Are you ready to apply for a DECRA? A candid account from personal experience.
Many ambitious, early career researchers around the world will be considering applying for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) in the upcoming months and years. And why shouldn’t they? This prestigious award offers over $130,000 per year for three years and, at least within Australia, it vastly increases your chances of securing a coveted tenure-track position. It’s basically the Holy Grail of research grants. However, with only around 200 grants being awarded each year, across all institutions and disciplines, the success rate sits between 8-14% depending on the year. Not terrible. But, not great either considering that the Discovery grant success rate usually sits at around 17.7%. Like many people in my position, I was near the end of my eligibility period and thought I would give it a shot… a long shot.
Who can apply?
First off, let’s just recap on what a DECRA is. Many countries have some equivalent early career grant. In Canada it’s the NSERC Discovery. In the United States it’s the NSF CAREER award. The UK has a few options – lucky you! The DECRA is available to anyone who is within five years of their PhD convocation date (or longer if you have significant ‘career interruptions’) who is hosted by an eligible Australian university. Eligible? That’s right, not all Australian universities are esteemed enough. These are the basic eligibility requirements. It seems so simple, right? But, what most young hopefuls are not aware of is the intensive internal application process within each institution. I certainly wasn’t. Most Australian graduate students and postdocs are not. I can only imagine the surprise of people wanting to apply from overseas!
Each institution has its own specific rules, regulations, expectations and dates regarding DECRA applications, but they do share some common themes. Most eligible universities will begin a call for expressions of interest at least six months prior to the actual submission deadline. These EOI’s will likely be vetted by your Head of School, the Research Office, and the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research to assess your suitability. Essentially, they have a first look at your track record, your research project idea, and the level of support you have acquired from your host or mentor. This is quite easy for people applying within their current university because they are usually familiar with the people involved. For people wishing to apply with a different university, or from overseas, they need to start inquiring with prospective mentors and collaborators ahead of time. I passed this first hurdle, but I did become aware that this stage is not just a formality – there are some applicants who are not supported further by their chosen university.
After a few months, those with successful EOI’s are generally requested to attend some sort of grant writing workshop, DECRA meetings or support sessions. Again, each university will be slightly different, but from comparing notes with friends at various institutions we confirm that it is, in essence, the same. My experience was very intense. My peers, and several friends at different universities echo these sentiments. If the pressure of developing a good research idea isn’t intimidating enough, then imagine sitting in numerous group sessions with members of the research office and volunteer academics from various disciplines finessing, critiquing, supporting, and sometimes giving you a bit of tough love.
Be prepared, this is not for the faint of heart
I’m sure you have all heard stories of ‘what it takes’ to be awarded a DECRA. The facts are that 40% of your assessment comes from your research proposal. This is the most essential part of your application. But, the rest of the breakdown is where the College of Experts will start assessing your research output and its quality, the feasibility of your research, and the support and track record of the university that you applied under. You as a candidate are worth 35% of your overall score, and unlike undergrad, a 50% score doesn’t mean a pass. In 2015, you needed to be in the top 10% based on the grades from 3-4 independent assessors in order to be awarded a grant. It’s tough, but that is why this grant is so prestigious, and in a time when academic jobs are scarce and funding perhaps even scarcer, applying for a 3-year grant seems like a good option.
On top of the facts, you are likely to encounter a lot of strong criticism regarding your project idea, it’s feasibility, and your personal level of commitment and performance. One of the most frustrating aspects of this process is that you will be given different ‘advice’ from different people – some of whom will likely not be in your area of expertise. At times I was told that the College of Experts will only care about the number of publications that I have… it absolutely must average five papers a year to be considered competitive! I was shocked. This figure isn’t even achievable in some disciplines. Then someone else would say it is more important to have high impact publications. Great, I thought, I can do that. Then you would be told that it is the number of citations that is important, not the impact factor of a particular journal. No doubt it is a combination of all of these factors, but during an already stressful time, all this flip-flopping drives you crazy. Some people will even be told quite bluntly that they are simply not competitive, or that their research proposal is not developed enough. The number of people attending these sessions will drop significantly by the time you press the submit button.
Writing the DECRA application is not easy. It is long! It is very limited in the number of pages, characters etc. It feels like your head will explode if one more person tells you to reword that 75 word summary because it isn’t punchy enough.
Lowered productivity. A nice little correspondence from Herbert et al. (2013) suggests that the average researcher spends a total of 38 days writing a grant application. I feel that this is likely an under-estimate for anyone applying for a DECRA because you will be required to attend the workshops, make revisions and meet specific internal deadlines in addition to the initial writing. This means that for the months leading up to the DECRA submission date, you probably won’t get much else done.
Stress. I cannot convey how stressful this period of time was. I have written grants before, some of them quite big (NSERC), but usually these are written with other people. You are simply one cog in the wheel of knowledge. But the DECRA is all you. All of my peers in this application round agreed that they felt incredibly stressed and that it affected their work and home-life. Part of this stress probably comes from trying to maintain a normal level of work while feeling over-committed as you work nights and weekends to meet all the deadlines.
Feeling deflated. Being in an academic environment means that you face constant criticism. We aren’t exactly trained to say ‘well done, great job you did there, that was amazing!’ We are trained, especially in science, to pick things apart and recognize flaws. Probably the worst trait we pick up is competitiveness. This need to measure ourselves in numbers of papers, h-indices, impact factors and citations can mean that some of us will feel quite deflated and negative throughout the DECRA experience. Combine those feelings with the heightened cortisol levels from stress and you might feel the need to hide and/or cry on a semi-regular basis.
Frustration. Just that. You will feel frustrated. Try to remember that most people are really, really nice.
It’s not all bad – really, some of it is actually good!
You come up with an amazing research plan. In spite of whether you are successful or not, you will have written a very concise, well-planned research proposal that meets some key research priorities. The fact that you have researched and condensed these ideas into a mere four pages is quite an achievement. (This is where you should pat yourself on the back and have a well-earned drink!). If you aren’t successful in this round, there is usually one more DECRA round available for applicants who time it right, and if round two scares the hell out of you – well, there are plenty of other places where you can try your new skills and fancy research proposal.
People share the experience with you. You are never alone when applying for a DECRA. There will be a number of other people in your institution, maybe even a few friends from other universities, going through the same experience. Talk to them! Even if it is only to laugh at the misfortune of the day or gripe about the latest revisions you need to do, these people feel your pain. More importantly though, you learn from each other. Reading each other’s proposals can give you some great insights into writing style, catch phrases, key words, new methods… hell, even just pretty formatting. Take this opportunity to grow while you can.
You get some solid grant writing experience. For some people this may be the first real grant they have ever applied for. Many Australian grad students don't have a lot of grant writing experience. After all, applying for grants in a three year PhD programme doesn’t exactly become a high priority for most given the timeframe. This is a great opportunity to learn that writing a grant is very different from writing a paper! Soak up the mentoring tips from those academics who have been successful, soak them up like a sponge! Learn what makes a solid application… or at least try to… let’s face it, nothing is perfect in this game.
You identify the areas in your CV that need boosting. Spending so much time finessing your CV to highlight your strengths can also make it quite obvious where your weaknesses are. This, in my opinion is not a negative, it allows you to strategically direct your research and efforts into those areas to strengthen them. For example, some people have a gazillion (yup, that is a unit of measure) papers, but they might be quite specific and not highly cited. This process lets you identify that and work toward collaborations that can produce more general, and citeable papers. I discovered that I lacked some community engagement that other people were quite strong in.
It forces you to assess your career path. Not everyone is cut out to be an academic, and that is ok! There are so many other careers that our grad student or postdoc skills can be applied to! If the prospect or experience of writing a DECRA terrifies you, then maybe life outside of academia is better. With the way the job market is these days we should all have a ‘Plan B’ and perhaps ‘C’ and ‘D’. There are plenty of opportunities out there and many resources exist to get you started.
You get to sing ‘I will survive’ a lot. If you come through the DECRA experience feeling slightly shaken and bewildered, but realising that you are ok (after a few days of sleep), then you survived. Congratulations!! Not everyone does, and again, that’s ok. Everyone’s priorities are different. Even though few people will be there to tell you that you did a great job, know that you did. You tried your best, you gave it a shot, you learned a lot about academic life and your strengths and weaknesses. Now sit back and wait for the rejoinder.