#21: How To Understand Your Motivations For Securing Research Funding

If you are ambitious and want to advance your career in academia, you’ll know that funding is essential for your work.

Many universities provide internal opportunities to apply for funding. These are a good way to get some money to spend on equipment or other resources that you can use to accelerate your research.

Prominent researchers usually have a track-record of securing external funding – money from research councils, government, charities, private industry or professional trade associations, for example. Acquiring external funds is more competitive and it requires more skill, experience and know-how to stand a chance of winning.

But there is much more fundamental question that you should be able to answer before you apply for any funding.

What do I want to achieve with funding?

It might seem like a question that is too simplistic. But external funding comes in different forms, and this can direct your research in different ways.

I’m An Early Career Researcher (ECR)

Let’s say that you are at the beginning of your career.

You might be labelled as an Early Career Researcher (ECR).

You have performed some research and established your areas of personal interest. Your resources to help you with your research are limited to the undergraduate/graduate students that you teach, and if you are lucky, the occasional self-funded PhD student.

You might have some contacts outside of academia, but your network is generally limited at this point.

In most cases, you have two main objectives.

  • You need to establish a scholarly set of published outputs.
  • You also need to have your work regarded as being ‘credible’ by securing funding.

To achieve these objectives you will have to a) develop your network of contacts, and b) acquire resources to develop your research. 

Therefore, you need to seek out funding calls that either expose you to more people who can help you expand your network, or which enable you to buy resources to accelerate your research progress.

Funding calls that help with expanding your network could be secondments to industry for example.

Funding to buy resource means projects that require a PhD, Post Doctoral student or a Research Fellow to complete the work. For the duration of the project you shall then have an extra pair of hands to increase your research capacity, resulting in more outputs.

I’ve Got A Track Record Of Outputs, But Not Been Successful With Funding Yet

If you have been publishing for a few years and you have a track record of high quality publications, you probably have a network of contacts.

You might still want to expand that network, but you have established yourself as an academic.

In this case, the decision is perhaps more straightforward.

You are looking for resource as a priority.

And you now exactly what work you shall assign to this resource one you get the funding.

It might be that by establishing your track record of publications, you have some perceived credibility with industrial funders, particularly if you practice applied research.

Working with companies can be an effective way of securing government funds for economic regeneration (in the UK think Innovate UK or Knowledge Transfer Partnerships).

I’ve Had Some Funding Successes And I Want To Progress To The Next Level

If you’ve already won some money, then your research progress will have benefitted from the increased resource.

Moving your research onwards probably means that you want to increase the scale of your impact.

This suggests that your research proposals will involve many people, probably from a consortia of different institutions.

Or, you might want to propose the development of research infrastructure that can be shared by your research community.

In either case you need to have a good network of contacts.

A network of people that you have worked with, who you can trust to deliver.

If scaling up is your motivation, you should probably be looking for network or collaboration funding grants, that specifically target ambitious individuals that have the desire to build research communities.

There is perhaps one final motivation that might influence how you secure external funding.

Follow The Money

Some academics take a business-like approach to funding.

They treat the funding application process as a game to be mastered and they become adept at writing proposals that are successful.

This can be an effective strategy for a number of reasons.

  1. You understand the anatomy of a proposal and produce the most effective presentation of your research idea.
  2. You are not at the mercy of funders, waiting for a call that addresses your specific area of research expertise.
  3. You become adept at forming research collaborations as you don’t always have the expertise for every funding call.
  4. You can establish your ‘worth’ to a university quite quickly. Institutions are often motivated to retain the academic staff who can solicit funds consistently.

Like any good strategy, there are some potential pitfalls.

  1. Your desire for fund accumulation may lead you away from engaging with the research itself.
  2. Your funding track record is likely to have less focus and your expertise may become an ability to write excellent funding proposals.
  3. If you seek peer-recognition, you may find it more challenging to evidence your expertise in one particular area. Excellent scholarship requires focus and consistency over an extended period of time.

Funding acquisition can be the foundation of a successful and rewarding research career.

It’s important to understand your motivations for funding, as these can shape what grants you pursue.

If you need resource, don’t chase industrial secondments.

If you want to build a network, look out for networking calls.

If your motivation is to become a funding rock star, then you’ll probably be following the money already.

And if you are at the beginning of your career, everything seems possible. Seek advice from more experienced colleagues, as there may be specific characteristics in your research communities that help shape your thinking.

But if in doubt, it’s usually a good idea to get funding for more resource!