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LibParlor Contributor Reflection

How Not To Plan for an Academic Research Grant Project

LibParlor Contributors Susie Wilson and Sajni Lacey talk about their experiences receiving a grant and the things they learned along the way.

Susie Wilson is the Data Services Librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia [UNBC]. Sajni Lacey is the Learning & Curriculum Support Librarian at the University of British Columbia Okanagan [UBCO].

The sick feeling settled in almost immediately. Why did we apply for a grant? To be honest, we hadn’t submitted the most stellar application (we forgot to include the explicit dollar amount we were asking for in the cover letter by just leaving a place holder; we underestimated the cost of transcriptions, which is what we actually got money for; we didn’t read the requirements thoroughly enough to realize you can’t actually ask for conference and travel costs, which was the main chunk of our funding ask). We had applied because when we’d submitted an academic article proposal on the same topic it had been rejected (though very nicely), and we figured we might as well get some practice applying for a grant. Academic librarians are supposed to do research right?

Some Context

It started innocently enough – the two of us had briefly overlapped at the University of Northern British Columbia [UNBC], and once Sajni had left for the University of British Columbia Okanagan [UBCO] we decided to brainstorm ideas for an opportunity to work together. Sajni had previously done some work with curriculum mapping at UNBC, and this was a great jumping-off point. We decided to explore this further by mapping one program at each of our universities to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy. We hoped this would help us identify ways to integrate the Framework into our practice and build stronger relationships with our faculty by indicating opportunities to embed the library.

This led us to submitting a grant application to the Canadian Association of Research Libraries in their annual call for research proposals. We had thought, hey, why not? If we could get some funding we could do some structured interviews, hire a student to help with the transcripts, and maybe even get some money to present our work at conferences. We did not think that we would actually get it, after all this is a national association with more experienced librarians and researchers submitting proposals. We had already written an abstract of an article that could come out of this project, and we perceived that as being much of the work required for the grant application. Much to our surprise, we got the grant, though we received a substantially smaller sum than we had proposed. The panic set in when the association asked us for the information for the research office that would hold the grant money for the project. We were like, say what now? Ultimately, from this tense and somewhat overwhelming experience, some valuable lessons were learned in applying for, planning for, and managing major grant-funded research projects. Coming out of this unexpected situation we have some advice for new-to-research librarians looking to get their work off the ground.

1. Plan for the grant as if you are actually going to get it, no matter how unlikely it may seem to you at the time.

“We had no idea of the ramifications of actually getting a grant…”

Of course, we had assumed we would not actually get the grant (more on this later), so we had to now figure out how to actually accept the funding being offered to us. This turned into several days of scrambling to complete a significant amount of paperwork that we were expected to have completed before applying for the grant. The most important one was a research project information form, which is used to notify UBCO of the intent to apply for grant funding.  We also knew that we would have to complete ethics in order to complete this project, but we didn’t realize that was also something we should have done in advance. This lack of planning was due in large part to our assumption that our grant application would not be successful – why do extra work for something you don’t anticipate actually happening? On top of this is the fact that when you apply for and get awarded a grant, the institution becomes legally liable for that work and distributing the money. We had no idea of the ramifications of actually getting a grant; so, we unintentionally put ourselves, our departments and our institutions at risk.

This seems like common sense, but when applying for anything ensure that you treat it is as if you will actually have to do it. Budget the time, money, labour, etc. that it will take for you to follow through with this process. Involve supervisors and coordinators early so they can help you with this.

2. Find out what your institutions expects from you before you apply for a grant, regardless of the size.

It required a lot of administrative support in order for grant money to be accepted at UBCO as we had to scramble to get it completed retroactively. Sajni’s supervisor and chief librarian had to sign off on the paperwork and advocate for librarians as grant holders. This was because there were some procedural problems that also had to be dealt with. It turned out that librarians, despite having faculty status, did not actually have the ability to be primary investigators for grants at UBCO. Fixing this required coordinating with UBC’s Vancouver campus in order for the ethics and research funding system to list Sajni as the lead investigator. Once ethics was approved at UBCO it was automatically approved at UNBC. Most institutions will have a research office that can walk you through.

3. Start thinking about ethics. Do you need approval?

Submitting ethics was one of the more interesting parts as it required us to think very deeply about what we were actually trying to do with this project. Having never gone through this process as lead investigators we had to consider where and for how long we going to store the data. We needed consent forms, a confidentiality agreement for the transcriptionist, interview questions for the faculty, a plan for curriculum mapping, parameters for presenting the end product to the faculty, and more. Susie initially took on the ethics application, as Sajni had a lot of other paperwork to get through as the official grant-holder. Initially, a lot of work went into the UNBC REB process before Susie actually spoke to the research office. She then found out that we qualified for a harmonized application, but that it had to go through UBCO. As UBCO’s ethics application is quite different than UNBC’s the initial work Susie did had to be re-done. If we had both spoken to our research offices right away we would have saved a lot of time.

“Prepare for lots of conversations about ethics your first time through…”

There was also a lot of back and forth over if we even needed ethics approval during the initial stages of the application. We wanted to interview people and publish based on the results, so we were certain we did, but our contact in the office of research was initially unsure. After that, a great deal of discussion when into where in the process informed consent needed to happen. Prepare for lots of conversations about ethics your first time through, especially if you are at an institution where librarians don’t do a significant amount of research involving human subjects.

4. Get over any Imposter Syndrome (easier said than done!)


“If you believe you are doing worthwhile work, accept the fact that others might think so, too.”

We have both spent a lot of time battling imposter syndrome as new librarians. Why didn’t we think we would get this grant? We are both early career librarians, we are proposing qualitative research, and there are so many other librarians applying for these grants we couldn’t fathom beating other projects out. We realize that this is not something everyone deals with, but if you are putting in a grant application (or a conference presentation, or proposing an article, or anything along these lines) remember that others may perceive your intended work as important enough to fund or give platform to. Susie has been calling this our “accidental” research grant, as if it were sheer luck and happenstance that we got it – and that is the kind of thinking that gets you into this situation to begin with. If you believe you are doing worthwhile work, accept the fact that others might think so, too.

5. Know the terms of the grant

After the shock subsided and the paperwork scramble slowed down, we realized that we also had to make sure our dissemination plan met any requirements and timelines that went with the grant. When do we have to spend our money by? What if nobody publishes our future paper, or accepts our conference session proposals? The plan we had set our meets all our funder requirements, but it’s important to make sure you haven’t missed something specific, especially regarding publishing and/or data sharing.

6. Talk to your supervisor/director/manager before you apply!

Talking with your supervisor ensures that all processes and procedures are followed. At UBC I (Sajni) had tremendous support from a number of colleagues and higher ups. My supervisor had to sign the form stating the intent to apply for a research grant and my chief librarian had to sign off on the project in order for it to go through our office of research services. I also needed to have my chief librarian support the project, since, despite having faculty status, librarians at the institution level were not able to technically hold research grants through our research system. This required some back and forth about getting access into the system. I also needed help from our research services librarian to create a data management plan in order to go through ethics.

Overall, it required an enormous amount of support (and apologizing on my part) in order to get this through after we were offered the grant. We have started work on the grant project, and gradually our initial stress is being replaced by feelings of competence. We are on track to finish on time, and with each project meeting our plans seem more concrete and achievable – something that seemed like an almost impossible feat that morning in December when we got the surprise congratulatory email from the granting association. Since getting the grant we have been able to get ethics approval (as outlined above), collect syllabi for each of the departments we are researching, develop a matrix to assess the syllabi for information literacy components and map this to the ACRL Framework, and we are currently hiring a student to do the transcripts.

Final thoughts

Sajni: I personally did not feel like I was trained substantially to do any kind of research at any meaningful level either in my Master’s program or once I became a librarian. Instead, I still feel like I am swimming upstream in terms of figuring out where research fits into my daily practice and my role as a professional in this field.

“Because it is not a requirement of my appointment, but something that I can choose to do, I had to seek out all the processes and procedures on my own.”

Susie: I feel like, institutionally, there isn’t a set process in place to support librarians-as-researchers. Because it is not a requirement of my appointment, but something that I can choose to do, I had to seek out all the processes and procedures on my own. Of course, this led to missing some steps, because it really is impossible to know what you don’t know. I had an incredible amount of support from colleagues. It was a colleague who suggested that we submit a grant proposal, and shared a proposal she had completed for us to work off of. If we had gone into the application process completely blind I doubt we would have received our funding. Connecting with colleagues (within or outside your institution) who are passionate about research is incredibly important when first starting out, especially when you feel like you have no idea what you are doing.

Featured image, Old Clock, by William Warby, via Flickr

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1 comment on “How Not To Plan for an Academic Research Grant Project

  1. Pingback: So, You Want to Get a Grant . . . Some Guidance from a Librarian-Turned-Program-Officer – The Librarian Parlor

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