Research – a dizzying climb?

Preparing a research funding application can feel like an uphill struggle and our RDS SE graphic of support events depicts a researcher climbing a staircase towards the goal of funding application submission. It’s a nice metaphor – that planning a study, writing an application, and submitting to a funder takes hard work and dedication. It’s also one that highlights the need for help and support at each step – support which can come from your research team members, your mentors or supervisors, and from other sources such as RDS research advisers and our colleagues in the Clinical Research Networks and Clinical Trials Units.

However, it’s also a little two-dimensional. Research does not progress like a straight staircase and a graphic like this, even one that points out things that we can do to help you climb, can only ever be of limited use as an illustration of what it is really like to plan a study & submit its application for funding. The reality is more like some kind of strange, spiraling staircase, with different flights of steps forking from it a various, and often unexpected, junctions. Not something easy to render in graphical form! However, this is not to say that help is not available for these un-illustrated parts of the climb. Nor is it true that these alternative stairs are always unhelpful diversions. Often there is not a single ‘right’ set of steps to take.

I met with a researcher recently who came prepared with a list of questions. This can be helpful as it can direct a consultation quickly to the issues of greatest import, something especially useful with a submission deadline is fast approaching. However, as we were going through the list, it struck me that rarely was there a simple answer to the questions. Often there were multiple suggestions I could make, each that would send the researcher off to climb a slightly different set of steps. None of these possibilities were any more or less ‘right’ than the other, rather it was simply about the researcher deciding which flight was the one they wanted to climb at this point in time.

The possibility of alternative flights starts early – sometimes at the very first step. Is the NIHR the right funder for your research or should you consider a research council or charity funder? Do you want to apply for a research study from one of the NIHR funding programmes or to the NIHR Academy for a fellowship instead? When thinking about your research questions and outcome measures, is your primary going to be a clinical outcome or something more service-based? What happens when you’re holding a consultation meeting with service users and someone with lived experiences raises a point you hadn’t considered before?

How you deal with these alternatives can help define what your final application will look like and there is plenty of support there to help you make your choice and support you on your way. It can seem daunting, but it is important to remember that there probably isn’t one right choice – there is no guarantee of funding success simply because you picked one flight of steps over another. It is also worth remembering that you can also change your mind and take the other path at any point on your climb toward that goal of application submission.

Contacting your local NIHR Research Design Service can help – with taking that first step and with each one that follows, no matter whether your climb is progressing smoothly upward or spiraling around, down and up again. I have no doubt you’ll make it to the top and get to enjoy the view!