A 12 step program for writing grant proposals

Recent experience talking here (interested, non-Science types, there’s a short explanation to give context at the end).

  1. Boundless, unfounded optimism: Yes! You’ve just had the greatest idea EVER! Sure it’s lacking a few details, but the reviewers are gonna love it! The whole idea is there, it just needs a little writing and you’ll be done. This time, for sure you’ll be able to knock it out quick and without much effort since it’s such a great idea. Just great.
  2. Period of procrastination: Since it’ll be so easy you don’t have to worry about it right now. Sit back and relax since you’ve still got loooooooooads of time before this baby is due. Maybe talk with some people about how you’ll need to start working on it sometime, and about how great it is, but that you’re not worried about it now because it’s not due anytime soon.
  3. Panic: HOLY SH*T! What day is it? How did that happen?! Can it be that the due date is actually that close? It’s impossible- better check the calendar and the call a few more times. Gulp.
  4. Outline stage: What were those great ideas you had early on? Oh yeah- put those down on paper. Wow. Somehow they seemed a lot grander in your head. They look a little thin on paper actually. Are you sure that’s all? Maybe you forgot that one cool part.
  5. Cut-and-paste: Take text from wherever you can, manuscripts, other proposals, your grocery lists, and put it down in the sections that kinda make sense. It makes you feel a lot better to have something on paper and you can fill it in later, right?
  6. Sculpting: Now take all that great raw material you have and make it look like Michaelangelo’s David. Hmmmm…. that’s not quite right- it looks more like Frankenstein’s monster’s ugly cousin. Well, keep sculpting- the more sculpting the better. Put hours into that transition between Aims 2 and 3. It’s super important that you phrase it perfectly so you can rip it all apart in step 8.
  7. Imposter’s syndrome: “What am I even doing here?” You’ve got the simplest idea coupled with the most contrived, Rube Golbergian implementation. Nothing really fits together into a coherent picture. And it has no point. You wouldn’t even believe this crap if you were the reviewer.
  8. Demolition derby:  A flash of inspiration and you see how all the pieces fit together. Unfortunately it requires ripping everything apart and rearranging your aims, renumbering your figures, and stitching it all back together to make it look like you meant it to go that way the whole time. Oh, and you’ve got a little under 24 hours to accomplish this.
  9. Amazing period of focus and productivity: Where did that come from and why has it been hiding for so long?! You just knocked out 5 pages of text in 3 hours and it looks great. It would have been REALLY nice to be at this point a wee bit earlier in the process.
  10. Rose colored glasses: Yes. It’s finished and it’s perfectly wonderful! There could be some blemishes, or some outright holes. It doesn’t matter now ’cause you can’t do a damn thing about it. Too late. So it’s all wonderful and the best idea ever!
  11. Last minute scramble: Generally it involves either figure or citation formatting- formatting of some sort. And it’s absolutely incomprehensible why it’s screwing up now. Why won’t EndNote work the way it was designed to? You’ve got 2 hours before your grant administrator has a friggin’ stroke and you can’t get X to work correctly (where ‘X’ is some formerly inconsequential software feature that just wants attention- but you can’t ignore it at this point)
  12. Now where did that focus and productivity go? It’s off. Submitted safely at the funding agency. A warm sense of accomplishment in your belly. The drive to do more still rattling around in your bones. OK- now that you found that amazing kernel of productivity that you didn’t remember existed it should be easy to get all that stuff done that you put off during your proposal process. If only you weren’t so tired. And apathetic. *Sigh*

Here’s a little background for those of you not so “fortunate” to be tied to the whims and whimsey of academic funding (and, importantly, are still reading this). Academic researchers (and those in national labs, like me) have to, for the most part, fund the research they do by applying for grants from funding agencies. These are governmental agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), and others, or non-governmental funding agencies (private philanthropic funds, the Gates Foundation, etc.) and they issue ‘calls’ for proposals that specify the kinds of research they’re looking for. There are deadlines associated with these calls and some recur on a regular basis but others are single-shot. After you submit your proposal the agency will review it for merit using criteria generally outlined in the call. NIH does this with an established peer review process. If you are so lucky to be funded then you get to do what you propose- and live for a little longer in the academic research game. Yay!

The 5 stages of reading reviews

In many parts of our lives we have to receive criticism. Sometimes directly, from someone like a boss telling us we screwed up, and sometimes indirectly, in the form of written reviews from anonymous reviewers. In science, reception of criticism, ingestion, and self-improvement as a result are a part of the gig. A BIG part of the gig. We submit papers that get reviewed (that is, criticized) by at least two peer reviewers. We submit grant proposals that get shot down. We present ideas that rub somebody the wrong way- so they tell us in public ways. I’ve had a lot of experience at this. A lot.

Today I found that the renewal of a collaborator’s 30 year old NIH R01 (it’s been renewed 6 times before) that I wrangled myself a co-PI spot on was not discussed in study section. This happens when it gets scored poorly by reviewers and so doesn’t move to the stage of open discussion when the group of reviewers meets. It means that the grant will not be funded and generally that it didn’t make the top 50% of proposals for that round. It stinks.

Here’s how I often react (riffing off of the 5 stages of grief):

  1. Denial. When I first get a poor grant review I often think, “hmmm… that’s weird, there must have been some kind of mistake. I’ll talk to the program officer and get this all cleared up right away”. Loosely translated this means, “my proposal is so good there’s no possible way it could have been not discussed in study section so the only reasonable explanation is that there was a terrible, and highly unlikely, clerical error.” Yeah. Right.
  2. Anger. “Those STUPID nitwits! How could they be sooooo stupid as to not see the brilliance of my obviously brilliant study? What total imbeciles. It’s a good thing that it’s all their fault.”
  3. Bargaining. “OK. You know what, I’ll do better. I’ll do better and write better and experiment better and this will all go away. It has to, right?”
  4. Depression. “I’m a failure and nobody likes me. Also, I can’t do science and I’m an imposter. Everyone else is way smarter than I am. Holy crap what am I going to do with myself now?”
  5. Acceptance. “Right. So I see the points that I need to fix. And I recognize the points that the reviewers just didn’t get. Since they didn’t get them it means that I didn’t communicate them well enough. I can fix this.”

Of course, getting through these to stage 5 is the goal. That’s where the rubber meets the road. How do I take what someone else has criticized me on, strip away the emotional attachment (they’re no attacking me), triage the good from the bad (face it, sometimes reviewers are not paying attention), and apply what you’ve learned to improve what you’ve produced. This process, and the uncomfortable stages that accompany it, has led me to write papers, improved the papers I’ve already written, spawned new ideas, and promoted self realization and betterment. Learning from how others see you is a critical and under-appreciated skill.