How to win funds & influence people

Winning funds & influencing people

Winning funds & influencing people

Today I delivered a workshop at UWE entitled “How to win funds & influence people“. This is an event aimed squarely at researchers who are wanting to know a bit more about the process of applying for research funding, an introduction if you like as opposed to a masterclass in bidding.

I started the day by asking the participants where they wanted to go with their career – something that one might think is obvious to most – but I’ve found that many researchers have no real understanding of their options and wish to remain in academic research as a default position as recently highlighted in a report from Vitae – “Straight Talking

The realities of academic research

I pointed to the reality of being an employed researcher on a research-only contract by highlighting some of the criteria required in the role profiles illustrating the point that getting involved in writing bids for research funding at the earliest opportunity is advantageous if not expected. It also served the purpose of making research students aware of the difference between postgraduate research study (oh the halcyon days!) versus some of the harsher realities of working as a paid researcher.

How is research funding distributed in the UK?

I then summarised where money for research comes from, I’ve written about this more extensively here, to try and raise awareness of this. I remember not being remotely aware of the sources for funding as a postgraduate researcher but actually I believe it is more important than ever to get a handle on this. It’s one thing to have an understanding about the funding bodies but it is quite another to really understand the politics involved as well.

Here’s a really useful factsheet that explains how funding for research in the UK works, it’s well worth a read.

Next up came an explanation of costing – now this isn’t something I am a particular expert in – but I offered this fundamental truth to researchers:

There is a difference between how much a research project costs to do and how much the funder will pay (the price)

 I know many experienced academics who still don’t understand this, it is fundamental to informing how you would put a bid together in terms of asking for resources. I’d encourage all researchers to start thinking about this and seek out the advice. The Research Whisperer blog is a great place to start.

Here’s the prezi that summarises all that:how to win funds

Read the guidelines!

Read the guidelines!

Read the guidelines!

All flippancy aside, it’s amazing how many folks ignore what the funders say they will resource in what area and when so ignore at your peril.

Searching for the right funding opportunity

I then gave an overview of a database that UWE subscribes to, Research Professional. We discussed hints & tips on how to get the best of the search function (start broad with topics then narrow in) and how to set up automated alerts to ease the burden.

Making Connections

We finished off the day by focussing on a further fundamental truth about research funding:-

Collaboration is where it’s at

More and more research funding is being awarded to collaborative ventures. This means it is imperative that you build up a reputation as researcher to make it easier to find other researchers to work with.

This brought up the topic of networking. I decided to approach this from a slightly different perspective, rather than advising folks to get out there and press the flesh (which is the standard take on networking) I empathised with the notion of being a shy connector as set out by Sacha Chua.

Her presentation on networking as an introvert speaks volumes…

I also showed the TED talk by Susan Cain about how it’s harder (takes more energy) for introverts to interact in a world geared up for extroverts… (more info on introverts/extroverts)

So there it is, an introduction to research funding in 10 points:-

1) Do you want to be an academic researcher?

2) If so, applying for funding is integral to the job/success

3) Understand the funding landscape

4) Start small and build your track record

5) There is a difference between how much research costs and how much will be paid for (price)

6) The funder determines the price

7) So remember the 3 Rs (Read the guidelines! x 3)

8) Get into the habit of horizon scanning for funding opportunities

9) Find conference funding and put yourself out there

10) You can’t do this alone, collaboration is where it’s at

Questions, thoughts are most welcome. Maybe you have some advice to share with aspiring researchers?

Business plans: 200 pages or the back of an envelope?

Business plan word cloud
The following is a guest post from Janet Wilkinson (Three Times Three) on the topic of putting together a business plan for the uninitiated.

Inevitably there is no single answer to the question ‘what do I need to include in my business plan and how long should it be?’ and a Google search on the two words business plan suggested that there are about 1,640,000,000 results. 

The key here is not the number it is the word ‘about.  A business plan is:

  • About the thing you are going to develop – your idea, your organisation, services you will provide, products you will make or sell and the names/brand you are going to give them.  The origin of the idea and ownership of any intellectual property to the idea or product need to be covered in the plan too.
  • About you and the other people who are going to work to be able to deliver the project, idea or enterprise.  This is crucial to demonstrate your experience, expertise and ability to engage others in the plan.
  • About the finances for the business: what money is required for the idea to be developed initially and where is it going to come from?  How will money flow into the organisation and when?  What will you have to spend money on and when will you have to spend it?  Is there a gap between the money flowing in and the money flowing out (and who will cover this)?  How much risk is there in developing the idea (now and in the future) and who is taking this risk?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” said Alice

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where….” Said Alice

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go” said the Cat.

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Ultimately, business plans are about direction.  One of the main purposes of having one is to communicate your intentions to the outside world (where you need to include them).  They are for communication to anyone who is investing in the project or organisation, lending money to it, funding it or is responsible for delivering the goals or results for it.  Overall, though, I’ve always felt that it is the process of business planning that is the output rather than the document itself.  The time taken to plan what you are doing is invaluable and the decisions you make about your intentions and how the logistics, finances and people involved are going to make it happen are all part of the business planning process.

Similarly, understanding how the money is going to flow in and out of the organisation to make sure you have enough to do what you want to do in the coming years and sustain your idea development is a crucial part of the process.   When I came across the following quote a few years ago it helped to set my practical understanding and experience in some context.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

So, does it need to be 200 pages or will it work on the back of an envelope?  Inevitably the answer is somewhere in between and it depends upon the audience who will receive and read your plan.  Keep the content and size of your plans appropriate to the size of the organisation or idea, think about who is going to receive them and keep them realistic (particularly the numbers) with threads of ambition, drive and future focus throughout – thinking about how the idea and organisation will be sustained beyond the lifetime of the plan.

Also, think about how you are going to communicate the plan to others – will you be sending it to them to read or presenting it in person?  Regardless of the size of your idea it is useful to think about how you’d summarise it in 2-3 pages and/or 20 slides.  Putting this kind of framework on your business plan enables you to concisely to explain your plan, purpose, people, product and finances to others.

Typically you will want to cover:

  • The title or name of your idea
  • What your idea or organisation is about
  • The people who will be making it happen and their areas of expertise in relation to the idea and/or running the organisation
  • The people who will be users, consumers or customers of the idea (and how you are going to reach them)
  • What might exist already in the environment you plan to operate it (and whether these are competitors or potential collaborators)
  • What the longer term plans are for your idea or organisation
  • How much money do you need to get started (and where will it come from)
  • How will the money flow in and out of the organisation in the next 1, 3 or 5 years?
  • How much money you are likely to need in the future for expansion or development of your idea and where will it come from.

As with all writing and plans it is important to start somewhere.  Business plans can be put together initially from your areas of strength working towards the ‘unknowns’ where further research and information gathering can be done.   So, start on the back of an envelope even if it needs to be 200 pages in the end!

UWE Graduate School – One year on

From: Neil Willey, Director of the UWE Graduate School

Party Cake

It’s just over a year ago now that UWE set up its university-wide Graduate School and then celebrated the launch, so I thought it might be a good time to reflect on how things are going. Personally, I think we’ve now got a pretty sturdy one year old and that we’ve already mostly done teething and walking! I’m pretty acutely aware, however, that walking is just the start and that, let alone running, we probably need to be triple jumping or something fairly soon. There are two things that particularly struck me during the year and which make me think triple jumping might be possible…….

The first is the great team of people that were assembled into the UWE Graduate School. I’ve realised how many people at UWE already appreciate this, and really do wish that all the research students and supervisors at UWE have the opportunity that I do to engage with Graduate School staff – because I think they would then realise the interest and expertise available to them. I believe that the Graduate School can be really helpful to PGR students and supervisors across the university but that we all have to, somehow, be in sufficient contact with each other for this to really happen. During the first year this was exemplified to me in skills development events for students and supervisors. The development events that I was part of seemed to be of great benefit to everyone, which is making me think a great deal about how we can extend the experience to more students and supervisors.

The second thing that spurred me on to believe that the Graduate School at UWE can really go places is the real importance of PGR, both generally and to UWE. Contact with lots of students and supervisors from across the university over the course of a year really emphasises what fantastic things PGR students and their supervisors do. I’ve learned about so many things from across all the Faculties that could really make a difference to the world. To me it seems crucial that UWE has signalled its intent to have a healthy PGR community, but I do wonder if we all realise how central it can be to all that UWE wishes to be.

So, after a year I’m confident that we’ve made a good start and that the UWE Graduate School can really be helpful to PGR students and supervisors. Contact across the Faculties has given me quite a clear picture of the UWE PGR community and how the Graduate School can help. It has, however, started me thinking that perhaps the more channels of communication are available, the more difficult it is to communicate.  It’s also been a reminder of the committee work necessary in a large institution! Overall, I’m happy that we’ve now got an overall focus for PGR at UWE that we can build on to respond to the needs of our research students and supervisors.


What doctoral examiners look for

A photograph of a hard bound PhD thesis with black cover

A PhD thesis

At a recent doctoral student conference hosted by the Department of Arts at the University of the West of EnglandProfessor Gina Wisker  from the University of Brighton, author of the Postgraduate Research Handbook and The Good Supervisor, was invited to speak about her research.

The slides she used at the conference are reproduced here with permission.

What are examiners looking for? Supervisors and students learning from doctoral examining

Learning Journeys and success: Perspectives on conceptual threshold crossings for graduate students and supervisors- learning leaps and nudges

A New Graduate School for UWE

It seems an awfully long time ago now that I was a postgraduate research student at UWE, I began my PhD in the late Autumn of 1997 eventually finshing some 4 (and a bit) years later. Back then I felt enormously proud to be a “postgrad”, being involved with assisting in laboratory sessions, running experiments, solving problems, supervising final year BSc research projects as well as working on my own research topic (oral malodour since you ask!). I was also acutely aware of some of the inequalities that many a research student faced in terms of feeling isolated, being somewhere between a valued member of staff and a student depending on the situation – generally a lack of distinct identity.

Which is probably why I ended up putting myself up for election as a ‘part time elected officer’ of the Students’ Union to represent postgraduate students (a fully non-paid activity). It was around that time (1999-2000) that I first heard of proposals to establish a Graduate School at UWE to help improve the doctoral experience. I was excited, the profile of postgrad research students would be raised, our contribution to the academic outputs of the institution would be recognised, our ills would be eased! In the end though, the university decided against an institutional model to support research students and opted for individual faculties (all 9 of them) to decide whether to set up their own Graduate Schools catering for both postgraduate taught and postgraduate research students, an outcome which did little to resolve the situation faced by the research students.

That was then, fast forward 10 years and several reorganisations of the university structures, we are now at 4 large faculties and a “One University Administration” (a process undertaken to disentangle the disparate administrative and professional support structures that have evolved over time like some sort of congealed spaghetti dish). The time was right to re-visit how we organised the support of postgraduate research studies at UWE, the proposals were set out, debated and decided upon and from January 2012 we now have a single Graduate School supporting postgraduate research students across the whole university.

I am excited again, having spent the last 8 years employed to support the skills development of research students, I know this move is a positive one; I also know that there is much left to do to make this model really work.

I’m not alone in showing enthusiasm for this, we have been lucky that we have retained a huge amount of experience in the Graduate School staff from the new Academic Director, Neil Willey to the adminstrators who have been supporting research students for years.

Here’s a video explaining why we established a Graduate School…

Sorting out the staffing structure is just the start, we need to get to grips with the information needs of both research students and their supervisors to help with the navigation of the research degree programmes on offer. This required a big rethink of the UWE website. Quite happy to report that we now have some dedicated pages to all things Graduate School related and a short URL to ease the remembering of it…!

The UWE Graduate School have also set up an account on Twitter, why not follow us as we move forwards…

The next task has been to raise awareness of the Graduate School so we decided upon a different sort of launch event, one that was more like a showcase of the different types of research that goes on here, one where discussions could be had over coffee and cake and one where you could put your feet up and take a load off.

A tall order but here’s some photos….

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We had displays of research projects from research students including a fascinating piece of archiving/research by Katie Davies into the repatriation ceremonies at Wootton Bassett in a film entitled “The Separation Line”.



Speaking of films, we also had two animated films produced for the event and website, “10 Reasons to do a doctorate” and “10 reasons to be a doctoral supervisor” both of which were animated by an alumni of the UWE MA in Animation, David Hutchinson. The films featured recorded voices of research students and supervisors from UWE talking about the best aspects of doctoral study.




The final part of the day was to screen the live action film from the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip, an hour long film featuring research students and academics from CalTech. It was an amusing, ironic and perhaps touching look at some of the issues that many academics and research students face in academia. The trailer is here.


The full movie is now available to purchase from


Further work

This has been the start, much more work to do! Things that are bubbling away…

  1. UWE are offering some funded scholarships at the moment (deadline for applications is 13 May)
  2. We are currently working towards having a physical location for all of the Graduate School Staff
  3. There is space planned for Graduate School activities in the new Academic Hub that will be built in the medium term that will have space for research students to work & socialise
  4. Currently working on more events for research students & supervisors

We’d like your thoughts on the direction we are taking, let’s make the Graduate School do what I’d hoped for back in 1999…

Welcome to UWE!

On Monday evening of this week, I put on an event for newly registered postgraduate research students at UWE, an event that had been postponed from October. It is something that we run every year to provide a space for new research students to get together from across the whole university. I think this is important because it introduces the idea that there are other researchers around who, whilst not being in the same discipline, are on a similar path.

We opened the event with an introduction from the Director of the UWE Graduate School, Neil Willey. His slides are here:-

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Neil opened by highlighting one of the Doctoral Descriptors, the criteria for the award of a research degree, to explain that the goal, the end result is to come up with an original and significant contribution to knowledge. He pointed out that it was this that ultimately is the most satisfying, exciting, infuriating element of what most people refer to as a journey. He then went on to explain the place that the new UWE Graduate School will have in supporting postgraduate research students in that journey.

The main element of this gathering is that we invite current research students to pass on their thoughts about what it is like to be a research student to others. I only provided the title:- “What I know now, that I wish I’d known when I started” to the wonderful research students who volunteered to come and talk:- Anja Dalton, Billy Clayton, Amy Webber and Sarah Dean (take a bow folks!). The insights they gave astounded me because if I tried to write down all the hints & tips about being a research student that I could think of, I still wouldn’t have been able to cover everything that they did!

Here’s a flavour of the presentations with thanks to Billy, Amy & Anja who gave me permission to reproduce their work here:

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Download this file
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I learned things from these presentations, the most common theme in describing a research degree is around a journey toward a summit and that there is a collective term for research students studying for a PhD; the PhDers!

Billy also raised awarenes of a crippling syndrome that pervades many in academia, the imposter syndrome. In fact, only this week Athene Donald wrote about this on her blog..

I then summarised the skills development programe I run at UWE for researchers within which I revealed some of the nuggets of wisdom gathered from years of being a researcher, brought to life through the medium of the Piled Higher & Deeper comic strips. Here’s the overview of what I said:-

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Finally I summarised the PhD using the fabulous Illustrated Guide to a PhD by Matt Might which helps us all keep the magic of what we do into some sort of perspective.

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To progress, or not to progress, that is the question..

Updated 22nd February 2013

This week I ran a workshop for research degree students at UWE entitled “The Progression exam”. This is a formal milestone in the research degree journey that pretty much every doctoral candidate at any university will have to overcome. Some call it a “transfer” exam, others a “progression viva” but whatever the nomenclature they all have an aim similar to the following: –

a formal test of progress in the early stages to ensure a suitable basis for continuation on the programme has been established

Whenever I run a workshop on this topic or the related “Writing up” or “The Final Viva” workshops I always try to do two things:-

1) Provide knowledge about the process

2) Reduce anxiety by reassuring doctoral candidates

Recently at UWE we established a Graduate School at UWE with a new (and hopefully improved) web presence that puts all the information about research degrees in one place. We have created sections that relate to the major milestones including the progression exam.

Disclaimer: One should read my post in conjunction with the latest rules governing PG Research study.

Those rules are set out in section K of the UWE Academic Regulations here.

The slides that I used in the workshop are below:

Recent changes

In summary there have been three key changes that were brought into force in September 2011

  1. When a progression report has been submitted, a viva will automatically follow
  2. There will now be two independent examiners for a progression exam
  3. The Research Degrees Award Board (RDAB) is the body to which appeals go relating to progression

Update: It seems that the workshop is useful for research students!