Medievalist, storymaker, theatre director, folk dance teacher, BBC / AHRC New Generation Thinker

Research Stories: Applying for the AHRC / BBC New Generation Thinker Scheme

Following lots of collegial folk on Twitter offering to share their successful funding applications, I thought I would write up what I learnt through applying for the AHRC and BBC’s New Generation Thinker scheme into a blog post for others thinking of applying.

Being a New Generation Thinker has been one of the most joyous things I have done in my academic career.  I have had the chance to make and appear on documentaries on everything from glittery villains to a very recent one the Bayeux Tapestry, gone to the Free Thinking Festival, learnt a lot of new skills, and got to spend time with the nine other brilliant people from my cohort.

What is it like to apply?

The NGT fellowship application was hands down the most fun and interesting bid I have written (I realise the competition is not exactly stiff for that title).  It was not too much work, either, and they give you very useful, clear guidance about what they are looking for.  I won’t repeat that here, but do use that as your main guide.

Here is my Case for support, research history and review of an arts/humanities thing outside my field

Case for support

The main thing in all aspects of the form is to try and make your research sound exciting to a non-academic reader.  Wherever possible, tell stories.  So I tried to make even the dry stuff like my research history into a story and used simpler, more evocative language than I would for a more standard academic funding proposal.

Review of non-specialist cultural thing

Choosing what to review was hard.  As someone applying as a drama/literature specialist, I ended up deciding to review a museum rather than a play, film or book, as this would show that I could tell stories completely outside my own knowledge-base.  The Museum of Broken Relationships was ideal as it was already full of stories, which made it easy to write about.

Given the last two years have been so weird for arts and culture, I am sure there will be lots of interesting angles to look at; you might consider any innovative online performances; outdoor community art trails; busking and fringe performance; or the very first musical and dance festivals back ‘in person’.  Whatever it is, your review should help your reader/listener experience it with you.

Programme proposal 

Here is my Programme Proposal.

The most important thing with this application is to have a really cracking idea for a show.  Which fragment of your research is most immediately interesting?  What intersects well with modern concerns?  Taking inspiration from the news / current culture is good, though there will be a gap between submission and shortlisting.

The idea is to meet the public audience where they are.  For example, although my academic work includes all sorts of wanky(!) academic theory stuff on time, race and gender in medieval drama, I have made programmes and given interviews on:

  • motherhood
  • unruly women
  • female performers
  • why stage and film villains have always sparkled
  • medieval antisemitism
  • Sheffield carols and folk stories
  • the Bayeux Tapestry (coming next year)

All of these used what (to me) are very specific, tiny examples from my research to look at bigger themes that matter to people now.  Medievalists, also check out Hetta Howes’ work for the BBC – she has done a great programme on unicorns!

You will probably find you are stuck between a few ideas, so pitch one-sentence ideas to friends who don’t know your field and see what grabs their imagination.  Nothing is wasted: keep a folder of the ideas you don’t use.  If you do become an NGT, you’re going to need to have lots of ideas for future pitches once they have worked through your initial material.

In learning how to write a convincing programme proposal, I found it helpful to listen to radio shows previous NGTs have done.  Check out particularly Radio 3’s The Essay, and the Free Thinking programmes, which are the first things you will do in your NGT year.  I listened to the first two minutes of several and made notes on all the different ways they managed to grab the listener’s attention.  I then used those as models when working on my own proposal.

To check my finished proposal worked as a radio teaser for non-specialists, I called some long-suffering friends and read it down the phone to them.  Their brutally honest feedback really helped me refine this!  Being a media geek, I put sound effects in mine, but this was a bit extra and not needed if not appropriate for your work.

BBC employees are immensely intelligent, and brilliant at getting their heads around new ideas and concepts very quickly.  They are also massively overworked and time-poor.  So write your proposal as though it will be read by someone in between editing 3 other programmes, all on completely different subject matter, or read at 1am, or read on a train, and make the shiniest angle of your project very clear in the first sentences.  To be fair, being on transport, driving or doing other tasks is the natural state of radio listeners too, so it is good to practice grabbing and holding attention in all the writing you do on this proposal.

After the application

If you get through the proposal stage you will be invited to a selection day which, when I did it, ran in three venues around the UK.  It is a fantastic day and worth handing an application in just for that.  You get lots of training and advice, and are then on the BBC’s contact list even if you don’t make the final 10.

On that note, it is always worth re-applying if you don’t get it first time.  There is no limit to how many times you can apply if you meet the other selection criteria.  Some of my cohort had got as far as the selection day in previous years, and then finally got there on re-application.

What happens if I become one of The Chosen Ones?

You get lots more training, and an afternoon of having your photo taken while assuming various ‘thoughtful’ poses.

Do be aware that this scheme is a lot of work if you get it, often with very tight, sudden deadlines, at least in your first year.

After the first year, it is less busy, and up you to pitch materials that may or may not get picked up.  This often means you will submit a proposal, hear nothing for ages, forget all about it and then someone will get in touch wanting to make something related to it next week, which can be a challenge to juggle with teaching and your other work.  The best thing is to be honest with yourself and with the producers: they can’t afford for you to say yes to something because you feel you ought to and then flake out, so be realistic about what you can take on when asked.

My institution has been immensely supportive and given me time to do this work, but if you can, find out how supportive your institution is likely to be in advance.

It is immensely fun however, and in terms of career, probably the best thing I could have done.  I had been incredibly lucky in getting a permanent post just before I applied for this, but have no doubt that this has secured my position in my job (at least, it got me congratulations from our VC, who I am certain never knew I existed before this!).

It has also taught me so much about communication, public engagement, and how to translate the messy, sprawling enthusiasm of my love for my research into something others can be enthusiastic about too.

More questions?

Tweet me @DaisyEBlack or email me at d.black3@wlv.ac.uk.