Grantsmanship...Skill or Gift?

Jan 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I want to begin a discussion on grantsmanship. I've been tasked with helping put together (OMG, tasked? Spot the administrator!) a grantwriting workshop, as well as a "How Do Survive Survive Study Section" workshop. We ran one here a couple of years ago and it went down well. I don't have access to the data to find out if it made a difference to our instituional application success rate, but I hope people got something out of it. Since then the National Institutes of Health have made some fairly substantial changes to the grant-application (cut the length from 21 pages to 12) as well as the scoring system they use to 'rate' each application.

Before I launch though, I'd like to repost something (slightly edited) from my old blog at LabSpaces. There was some great discussion in the comments about how we (and should we) train people to write. I'm interested in your thoughts - should we? can we? who should do this? The institution, or is it incumbent upon an individual to seek help?


We're going to rant talk about grants and grantsmanship. I'm going to tell a tale of writing. If you want to understand the rules of writing NIH grants you must read and digest DrugMonkey, and if your tastes run to the National Science Foundation, then you shall want to visit Prof-like Substance and our own belov'd Odyssey. Read their posts on the subject and, importantly, read the comments and trackback to the commenters. There is a metric shit ton lot of great advice out there.

When I started in my graduate lab the PI gave me a copy his recently funded R01 to read and digest. It was, of course, utterly impenetrable. The language of a grant is different from that of manuscript (think Nature paper vs. JNeurosci paper kind of condensation). Also,  and importantly, for despite outward appearances I am not a total lackwit, I had moved to a Drosophila molecular genetics lab from a mammalian biophysics lab. Gradually as I learned the language of genetics I understood more of the grant and my own project began to take shape. After a year of being a teaching assistant and a Lab Pup I was told I had to apply for my own funding and my PI had found a perfect grant at The American Heart Association (AHA). Actually he said, "I'd rather you wrote an NRSA, I did. But you're a foreigner, and probably not good enough. They're very competitive. I won one."

I tell ya, that just made me feel grrrreat!

Anyway, he showed me the application forms for the AHA and I thought I'd just jump and get it done. Doesn't work like that I found out plenty sharpish. I realised almost immediately I had no clue where to begin.

"Just start with your abstract and specific aims." He said
"What's that then?" I replied
Specific Aims, I learned with a sharp cuff about the ear, are the salient goals of your research project. Three highly focused and ultraspecific goals you will accomplish with the money and time that the funding grants you. My first effort, something like...

"Aim 1 We will find the gene responsible for..." is not a good example. " How will you "find" the gene? Which "gene" are you looking for? Two simple questions that turn a specific aim into a high school level piece of prose.

My final version...

"Aim 1 EMS mutagenesis will be utilized to identify phenotypes that can be screened by..." is better. It is specific, you see.

Essentially this process was repeated with every step of the process. "Tideliar, show me your introduction on Monday...[insert wavy passage of time graphics]...oh dear. No, no, no - this isn't an introduction. This is more like a background, and this bit will be in your results section, and this section...well, I expect the reviewers will know that the brain is "made of neurons" so we can delete that I think..."

My PI, Dr. Venkman (not his real name, but he bears an uncanny resemblance IRL) would, with infinate patience, review edition after rain forest-depleting version of this fucking bastard of a beast grant. Once the basic framework of the grant was in place we spent literally scores of hours in his office as he showed showed me how to craft the text line-by-painstaking-line. I remember once dozing off because it took him an hour to get one sentence to his liking. Obviously, the grant was funded, I got my bottle of champagne and massaged my ego all over my colleagues because it was an immense boost to my self-esteem and expected graduation date. All was write with the world. Two years later I submitted an extension grant and this time I had to do it on my own. Thankfully Dr. Venkman had trained me very well, and the project was really a great and simple piece of work so my second grant was funded for the remaining year or my PhD. OK. I have to brag. I scored a 1.2 and ranked in the top 2% of the applicant pool. I'm really very good at my job (and it was a nearly complete grant as well? Ed.

In my first postdoc lab I immediately started looking for funding, but ended up moving on before much writing had been done. In my second I also started looking early on, although (somewhat unfortunately) I found the same process as grad school: my postdoc mentor felt the need to guide me line-by-line and step-by-step which was demeaning to me and a waste of time for us both, but hey, different strokes for different folks. Anyway, these postdoc grants weren't funded (another story for another day), but the point remains. I wrote several grants as a trainee and had excellent mentors take the time to teach me their version of grantsmanship.

For it is not just what you write, but how you write and indeed, to whom you write as well. In my current job grant writing is a major part of my PDQ, and on average takes up at least 50% of my time. However, things are very different in the administrative world in which I now roam. Firstly, I am not Faculty and the rules of my institute mean I cannot be a PI, or even co-Investigator. So I write other people's grants and that sucks, but again, a different post for a different day. My Unit, my group if you will, provide bioinformatics support for level of effort projects such as fairly modest (R21) level preliminary studies; we do the same for multi-site (RO1) clinical trials; and even for some Core/Institute (RC2, U19, P01) level grants. My job is to get the greenbacks in so we stay afloat (pressure much?). I help our PIs craft the sections of the grant that deal with their informatics and databasing needs. To do so I need to know in great detail the specifics of their project (obviously...we're databasing for them). So I have worked on maybe 4 personal grants in 2 years, but nearly 20 site grants. And every one is subtly different and demands different levels of commitment, their writing and grantsmanship. Because I've worked closely with so many stellar and well funded faculty I have learned so much about writing grants I honestly think I could write a decent and highly competitive grant of my own if only had the rank and the space.

The current version is not going so smoothly, but that's purely for political reasons [EDIT: it went in finally, on time...just]. We've restructured our Institute rather heavily, but no one bothered to tell the foot soldiers, so writing sections that support missions you know nothing about is necessarily very hard (understatement).
The point here, if there is one, is I have been lucky: I work in a job that plays to my gifts. But most of us in science live on tax-payer dollars and the spigot can run dry at any time. Being able to write scorable and fundable grants is a significant duty and one which requires extensive training and practice. But most of us never get that chance, especially non-US citizens for whom there might be cultural and language issues involved. But all of us are expected to somehow accrue grantsmanship skills during our training. If we don't need an R01, we need at least something to get some dollars in. What can I do to help translate these skills to my fellow junior scientists? IS it even incumbent upon me to do so?


I don't know what the solution is here. We are such a diverse population that what worked for Jane might not work for Johnny. In my case I have been fortunate to get enough on the job training that I know I can do the job. But I know others in my position might not be so fortunate purely because their interests focus on a more narrow band of science. Or they lack the self-confidence to begin "doing" and get caught out justing "trying". Or they don't have the writing experience I have - I'll admit that a lot of the experience that I rely on comes from ingratiating myself with PIs during their writing and essentially forcing them to teach me some tips and tricks. I remember seeing the aghast looks on my bosses faces when I volunteered my time and effort to help on grants far beyond the remit of my job. Fortunately it has paid off in new skills, new contacts and (thankfully) greater positive exposure for my Unit.

So, what does the blogosphere think? Should we have grant writing courses for postdocs?  Does this not risk wasting their valuable lab time as well as enforcing skills they might not appreciate? As lab leaders should we encourage all our trainees to submit K99 and NRSA (depending on their experience/rank) just to begin the training and hardening process? What about ESL scientists, do we give them extra help? Or is good grantsmanship contingent upon a more ingrained skillset than the ability to form a perfect sentenc

Or do we maintain the status quo and just let the strong flourish while the weak are predated by Science, red in tooth and claw?

11 responses so far

  • Was this why those above your paygrade were tossing around you name?

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Skill skill skill, that even if you are not naturally gifted at, you can use strategies to improve to the point where you get competitive. My grad students are a great example. One of them, who is just three years in, started out HORRIBLE. AWFUL. UNREADABLY BAD. And even though s/he has serious trouble with writing (some dyslexia might be going on underneath it all), s/he has worked hir but off and gotten to the point where s/he can make drafts that just need minor, editorial proofreading cleanup.

    I myself am more naturally able to write, but still have had to improve my skills to get to the point where I am competitive. I had to do most of this the long and hard way, by submitting things that got critiqued, revising, resubmitting and getting more critiques, and so on. Also by getting a chance to do study section, which taught me all about the ways TO DO and NOT TO DO many elements of proposal writing.

    But absolutely, we should be teaching people more about how to do this shit. Get them equipped with the resources and strategies they need to do their best job and keep practicing to improve.

  • brooksphd says:

    @GenRepair: Not sure. It's likely nothing but coincidence TBH 🙂 either way, I'm not holding my breath. Too much is up in the air round here to make any deductions. I think I got roped in on this because I'm a good orbaniser.

    @CB: Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that's a skill that needs work. Even if you have the "gift" for writing, there is a leve of technical...prowess (?) that can only be acheived through hard work. And patient mentoring.

    ugh...I remembe my candidacy exam essay... *shudder*

  • Actually he said, “I’d rather you wrote an NRSA, I did. But you’re a foreigner, and probably not good enough. They’re very competitive. I won one.”

    Only US citizens and permanent residents are permitted to be awarded NRSAs, both pre-doc and post-doc. Foreign post-docs are eligible for K99s.

    I include in my post-doc offer letters the explicit requirement that post-docs will zealously apply for all fellowships they are eligible for.

    • brooksphd says:

      Yeah, that's probably what 'saved' me from writing the NRSA 'knowing it won't get funded', and let me focus on AHA. We were well funded for mostly foreign nationals; all postdocs were expected to secure funding ASAP - AHA or MDS etc., for the non-US citizens.

  • rpg says:

    I'm assuming

    "All was write with the world"

    is ironic.


  • drugmonkey says:

    A skill, yes, but frequently the difference is in the *attitude* toward the process. Academics can write. question is, can they learn how to write differently for different purposes? Can they overcome their insistence on how the world should work according to them in preference for dealing with the system as it is to be found?

    • brooksphd says:

      Do you mean for the different styles required for writing a manuscript vs. a grant application; in addition to different styles for different grants/agencies?

      What do you think of the call for change in *how* academics write; losing the passive voice etc. Some of the best grants I've had the pleasure to help put together were lead by senior faculty who wrote very actively. I'm a terror for writing in active voice and they would edit me till I was positively shrieking things at the reviewer.

  • The Founding Mothers says:

    Grant writing courses should definitely be offered, from PhD level, but not made compulsory. That way the grown ups (and PhD students are grown ups, after all) can decide if they want to improve their skill set for future career opportunities, or go off and do other useful things. Not everyone who does a PhD wants to continue in academia, so it may be a waste of some students' time.

    In other news, I have a fellowship proposal to submit in a coupla weeks. I say 'proposal', but really I mean 'brainfart'. There is a limit of "approx. 300 words" for the project description. And this is a general science call. I can't even describe my background in 300 words, never mind the next 5 years of research.

    "Specific aims" is useful advice. Any more is gratefully accepted.

  • antipodean says:

    Mad skilzzz and then some sampling error around the payline. Damned if I know what I did right or wrong most of the time.