thing that is not so much highlighted, is responding to review comments. We got review comments from five people and they ranged from somebody not quite liking the bid to people actually really, really loving it. So, we had five sets of comments and we were given two weeks to respond – we really did need those two weeks – and it was a two page document. I think this is something that once you’ve done your proposal and you are lucky enough to get to the stage where you get review comments, you get short-listed, then I think taking the review comments onboard is really important and I think there’s more skill in knowing how to respond than in proposal writing.
With proposal writing, you have to be able to justify every single sentence that you write and leave out all the bits that you don’t need. I think with the reviewer comments you have to be even more careful in a lot of ways. That’s something that I don’t really know how to explain but I think it takes skill and the more you do, the better you get at them in a way. So we spent two weeks on a two page document: I was really lucky because one of my colleagues had recently won a large ESRC Centre grant and she was willing to share her reviewer comments response document with me and I was able to take a look at the kind of approach that they took. We still have to think about how we address the various comments we get, so we have to keep in mind that we should not treat reviewer comments lightly at all. It’s probably the most important document you will write in terms of proposal writing. It’s not like journal article review comments, for instance, because I think with general articles you can sometimes bargain and negotiate a little bit, but I think with research proposals you have to be much more careful and take the attitude that the reviewers are right: and if you don’t agree with them you have to be very, very nice about it and write it in a very careful way – to not annoy them – but I would say it’s a really important thing to know how to respond to those comments.
I would add just a few practical tips, understanding that rejection is going to be hard and it’s just something that you’re going to have to learn how to deal with. I think that particularly if you are a researcher or lecturer and you have some research in your contract then I think you’re going to have to think about this – if it’s the “bread and butter” of your work – if funding applications are something that you have to do on a regular basis then I think you have to get into the habit of looking for funding opportunities. You have to be really proactive in seeking opportunities – when I look at projects I have been involved in that have been successfully funded, it seems quite a large amount of money in some respects, but I have been really proactive in seeking opportunities for being involved in larger bids that we’ve had going around in the energy group. So, during my PhD I made it very clear to my supervisors that I wanted to work on specific proposals that were in the pipeline, and that’s how a got named as a researcher on a proposal and I had a job straight after my PhD.
I think it’s really important that you get involved with bids that are going on in your department or your team, and that you are proactive about it in terms of talking to senior colleagues about what you want to get involved in, and that you want to get funded. Some funders can really be quite picky about who they have as a PI, so you might have a more experienced Professor-level person as the PI but there’s nothing stopping you saying; “look, I’ve got this brilliant idea, I want to get it funded, but I need a more experienced person as PI so can you come and lead on a small percentage?” So, whatever you do, make sure that you get your name on the bid as CoI or a named researcher because I think that’s really important as your university will also look at how much money you are bringing in and all that kind of stuff, so make sure that you are named if you are involved in any kind of bid proposals in your department or in your teams.
I’ve heard that 1 in 10 bids get funded – my stats are a bit higher but I think it depends on the field – but generally, as I’ve said before, research funding is really difficult to get. If it’s 1 in 7, or 1 in 10, then keep thinking that each rejection is a step closer to the funded one: I think that you do need the rejected ones just to get better at bid writing. I know when I look back to my first proposal that I did for the SPRU Fellowship I think “oh my goodness” – why did I say that, or why did I choose that? I’ve seen how much I’ve developed in just a few years in terms of writing bids. I think that rejection means that some reviewers did not like your proposal but don’t take it personally, think about recycling it to another funder. Now I’ve been asked to review other proposals which is really interesting and really, really helpful as you get to see how other people are putting things together. If somebody, a colleague for example, asks you to review a proposal at your department, that’s also definitely a good way of finding out what other people do.
Recently, one proposal that I reviewed was done by really quite high-level Professors and I gave it a really low score because they didn’t have a workplan, they didn’t have a clear methodology, they didn’t have any impact plan for any of their key audiences. They had failed to include who was going to be working on what part of the bid: so don’t take rejection personally because even people at the very highest level of our field still get applications rejected. That could be because they didn’t put enough time into the proposal or it was simply just not that great. So, I think it’s something to keep in mind that even people at the very top still get rejected.
I do think it’s a good idea to recycle your idea to another funder, but also that you have to learn to let go. I would say try again but use a different angle, a different team of people, a different method and theory, and if you’ve tried it with 3 different funders then I think it’s time to move on and try something else. So, don’t get too emotionally attached to your proposals either.
I do think bid writing takes a lot of time – it can sometimes take as long for a smaller grant as it does for a larger bid, so think about how much time you would need to write a proposal. If there is a bid that is not going to cover much of your time, is it actually worth applying for that, or would you be better to wait for when something else with a bigger pot of money becomes available – sometimes you can end up spending a lot of time on the very, very small bids. If you don’t have anything funded yet, start with a smaller grant definitely.
I would say any kind of mistake or rejection you make in a bid, turn it into an opportunity to learn and improve – I do think that the more bids you write, the better you get at it definitely. It’s something that you just kind of have to keep at and keep doing on a regular basis.
I’m very lucky but I wanted to say it is really important to say thank you to the people that help you when you are writing proposals, it’s definitely a team effort, and I think it’s really important to thank those who have helped you along the way. So, for instance, I have knitted woolly socks for our research development officer, because he helped me greatly with a couple of proposals, and I recently delivered a couple of bottles of bubbly to people at the research development office, for my colleagues who prepare the proposals. So, I think it’s really important to say thanks as those people will be there to help you with the next bid as well.
Thanks for this, this was really useful.
I’m Peter Foreman from Lancaster Uni working on the Flexibility team, my question is around team members, and I guess there are a couple of aspects:
Is it better to look to create projects that involve other committee members or to go for solo project funding particularly for your first project?
And secondly, what makes, in your eyes, a good team member beyond just fit? What do you look for when choosing who to collaborate with?
That’s a really good question. I think in my experience the personal fellowships are probably the most difficult to get and will require you writing your own proposal effectively – I think it’s really good to apply for those and if you can get one, brilliant, because they will be really good for your CV. I’m talking about ESRC Fellowships, EPSRC and Welcome Trust. Obviously, the cream of the cream is ERC, the European Research Council. I would say definitely apply for the personal grants if you can and I don’t think any one is better than the other. I have to say that I applied for a Fellowship after my PhD and I had a post in the pre-CREDS centre at Sussex: in a way, after my PhD I was actually glad to be working as part of a bigger group, a bigger team and working with other people because even though my PhD was linked to a project and I worked with people, I still found that PhD quite irritating, it’s a thing that you do on your own.
I think also it depends whether you prefer working on your own or working with people in a team – I don’t think that one is better than the other. The Fellowships are really great for your CV. They are difficult to get but they are also brilliant in a sense, you can do your own project. But, at the same time, do you want to work alone? If you’ve already spent 3 to 4 years working on your own on a PhD, some people might think that actually a team proposal might be better for them. So I think you should try both really.
In terms of what type of people to have on your team, for me, it’s really important that people deliver, and that they deliver on time for deadlines. If they don’t deliver during the proposal process then I already know that they are likely not to be able to deliver on time when the actual research project is being done. I think it’s really important to have people that you think are nice and you get along with. I mean, I know, academia is full of quite a lot of people with big egos and sometimes you might meet people that you don’t get along with that well. So, I think it’s a mixture of people with personal relationships that you think you’re going to have fun with, and also making sure that they’re going to actually deliver. I think that’s why the first in-person meeting that we had with the CREDS project was really important and it was quite critical in terms of not only getting the other people committed to the project but also testing the water a little bit – what would these people be like? If there are a few jokes in the room, I always think that’s a good thing and, more generally, an indication that people are fun to be with. I think that makes it easier in some respects, because academic work can be sometimes quite hard and I know that there will sometimes be issues that you don’t agree on. So, I think a bit of humour is always helpful.
In your experience, is it worth compromising about the personalities versus the right people on the team? So, an expert in the field that you know would be a real deal clincher, may be not your most favourite person in the world. Would you ever consider bringing them on board recognising that they’re going to be difficult to manage because they’re going to add a certain credibility to your project that might not necessarily be there, or do you just want to go with the people you know you can work with and hope that that credibility can come through because of the general consortium?
That again is a really good question and I personally think that if there is somebody that you think has the expertise that you need in the project but might be really, really difficult to manage, then I would say, find somebody else with similar expertise. I don’t think, particularly in our field, that there is only one person that will have the required expertise – unless it is somebody that you really, really need. I think particularly, if you think about a long project of two to three years, you have to consider do I really want to work with this person all that time? Is it worth it? See if you can perhaps may be find somebody else?
I was really lucky in that I have worked on several research projects in my time and I’ve really only had one situation that’s been a kind of personality clash. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people whom I’ve got a along with and they’ve got along with me. Some people might think that it’s no big deal in a way. But personally, I think as your funders will have requirements for you to deliver on time and will want to see your research having some sort of impact, it’s really important to consider if you want to spend your time managing a really difficult person on the project or would you rather spend your time to ensuring that you are actually delivering the outputs that your funders require?
Also, just to say having sat on a couple of panels, having the preferred expert on your bid is not necessarily a deal clincher because top people are generally very busy and you might only be able to get 2 or 3% of their time – the conversation between the panel in that room will be whether that’s enough time to deliver? And generally, it isn’t. So, you could be better off getting someone slightly less expert but who does have the time to actually work on the project.
That’s a really good point actually and I have to say that when I was doing the FAIR proposal, I had two people involved in the project that I know are extremely busy and high-level Professors. But I know that one of them I’d worked with before and that they will deliver, and the other one I specially wanted to have that in-person meeting with: so if they do come to that meeting I can tell that they are actually committed to this. There are ways that you can test out a little bit how things will work out.
Building on that, to what extent is including experienced academics on an application influential to awarding fund, so to what extent does experience matter more than fit? If I was to look at putting together a proposal with three other early career researchers, would that be valued less than other proposals compared to if had we with a load of other professors on it? How does that evaluate? Is that something that we have to think about strategically when putting together research teams?
Yes, definitely. And that depends on the funder, on the specific call you are applying for. For example, if you are doing an application for ESRC or EPSRC on your own, a personal application, they will look at you, at the applicant, then they will look at your mentor. So, then you have to think about who you want as your mentor that will be experienced enough to be able to guide you on that particular project. If it’s a specific call for early career researchers then I don’t see why you would have to include a really high-level person, the idea in that particular call is to fund early career researchers. But all the big funders will look at whether you have somebody in your team that has expertise in delivering large projects. Also, if you are an early career researcher and you have a lot of publications for example, and you have shown that you have delivered or that you had impact from your PhD, then they will also look at your profile and see how you actually fit in terms of their funding requirements.
I think that all depends on the call so don’t presume that you automatically have to have some kind of PhD-level professor on your proposal. One way to do it is to have an advisory group or board of experienced people. That’s what we did with our FAIR project – in addition to the team we also have an advisory group. And don’t forget, you don’t have to only collaborate with people in academia, you can also collaborate with any expert organisations, or NGOs. If there is anyone who you think might be really useful to work with, who might have more practical expertise in the empirical field, then it would be good to team up with them as well.
Also, some funders like it if you say you’re going to develop yourself, to say we’re are going to do this kind of development along the way, through training, or mentoring or an advisory board.
I think they call that capacity building. Also, when you look at the funding applications, and funders requirements and at the call documents, check out the key words that they require. So, capacity building, impact and all that kind of stuff that they hide in there that you have to pick-up. This is why people like, for instance, Christina, who is one of the Impact Leads from Sussex University, actually went through all of the review comments we had and looked at every single sentence and somehow related it to impact and helped me formulate the response. We were really going through it with a fine-toothed comb, making sure that every single sentence from the reviewers was actually addressed. It will be the same when you look at the call documents and the call details, there will be specifics that they are looking for. You have to make sure that you reply to those.
Well, I just wanted to say that Mari’s was the top proposal throughout the entire process when we were looking at the Challenge call. And that was because of all the things she’s just talked about. Her proposal was truly excellent, she paid attention to detail, it was really clearly structured and she really responded to the viewers comments. I would really just advocate for what she said and advise you to talk to her and absorb what she can tell you because she does a fantastic job, and so I want to congratulate her and thank her again for her time.
Thank you. I really appreciate hearing that. It’s almost overwhelming because I’ve done a lot of proposals and I’ve also had a lot of rejections too. But like I said, you get better at it and who knows, sometimes, things will get funded and other times they will not.
I have to say that all through putting together that particular proposal, I had a really good feel about the team, I had a really good feel about our idea, the methods that we were going to propose, and I just had a really good feel the whole time.
I thought we really fit the call and I think that’s also really important to check, to make sure that whatever you are proposing fits, that it’s what they are looking for.
Presentation from the webinar
Dr Mari Martiskainen, Senior Research Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex
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