Sunday Evening

The house is quiet, tea has been had, the week’s ironing done and I am sitting at my computer reviewing studentship proposals ahead of next Friday’s panel meeting.  I have never liked Sunday evenings – the prospect of the week ahead, the lost weekend and the sense of time passed.  In fact it is safe to say that until my late teens Sunday evenings were always grim since school was something of a challenge.  These day’s Sunday evenings – and today’s is no exception – are full of work displaced from the week before.  It brings back memories of last minute homework panics!  My mood this evening, however, is also not helped because the studentship applications in front of me are not great.

First up the scheme is under-subscribed with just 28 match-funded proposals against 45 possible studentships, although the fully funded proposals are better 11 against 5.  But the real issue for me is that there are few good ones in the pile despite a lot of external funding.  Some School’s appear to have barely bothered; just one application from the School of Tourism for example and just three from the Media School.  DEC has a total of 16 applications which is more impressive and tops the list, while the Business School has 8, although disappointing that there are none with external match-funding.  Aside from these rather disheartening figures, the quality of the proposals is not what it was last year and there are proposals from some very senior Professors in the pile which are not well written.  There are a few proposals from less experienced staff, who are perhaps learning their trade, but these are not the majority.  It is sad to say that many of those with match funding will need to be returned for revision before they can be funded.

Writing a studentship proposal – any short proposal for that matter – is an art and takes thought and effort.  It is certainly not something that can be dashed off in five minutes on a Sunday evening!  There is nothing in my book more insulting than someone who blatantly takes an internal funding call for granted.  They provide the opportunity to hone ones skills in a safe environment, to perfect ones technique for when it matters externally, to impress your colleagues with your skill!  With the exception of a couple in the full-funded pile, where the quality is better generally, I am singularly unimpressed!  I have posted before about the art of the short application – the Weetabix Tie Breaker – and the skills are those of a good journalist who is able to hook the reader in via the first few lines and draw them in to the case.  The art of persuasive writing is in fact an art.  The hook must be followed by a compelling case with a clear rationale and a statement of method that demonstrates that the project is tractable, but above all else the case needs to demonstrate that the project will provide fantastic doctoral training and a launch pad for a student’s career.  Proposals that start with a statement of clumsy aims, with no hook or context, or simply try to bombard the reader with facts to bludgeon them into thinking that this must be important don’t meet the mark.  Proposals that fail to provide the context or make clear how the proposed research will impact on the stated problem also miss the point.  There are one or two good examples of the art of the hook; a couple for example start with some well-posed and provocative questions, but don’t follow through to link the questions to the research that follows and in one case the impact is lost through the use of some appalling syntax.  Others proposals have a mix of listed methods and techniques but no real central hypothesis or question, while in complete contrast some run out of space for any method!  While I am on a roll I will also tackle the problem of the words ‘novel’ and  ‘innovative’ nice adjectives but without any justification for why something is innovative or novel they are completely hollow!  In fact unsupported statements like that are red rag to this bull.  My final point is that other proposals seem unable to look beyond the needs of the match-funder to provide a wider context for the work leaving a depressing prospect for any doctoral student.

A proposal needs to be compelling – hook the reader in the first couple of lines, be clear about what the research will deliver, how it is original and will address the stated problem, why it is societally important, why it is timely and must be done now, how it will be done and what the student will gain by doing the research.  This is all easy to say, but hard to do.  There is more development work to be done here not just in helping individuals develop the skills to seek match-funding, which might help explain the low numbers of proposals, but also to sharpen the skills of the proposal writer.  I have been talking to Staff Development recently about such a programme aimed specifically helping staff to seek match-funding and then to ensuring that it is not wasted.  A bit late for the current round but for next year we will start a programme of support from April onwards.

It is time now to call it a day – warm milk, a book and my bed are calling.  Not a great Sunday evening but what’s new.

5 Responses to “Sunday Evening”

  1. Luisa Cescutti-Butler

    Thanks Matthew for a thought provoking article on proposal writing. I agree with the sentiments expressed, that a proposal should draw the reader in etc. I have submitted several proposals lately and have been rejected for various reasons. What my main complaint is, I am having to complete proposals in-between all my other activities as a full time lecturer. I don’t have the luxury of ‘navel gazing’ in pursuit of the excellent proposal. I am currently writing an external Erasmus proposal and I am fitting it in whilst also working on my PhD, interviewing prospective students, lots of teaching commitments (internal and external) and of course life outside of work. In my defense I am trying as hard as I can, but I can only do so much within the constraints of the job. I look forward to staff development in this area, and notwithstanding teaching commitments I will endeavour to attend .

  2. Carol Bond

    It would be interesting to see a couple of the better ones to see what is expected.

  3. Susan Tully

    I’m usually working in practice on Sunday evenings on a busy ward – as well as working full time during the week!
    I agree with Luisa’s comment that our other academic duties take up too much time (and I am also doing my doctorate) to think about writing proposals.
    Maybe one day….

  4. Edwin van Teijlingen


    I find it interesting that all four comments / reservations to your blog to date are from HSC staff. I’m standing at Doha airport on my way back from fieldwork in Nepal to get back in time for three days of REF writing (well two-and-a-half, because I am also teaching on Friday morning). Having examined over thirty PhD theses I wonder if our expectations are perhaps too high, especially if external funders have signed up to the ‘deal’ of joint funded PhD studentships..

    Prof. Edwin van Teijlingen

  5. Catherine Angell

    An interesting article…clearly written at a time of great irritation. It is perhaps equally aggravating to spend huge amounts of time in thinking, planning, negotiating (internally and externally) and writing research proposals…only to get brief and unhelpful rejection letters. I would certainly welcome more training (although I have attended whatever I can so far) but also I think we would like the opportunity to personally present proposals so that there is the chance for greater clarity and the process can be learning experience.