Procrastinators beware

A third-year grad student in our lab recently submitted her first grant proposal. Watching her struggle through this process in an impossibly short amount of time (one month) has got me thinking about how little students are taught about grant-writing, especially with regards to how long writing a good grant actually takes. So for any of you [soon-to-be] first-time grant-writers out there, let me fill you in: writing a grant is hard work, and it takes a lot of time. Just ask any of the profs in your department, or the tenured and TT writers out here in the blogosphere. I know of no senior professor that writes a big* grant in less than a month, and junior profs, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates need increasingly more time and help to construct a fund-able proposal. My latest K grant re-submission was actually begun almost three months prior to the due date, and I needed almost every minute of it. But why does it take so much time when you (supposedly) know your science so well? Here are just a few reasons: 1. Grant-writing is a process. I’m a fairly good writer; not as good as some (my mentor is amazing), but I’ve read enough blogs/grants/papers to know I’m pretty good. There’s a difference, though, between being a good writer and a good grant writer. Grant-writing requires that you know your science better than you ever thought possible. You have to know how much to include, be specific yet concise, and sell your data without over-hyping your hypothesis. I mentioned above that I started writing my last resubission three months ahead of the due date – that’s kind of a lie. In truth, I started writing the grant last summer, when I began putting together the first draft of specific aims for my first submission. The metamorphosis of that first set of aims was tremendous between July and October, when the “final” grant was submitted. And the transformation from the time I got my summary statement in March until the resubmission deadline in July was equally impressive. Plus, not all scientists are good writers. This is not a tragic flaw, but it does mean that more time will be required to work through the proposal. And not only your time, but that of others, which leads me to… 2. It takes a village. The chair of our department is a phenomenal grant-writer. No, seriously, I mean phenomenal… we’re talking all “1”s on his last competitive renewal. He’s been writing grants for 40 years now, and I value his opinion above most others when it comes to NIH proposal preparation. He knows the system, and his science, very well. With all of this knowledge and experience, you think he trusted himself to prepare an iron-clad proposal with no help? Hell no! He had no fewer than 10 people read through his grant. All of his lab members (mostly postdocs and senior research associates) and several of his colleagues had a chance to tear it apart, and he was receptive to the battering. This also might be the most time-consuming part of grant-writing, however, because it requires giving potential readers ample time to critically read the proposal in the midst of their own hectic schedules. You absolutely CANNOT expect people to drop what they’re doing to read your grant. For my latest submission, I found it most strategic to send my first draft (already edited by one of my labmates) to only a few individuals, wait for their edits (about 2 weeks), then send out the updated proposal to a new set of readers. This process alone took almost an entire month. While waiting for edits, I squeezed in a few more preliminary experiments at the bench, so I wasn’t working on the grant for three months straight. But I needed almost the entire time to get the feedback my grant needed. The waiting also gave me time to work on the most “fun” part of grant writing… 3. Paperwork, your new best friend. Anybody who pays taxes understands how much of a bear the federal government can be. Multiply your IRS forms by about 100, and that’s an NIH grant. Somewhere in the instructions for an NIH grant is a statement that it takes 40 hours to prepare a grant – that, folks, is the time it takes for the paperwork, not including your science. I have no experience with NSF funding, but I doubt it’s much simpler. Even private foundations require quite the bit of hoop-jumping (American Heart Association is rumored to be just as cumbersome as NIH). Add on the time to contact people for rec letters, deal with your grants and contracts office, reign in collaborators, and get together biosafety, IACUC, and any other paperwork your proposal requires, and you’ve got a bureaucratic nightmare to contend with. This aspect of grant preparation cannot be ignored, pushed to the side, or left to the last minute, and you need a good deal of your proposal written to even begin dealing with many of these issues. Getting on it early is the best way to keep your administrative people happy and helpful. A last-minute application puts those guys in a mood, causes the applicant undue stress, and – in some cases – prevents a grant from ever making it out the door. Bottom line – start early if you want to get funded, and ward off those gray hairs before the age of 30. I’m sure there are others I left out; please feel free to add on below. *Big is a relative term here – what’s considered a “big” grant for an undergrad would likely be child’s play for a tenured prof.

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