Research merits, Research money

In the transition from PhD student to aspiring postdoc, my mentor said something I’ll never forget: ‘your PhD isn’t a job ticket’. What she meant was: an attitude of entitlement to research funding, or an academic job, misses the point.


Over the years I’ve realised it’s one of the major mistakes newly-minted PhDs seeking academic/research careers can make: the failure to realise that we’re in a competition-based rather than a merit-based environment. Hear me out.


You get to PhD candidacy through a mix of intelligence and hard work, and in a meritocratic education system (in which you’ve been raised), it’s fair enough to assume that you’ll ‘rise to the top’. So you study and work hard, with lots of all-nighters, stress and crises of faith in your thesis question/topic/decision to do a PhD at all.


Then, if you’ve ‘done the work’ someone with expertise in your area assesses it, and they pass your thesis (with or without corrections), or fail it.


The pass-fail assessment isn’t based on how many other PhDs that assessor has reviewed in the last year or 6 months, nor the University at which you did your PhD, or the research environment in which you did the work.


It’s made on the basis of the quality of your evidence and rigour of your argument (not to mention clear writing). Shoot forward to life post-PhD, and it’s a whole other ballgame, where the number of other grants assessed, and which institution you’re at, do actually matter.


The most prominent agencies for research funding run competitively based processes. This means that your application goes up against hundreds, if not thousands, of other applications; is assessed by people who are unlikely to be in your specific field; and the limited funding available is distributed to the very best, not just anyone with a clever idea and a feasible, cost-effective project design.


If your application scores too low, it’s not necessarily that your idea or proposal is not good. Rather, it’s that, against the volume and strength of the competition in that specific round, other applications were deemed to be stronger that yours.


Now, for someone raised in a meritocratic education system, their unsuccessful application may be confounding. But I worked so hard on it! But how am I supposed to continue this research without funding to do it? Doesn’t the agency understand how important this work is?


Valid questions and reactions. But as my mentor’s comment highlights, all the ‘hard work’ you’ve put in isn’t the metric to judge the funding outcome by, nor is your PhD qualification, or the importance of your research topic. In other words, that spirit of meritocracy that you were educated in no longer applies. I’m not saying that if your application is unsuccessful your failure is ‘deserved’, or that the intense competition for limited public funds – and its decimation of the next generation of research leaders – is a plus. Not at all.


I’m suggesting that, in the reality of a competitive funding environment – which can feel so alien compared with the meritocratic education system we’ve been trained in – changes in our thinking and strategies can help us adapt. Here are my initial suggestions for such changes, but you may have more of your own:


1. Depersonalise rejection

If the outcomes are statistical (only so much funding exists for so many applications) taking rejection personally doesn’t make sense. By all means absorb all the feedback you can get on your application – when and where it’s provided – but don’t beat yourself up. Try a more qualified thought process, like: ‘if I can make this compelling and clearly valuable for this audience, I’m in with a small chance’.


2. Readjust your expectations

Yes, you need to ‘be in it to win it’, but understand that if, say, only 20% of applications are successful for a certain scheme, that means a whopping 80% must be unsuccessful. It’s more likely you’ll be in that larger, unsuccessful group. I’m not saying that to be mean; it’s a numbers game. Readjusting your expectations means that if you are successful, you’ll see it as the real privilege – not a right – that it is.


3. Change your game plan

In the face of these odds, if we don’t prepare for failure (in terms of back up funding options, back up jobs etc), we’re being naïve. Try adopting a more grounded and strategic attitude, like ‘If this doesn’t pass, I can diversify my options so no single application matters if it’s not successful’ or ‘which funding opportunity or source, at what point in my career, offers me my best chances of success?’


On changing your game plan…

In addition to preparing for failure, and adopting a more strategic assessment of our opportunities and odds, we can do more still.
On the one hand, we can go to work on improving our chances of success with competitive grants, such as:
a) working on becoming more competitive for the scheme you’re applying for
b) improving your grant-writing skills; and
c) asking for help from more experienced grant writers, your Research Office, and your supervisor


On the other hand, we can also hunt down funding environments where different dynamics apply. But even here, you’ll need to get good at what they require, whether it’s becoming exceptional at engaging industry in your research to the point of investment/collaboration; becoming highly effective at crowd funding; or learning new skills in a non-academic job, whether that be a temporary move (possibly to the professional stream of the Uni you’re studying at) which provides you with a way back into academia, a complete jump out of academia, or a colourful mix, like in any good post-PhD portfolio career).


In short, wherever you head – into funded research or near (or far from) it – your PhD won’t guarantee ‘happily ever after’. It’s more like a ticket to enter the arena. Welcome!


If you’re in (or near to) the transition from PhD student to aspiring postdoc, I’d love to hear from you – do you feel prepared for the transition to the competitive funding arena of post-PhD research? What advice or tips have you received to help you make the transition?


And if this is an area you feel you need help with, then you’re in luck. This month I’m launching my online mini-course for final-year (and newly-minted) PhDs, PhD2Postdoc: the research funding bazaar, to help you (or PhD students you know) to plan for, and make, the transition. Keep your eyes peeled for more news on that in the coming week or two.

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