Doing the research on your research grant

'Our colleague's success is our success'

- June 16, 2011

John Newhook is the incoming associate vice president, research. (Nick Pearce Photo)
John Newhook is the incoming associate vice president, research. (Nick Pearce Photo)

For new professors, successful grant applications early in a career are crucial to building their reputation. To established professors with many successful grants, learning how to stay ahead of the curve and keep attracting grants is necessary to building their research enterprise.

On Friday, June 10, researchers from across campus came together to discuss these very topics during Dalhousie University Research Day, put on by the Department of Research Services (DRS).

“When I came (to Dalhousie), there wasn’t any place the community came together, talked about research and gave tips for writing grant applications,” says Martha Crago, vice president, research at Dalhousie. “I worked in universities that had these kinds of days routinely and even when I was quite successful, I would always go. There was always new ideas to keep me competitive.”

How to get funded

Introduced three years ago, the day-long event features presentations by established researchers who share their career experiences in securing— and losing—grants. There are also networking sessions and presentations from DRS about how to engage with the office.

In the day’s first session, “How to get Funded: Tips for success,” participants heard from experienced faculty members such as Peter Duinker, Director of the School for Resource & Environmental Studies and Associate Dean, Research in the Faculty of Management. In a light-hearted nature, Dr. Duinker, who has sat on NSERC’s review committee, presented his 13 tips on how to lose a research funding competition.

These tips included; have a huge range of goals in your proposal, make lots of errors in presentation, obfuscate and complicate it, ignore demands for specific information, get cheeky with reviewers and mislead in your CV.

While the audience enjoyed the point Dr. Duinker made, he said the reality is you will always lose competitions, probably more than you win, but make sure to learn from them. “Unfortunately if you flip these 13 points, it doesn’t mean you’ll always win, but if you make these errors, you will lose.”

Sara Kirk, Canada Research Chair in Health Services Research and professor in the Faculty of Health Professions said gone are the days where you can write your proposal the night before the deadline. Today, accurate budgets, more interdisciplinary teams and more accountability are needed. Take time to plan ahead.

Be persistent

“Start small, but apply often,” said Dr. Kirk. “Use feedback wisely and be persistent.”

“Building and Managing Your Research Enterprise,” an afternoon session moderated by John Newhook, incoming associate vice president, research, featured Jill Grant, professor with the School of Planning and Pat McGrath, vice president, research at the IWK and professor of psychology.

Dr. Grant advised to watch for trends. As things become fashionable, so will related research. She outlined the need to develop core capacity and capability, assemble good teams, seek advice from peers and take caution not to spread yourself too thin.

Dr. McGrath commented on, among other things, the need to research investigators and funding agencies before a proposal. Get to know their websites and volunteer to sit on review committees. He explained that funding agencies are not cash machines, but organizations with missions and goals, so look to help them. Dr. MacGrath, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Pediatric Pain, advised to look at your research enterprise as a business, and factor in what kind of business it is, what size and be wise in your decisions, much like an entrepreneur.

Professor feedback on Research Days

“As a new researcher at Dal, I’m at the stage where I have written an array of grants, and now the money is starting to come in,” says Shannon Sterling, assistant professor in Environmental Science. “The current challenge I face is how to manage and create cohesion in my research program. It was useful to hear Dr. Grant's advice about the importance of being strategic and cautious about the collaborations we forge for our grant proposals, something so easily overlooked in the heady days writing your first grants.”

“Dalhousie Research Day allows me an opportunity to learn about how other laboratories on-campus manage their ‘research enterprise’,” says Graham Gagnon, professor of engineering and Canada Research Chair in Water Quality. “Bringing the research community together allows everyone to realize that we are all in this together. By meeting the folks at Research Services the research community has an opportunity to put faces to names, which adds a tremendous human quality to research at Dalhousie.”
“The most valuable message I heard today was not about how much money we get, but rather one of collegiality; our colleague's success is our success. That is so important for a new faculty member to learn,” says Dr. Sterling. “I think what Neil Burford (chair of the Department of Chemistry) said was really good – this is all of us helping make a better research enterprise here, at the unit level, the university level and at the individual level,” adds Dr. Crago.

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