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Career Advice

How research offices can help simplify your grant application process


Every university has a research office, by one name or another. Often it’s the Office of Research Services. Maybe it’s the Office of Sponsored Research, or Research Grant and Contract Services as at Memorial University. Maybe it’s Research @ (insert name here) or Recherche et création, as at Université Laval. Whatever the name, if you are a faculty member (full-time, contract, part-time, tenured or tenure-track) and you have research on your mind, the research office is one of the most useful departments at your institution.

The research office exists for one primary reason: To get money into your hands from one of the three major sources of funding, be it SSHRC, NSERC or CIHR, so you can do research. Together, they (known as the Tri-Council) distribute grants, scholarships and fellowships worth over a billion dollars to tens of thousands of researchers annually. They also fund infrastructure, like equipment and expenses related to potential partnerships.

Getting your hands on some of that money requires more than demonstrating your brilliance, financial need and ability to grovel, which is where the research office can help. Post-award, the office will also help you manage your funds, prepare reports for funders, ensure your research is ethical and facilitate the transfer of funds to your partners.

A typical research office has grants officers, tech transfer officers or intellectual property officers (making sure you and the university get what’s coming to you when you invent the Next Big Thing), legal staff (tirelessly checking contracts and agreements, making sure perfectly good English is translated into legalese), ethics administrators (ethics is a complex and dangerous field these days), partnerships officers (helping you connect with other organizations, businesses and agencies) and finance officers, who will do the accounting for your grant and cheerfully tell you that no, you may not use your research funds to buy yourself a new Buick.

The research office staff can be honest with you

Possibly the greatest strength of the research office staff is that you don’t live with them and you don’t work with them. This means they can be honest with you. If you ask your colleagues to review your grant application, odds are they will not give you what you need, which is honest feedback.

Grants officers (or research facilitators, or whatever your institution calls them) are experienced in dealing with researchers (they often work in specific faculties) and have likely had their hands on hundreds of grant applications. This means you can discuss your research proposal with them even before you put pen to paper. They can ask you probing questions. They probably don’t have any expertise in your area of research, but they can talk to you, look at your CV, find out if this is a new area of research for you, ask who else is doing it, and push you for details on what you need to proceed with your work. All this may seem a little beside the point, but it can help you focus.

A good grants officer will not just give you advice but will also give you solid answers to questions like: How much should you pay students? What do they mean by knowledge mobilization? Do you need a co-applicant? Does it matter if you don’t want to use student assistants? Do you need ethics approval, and if so, when? They also know the mechanics of the funding process, where applicants tend to mess up, and the latest rules and regulations – from page sizes and fonts to how to include co-applicants.

Applications that arrive out of the blue just before the deadline do not tend to get funded

While the people who staff the research office can be of significant help in your quest for funding, they aren’t performing miracles. For example, no grants officer can fix your CV. If you haven’t published much, or haven’t published recently, that’s a problem. In that case, a good grants officer might advise you to get a co-applicant or collaborator with a stronger CV. This will give the funder more confidence in your ability to do the research, even though you may still do most of the work if the grant is awarded.

And don’t forget, there are deadlines. Almost every funding opportunity has a deadline. Research offices try, with greater or lesser success, to impose their own deadlines. But university faculty are amazingly similar to the students they teach: there are the keeners, the ditherers, the procrastinators, the lost and confused, the ones who ask for help and those who think they don’t need it.

One thing I learned after several years in the research office is that the applications that arrive out of the blue just before the deadline do not tend to get funded. That’s just one takeaway.

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  1. Guelpher / August 6, 2016 at 22:29

    The title of this article is misleading. This is too shallow and does not convey much to the reader and appears to be written for a first year PhD student.

  2. Isabelle M. CARON / August 29, 2016 at 13:36

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Olena / December 5, 2016 at 15:15

    It gave me some good insights, thanks!

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