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Early Careers Workshop: Writing Successful Research Proposals in Ageing Studies
Report on Pre BSG 2010 conference workshop event: Early Careers Workshop: Writing Successful Research Proposals in Ageing Studies 5th July 2010, Brunel University
Professor Chris Phillipson
Professor Chris Phillipson, Mary Gilhooly, Teresa Waller and Alan Walker

This pre-conference workshop, co-hosted by the NDA programme, Brunel Institute of Ageing Studies, the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Programme and BSG-ERA provided a valuable insight, from a variety of speakers, into the vagaries of writing research proposals.  We were treated to presentations from Alan Walker, Mary Gilhooly, Janet Lord, Alastair Macdonald, Sheila Peace, Chris Phillipson, and Teresa Waller (Brunel University), with Christina Victor and Veronika Williams coordinating an invaluable workshop in the afternoon.

The morning focused on offering advice on writing proposals, either for small grants with one researcher, or larger grants involving a team.  Examples of useful tips on the process of writing included:

  • Know your funder – pitch appropriately
  • Write simply and coherently – the first sentence should tell the referee what the proposal is about
  • Assume the referee only has 30 minutes to read proposals
  • Be clear and unambiguous about the methodology
  • Avoid a long literature review – focus on the aims, objectives and methods
  • Convey enthusiasm and vision

Advice was not limited to the art of writing proposals, but also encompassed guidance on creating a team for the submission of a joint bid, looking for mentors to support the process and suggestions on how to complete the financial elements (such as be parsimonious!).  Finally, many proposals are not funded because of lack of a coherent dissemination strategy.   We were advised to focus on ‘who will benefit and how, and who will be using our knowledge, and why’.  The only contentious point to arise from the presentations was in the approaches to time spent in preparing bids, and number of submissions, ranging from the mass submission approach with proposals being written during a (long) train journey, to optimising quality by carefully planning and preparing, but submitting infrequently – both approaches having been productive in securing funding.

With the current emphasis on large bids, incorporating several institutions, it was encouraging to be reminded of the variety of different funding opportunities available, such as small or first grants for those with less than six years’ research experience, or to apply to funding bodies other than the ESRC, such as the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy and the Nuffield small grant fund.

The afternoon session turned the tables on us, with Christina and Veronika dividing us into groups and giving each group an anonymised project proposal for us to decide whether it was worthy of funding or not. Putting on our ‘reviewers’ hats, was a very useful exercise in utilising what we had learned in the morning.  Notwithstanding the helpful advice imparted to us by the speakers, I am embarrassed to say I was part of a group who unanimously decided to reject a project for funding, which had, in real life, been funded. To be fair, we felt the proposal went against all the advice summarised above - so it just goes to show, there will always be the ‘unknown’ element which influences referees’ decisions. 

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