Avoid these common mistakes when applying for postgrad funding

15 Aug 2018

Image: Kelly Marken/Shutterstock

Leaving the confines of academia to go it alone can seem a daunting task, but these tips should help guide you on the path to postgraduate funding.

The morning after your graduation ceremony can be the most daunting for any student, especially those who plan to pursue a full-time career in academia.

Unlike the traditional job market where a regular salary is within your reach, academics can compare their job prospects with that of a freelancer, eagerly awaiting the next pay cheque.

While there are resources available for living expenses to new researchers through a Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant, there’s also the matter of funding just to keep your actual research moving along.

After all, searching through volumes of online catalogues, possible trips abroad and getting the right equipment can be costly.

A one-stop shop

This is why organisations such as the Irish Research Council (IRC) offer a number of different funding options provided both nationally and internationally.

While some research agencies can offer funding for very specific areas, most postgraduate researchers will turn to the IRC for all-purpose funding.

Among some of the recent grants include Ulysses, aimed at Irish- and French-based researchers where participants will be eligible for up to €5,000.

But how does one actually apply for funding and what do you need to know before actually pressing send on an application?

For starters, you can find which grants are available right now through the IRC’s website, or which ones are soon open for application, such as the Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Programme (at the time of writing).

‘It’s naive to think that it’s not competitive’

Presuming you’ve already decided the research topic you want funded, all that’s left is the daunting task of filling out an application to be sent for approval by an international evaluation panel.

“It is tough and I think it’s naive to think that it’s not competitive,” said Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, chair of the IRC, speaking with Siliconrepublic.com.

“But the one thing that people should take comfort from is, if they do get funding from the IRC, it’s been through a very rigorous evaluation process and means they have got a really original idea worth doing something with.”

Sometimes, however, a good idea isn’t enough to convince the judging panel, which is why you have to treat your application as one of the most important things you’ll ever fill out.

As someone who has seen it all when it comes to applications, Ohlmeyer is pretty familiar with some of the most common mistakes that applicants make when filling out documents.

Clarity is half the battle

In her experience, and while it might seem obvious, it is absolutely vital that a research question much have very clear aims and the applicant must understand the methodology behind it.

If, for example, you decided to do a PhD in Spanish history, you would want to make it clear to the panel that you are fluent in Spanish.

“If you don’t articulate your research for a non-specialist, then forget it,” Ohlmeyer said, “so no jargon, overly complex language.

“When an application is poorly focused, it doesn’t have a clearly defined research question, or if it’s woolly and vague, then obviously that’s not good.”

It is also worth bearing in mind that even though geophysics and palaeontology are some of the least popular chosen by applicants, an applicant in these areas is not more likely to see their proposal accepted than one doing a very popular topic, such as psychology.

What if you don’t make it?

As many researchers will tell you, getting access to funding can be a tricky process, and sometimes an application doesn’t go the way you wanted it to.

So, what if you receive the dreaded funding rejection letter? Just because you didn’t get funding doesn’t mean that you won’t the following year, according to Ohlmeyer. Quoting Samuel Beckett, she said: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

She added: “If you apply again, you have to demonstrate how your application has moved on since you last applied.

“In many cases, those who don’t get it the first time do get it the second time. I just wish we could fund more.”

Updated, 11.13am, 17 August 2018: This article was updated to remove a quote referencing a need to submit finance requirements for the application. Successful awardees now receive a flat rate of €2,250 per annum to cover eligible direct research expenses to carry out their research project.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic