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CAREER ADVICE

Grant writing, an occupational hazard

Gruelling work that can make us go bonkers.

By DAVID SMITH | MAY 31 2013

In the early days of my graduate work, when I was spending far too many late-night hours in the company of pipettes and green algae, I’d sometimes encounter zombie-like professors wandering aimlessly through the biology department hallways. My attempts to engage with these eerie academics were usually met with a loud holler of “get out while you still can.” When I told my fellow grad students about these unnerving experiences they shared similar tales, and one brave young bioinformatician described how he had secretly followed one of the nightwalkers back to her office and uncovered the cause of her distress. “The grants have got them!” he exclaimed.

Grant writing is tedious and gruelling work, and it can make the best of us go a little bonkers. A colleague of mine once explained how she could tell when her former supervisor was writing grants because he’d amble around the lab, making small talk, washing beakers, telling jokes, doing just about anything to avoid his office. My previous boss, an upbeat and easygoing person, disappeared for weeks when working on grants, and would re-emerge, despondent, with bags under his eyes, asking questions like “why would anyone want to pursue a career in research?”

Indeed, the promise of grant writing deterred some of the smartest students in my grad school cohort from continuing in academics. These students loved teaching and lab work, but a lifetime of fighting for ever-diminishing research funds did not appeal to them.  A friend and collaborator of mine has mostly avoided grant writing by becoming a career postdoc. Patrick could likely attain a professorship position – he boasts an Ivy League education, dozens of first-author publications in top journals, and is a great teacher – but chooses to remain a postdoc because he can devote all of his time to science and is not bogged down by the hunt for research dollars. I know others who have taken the same approach.

But for most who carry on in academia, grant writing is inevitable. And, like it or not, success as an academic is largely based on one’s ability to obtain external funding. An adviser once told me, “Smitty, you’re spoiled, tinkering away in the lab, doing all these fun experiments. Just wait until half your time is spent writing grants.”

Ever since, I’ve made a habit of watching how others approach the art of grantsmanship. What I’ve learned is that everyone has their own techniques for tackling grants. Some researchers can sit down and write a grant in one or two marathon sessions, days before the submission date. But from what I’ve witnessed, the most successful grant writers start months ahead of the deadline and slowly chip away at the proposal. The latter approach also gives ample time for collaborators and colleagues to provide feedback on the application.

It’s best to get comments both from people who are familiar with the topic of study and those slightly outside the field, ensuring that the proposal is both technically sound and accessible. Feedback from colleagues who’ve sat on grant review panels is valuable, as it can help you cater the application to the granting agency you’re applying to. It is wise to stagger different grant applications by year so that you are not forced to write multiple proposals in one season.

Recently I submitted my first major grant application as a principal investigator and was surprised by how long it took me to learn the submission protocol and application instructions, which involved different online accounts, a special CV format, and dozens of documents, each with their own rules and formats. The rules for the proposal part of the application seemed constraining so I decided to change a few headings, add new subheadings, and switch the order of certain sections.

When more senior co-workers proofread the proposal, they advised: “Do not deviate from the given instructions.” One of the reasons is that grant committees will sometimes discuss a grant backwards to forwards or skip to a particular section in the middle. If you meddle with the headings or order, it can be infuriating for the reviewers.

I rewrote the application, sticking to the guidelines. Towards the end, I was pulling out my beard hairs and pacing around my office. A friend kept reminding me that this grant business gets easier with time.

So, if during grant season you find yourself walking aimlessly through a university hallway late at night, scaring the bejesus out of grad students, please stop, take a deep breath, give yourself a little hug, and return calmly to your writing desk.

David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University.

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