The Grant Camp Experience

After a period of planning, booking rooms and promotion I ran my first ever grant camps during the last two weeks. The first of these was at Leeds Trinity University and the second at Newman University. Each camp was slightly different but both were modelled on the camp ideas outlined by the Research Whisperer in their really useful blog.

So, what did we do?

The first camp at Leeds Trinity was focused on researchers who were looking to apply to the next round of the BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants round although one person who came was applying for funding from a different source. The sessions were split to address the specifics of that scheme and there were six 20 minute writing blocks separated by five minute breaks and a longer half hour break in the middle. We decided to hold the camp on campus although we went across to the library and used a room there. We hoped this would provide a good environment for the academics in terms of minimising potential distractions (including being found by students!).

The second camp at Newman took a slightly different approach. The people who came had an idea but weren’t sure of the right funder to go to. In order to accommodate this I modified the structure from the previous week to help focus the writing onto key general areas that any funder may be interested in. As such we looked at issues around background and context, research questions and objectives, methodological approach, the time-line and plan for delivery, outputs, outcomes and the role of collaborators and/or team members. We also went off campus completely in order to help minimise distractions. The local conference centre provided a stress free environment for people to work in and had ample tea, coffee and water to keep people going!

So given the slight differences what did we learn? The first thing to say is that both camps were received positively. Both institutions are predominantly teaching-led and therefore one of the key complaints I hear is the lack of time to dedicate to research grant writing. Both camps provided the structure and availability of immediate advice which enabled people to get on with the writing without getting distracted. This approach may be worth noting for other smaller or teaching-led institutions as a way of getting the dreaded first draft done! Other learning points included:

  1. There was a significant amount of exchanging of ideas and mutual support and interest during the breaks. In both camps people exchanged tips and advice, including pointing people to relevant literature or previous studies. Most impressively this exchange took place across disciplinary boundaries which was really encouraging. I will really encourage this in future camps.
  2. Participants felt like their research mattered. They were in an environment with other researchers and research support staff who were able to answers questions and provide advice in breaks. This was important to them as research can sometimes get lost amongst teaching and other day to day university pressures.
  3. There was value in running the camp even for those who only had an idea but didn’t know where to go for funding. Although some questions may have been harder to answer than others (as some questions require tailoring depending on the funder) there was merit in getting people to think about writing style, accessibility of their research and what funders might be interested in.
  4. Six writing sessions may have been too much, especially for those who haven’t written a grant application before. Most people had run out of steam after five sessions. This could be tailored to meet the needs of the audience.
  5. Getting away from campus was really valuable. As long as people don’t check their emails (!) it provides a focused space in which to work – it was great listening to the purr of the keyboards!

The next step will be translating the writing done at both camps into strong research funding applications. And after that there will be more camps, perhaps with more experimentation in regards to length, venue and whether they remain generic or tailored specifically to funding calls.

I know these camps have been run successfully in Australia and maybe this is the first time they have been run in the UK (if not, I’d love to hear about your experiences!) but I think they have merit and are a great tool to develop initial drafts of grant funding applications. What do you think?

Lachlan Smith

2 Responses to “The Grant Camp Experience

  • Jonathan O'Donnell
    ago2 years

    Thanks, Lachlan.

    This is really valuable for me. I’m going to run my first ‘generic’ Grant Camp this year. Up until now I’ve run them for two specific schemes: Australian Research Council (ARC) & Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT). So it is great to know that a generic one worked for you. My breakdown was roughly the same as yours, but I hadn’t thought of doing a specific session on the timeline. That is a great idea.

    I’ve noticed all the things that you listed here, but hadn’t articulated them (our even isolated them in my own mind) anywhere near as well as you have here.

    In particular, I love the cross-disciplinary chatter that happens in the breaks.

    I now explicitly warn participants about two things:
    1. Take your breaks. If you don’t, you will run out of steam. You might anyway, but you definitely will if you don’t take the breaks.
    2. This draft is disposable. Get it out of your head and onto the page, and then throw it out and rewrite it. I’ve had people hold onto their drafts and try to polish the words. It doesn’t work; that’s not the point.

    Most of all, I love the silence. So peaceful!

    Thanks so much for picking up this technique. So happy it worked for you, too.

  • Hi Jonathan. Thanks for your thoughts and more importantly thanks for the original idea.
    I think you are absolutely right about taking breaks and I will be clearer about that in future as one or two people did end up working through breaks which, I’m sure, made them flag more quickly. Also the point you make about it being disposable is important too. It is a good way of phrasing it!
    The generic camp worked well but having thought about it more I think I could tailor it further, perhaps to people at certain career stages or with certain levels of grant writing experience. I think expectations can be better managed that way as well and the camp can be seen for what it really is for many people and that is a way of training / practising to write in grant speak. Clearly for targeted camps this won’t be the case but the outcomes (ultimately) are very different for them.
    I’d love to hear about your experiences of generic camps once they have taken place too 🙂

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