Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Securing Research Funding

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Securing Research Funding

[Yvonne McDermott is a Professor of Law at Swansea University, UK. From 2018-2021, she was PI on OSR4Rights, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. From July 2022-June 2027, she will lead TRUE, a European Research Council Starting Grant project that examines the impact of the rise in deepfakes on trust in user-generated evidence.]

Research funding has increasingly become a metric upon which (international) legal academics are evaluated in applications for employment and promotion. While we could have another conversation on the “tyranny of metrics”, and their insidious impacts on research and researchers’ wellbeing, in this post, I will focus on sharing some insights and tips on securing research funding.

A matter of luck

My first and most important point is this: nobody should feel that their worth as a scholar, or the importance of their research, is defined by their success in securing grant income. Funding is a lottery (sometimes, quite literally!). Many schemes have a success rate of around 10%, and it’s important to acknowledge the well-documented role of bias that can impact peer review of research grant evaluations. To even get to a position where you are ready to submit a grant application – filling out all the lengthy forms; working out budgets; navigating complex submission platforms – is itself an enormous achievement that should be celebrated.

If you are unsuccessful, or even if you get close to finishing a grant application, but circumstances prevent you from submitting in advance of the deadline, that’s fine too. You will have gained some invaluable insights about the process that will be beneficial the next time you want to go for it, and moreover, you will have laid a foundation for a future research agenda that you can explore in other ways. There is no such thing as wasted effort; you’ll be able to apply (and, ahem, recycle!) what you’ve done in other projects going forward.

Keep a clear focus

This is probably an obvious tip, but it is easy to get distracted by what may seem like a ‘winning’ formula for a particular funding scheme, and to try to shape your proposal accordingly. You might feel, for example, like you need to invent a whole new groundbreaking methodology to secure the funding, where your research question could be better answered through existing research methods. The risk of doing this is twofold: first, reviewers will probably see straight through it, and second, if you are successful in your grant application, then you may find yourself in The Hague trying to teach International Court of Justice judges to unicycle, as part of your innovative new legal research method! Stay true to yourself, focus on what you actually want to do, and you will find a way to do it.

Related to this, I would recommend biding your time to wait for the right funding opportunity that fits what you want to do, rather than trying to squeeze your dream project into the confines of an open funding call that may not be suitable. If you have a big multi-year project in mind, it might be worth considering smaller pots of money that you can apply for while you take the time to refine and work on your idea – for example, to run a workshop on the topic, or to conduct some initial archival research or interviews. This will help show your project management skills and build your track record as a principal investigator on this topic.

Discuss your ideas

For my latest funded project, which seeks to explore the impact of the increased prevalence of deepfakes on the perceived trustworthiness of user-generated evidence, I first had the idea in 2020 and included it in an unsuccessful application that year. Then I forgot about it for a little while, but in a classic example of frequency bias, I began to see relevant examples of the phenomenon I wanted to study everywhere. For example, when a video showed an aerobics teacher dancing while the military coup in Myanmar unfolded in the background, I saw a lot of posts questioning whether the video was actually filmed in front of a ‘green screen’. This led to a Twitter conversation in February 2021, which led me to think that I really should do something about the idea. A few days later, when I received an email from my institution about an internal call for expressions of interest for ERC funding, I thought the idea would probably be quite a good fit for the scheme and decided to go for it, frantically writing the whole application across a month or so and submitting it in early April. This relates to my first point: so much of grant success comes down to luck and being in the right place at the right time.

This recent experience also highlights the benefit of sharing and discussing your ideas widely. All of us have heard horror stories about people’s ideas being stolen by other scholars, but I think the reason those stories stick with us is because these instances are so rare and not something most of us would ever dream of doing. My grant applications (funded and not funded) have been immeasurably strengthened by colleagues’ generous feedback on drafts and informal conversations about the ideas. You can pay it back by providing feedback to your colleagues in turn. In their post, Barrie and Rebecca discuss making the most of your network; similarly, I benefited hugely from seeing examples of successful applications, and would be very happy to share my application with any international law scholars planning to apply for an ERC Starting Grant.

When seeking feedback, don’t limit your requests to people working directly in your area, as reviewers are unlikely to be specialists in your precise field. Colleagues from other disciplines or other areas of law can point out things that you might have thought were obvious and could go unsaid, where they need to be spelled out more explicitly for non-specialists. The same is true if you get called for an interview: practice your presentation with anyone who is willing to listen, because everyone will have different questions on diverse aspects of your proposal. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the dozens of friends and colleagues subjected to my ERC interview presentation last September/October. This is a much better way of preparing than locking yourself in a dark room trying to dream up obscure difficult questions that you might get asked.

To conclude, the process of building grant applications and applying for funding is itself beneficial in helping you think about the future direction of your research and getting to grips with the online portals and application forms involved. When (as happens to us all) applications are unsuccessful, try not to take it personally: remember the statistics, and that rejection is no marker on the quality of your scholarship. Don’t give up on your ideas: think about where you want to go with your research and keep an eye out for ways to make it happen. And good luck!

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