Making grant writing less painful
It’s grant writing season again (actually when isn’t it grant writing season these days?)! I’ve been thinking a lot about writing fellowship grants, as I’ve a number of postdoc mentees who are applying for these now and through the year. Our discussions have revealed that while there is lots of advice available on the sorts of things to write, and people are very happy to read drafts and give feedback, it’s often really hard as an early career researcher to know where to start with such a massive undertaking. As someone who is often completely overwhelmed by grant proposals and just gazes at a blank screen for days, I thought I’d share my coping mechanisms.
As ever advice comes with a caveat that this works for me, it won’t work for everyone, and I’m sure there are better strategies out there!
Think about timings
This is something to do as early as possible. I encourage my postdocs/students to start thinking about this about a year before they want to submit something. The key things to consider are:
- What are the submission deadlines? There may be several a year, there may only be one. These will change a bit year on year, but you can usually guess the rough timings in advance of the official grant announcements going out. Some schemes have rolling deadlines, in which case I recommend setting yourself a deadline instead.
- Are there internal deadlines that differ from the main deadline? For NERC Standard grants for example, most places will need you to submit something to them a month or so in advance of the real deadline. I’ve been caught out by this before! Also check what bits of the grant they need you to submit. Some places may just want to see the science and budget, others may want the whole thing.
- What help will I need from other people? If your proposal has a host/mentor/supervisor listed they will (hopefully!) help you edit the proposal. So it’s important to make sure they aren’t planning a sabbatical or long holiday at the point you’ll want their help. This can be worked around if you know in advance, you might just need to finish drafts earlier. Your proposal will be better if you get comments from as many people as possible, but you can’t expect people to drop everything a few days before your deadline. Schedule in time for people to give comments, and for you to incorporate them (I usually allow one week minimum for each). Finally remember that you will likely need help from the admin team at the place you’re applying to work at. This might be adding legal info to the proposal, or dealing with budgets etc. Make sure to contact them as far in advance as possible to work out what deadlines they have.
- What time commitments do you have? Think about holidays, conferences, family events etc. Again you can schedule around these if you think about it far enough in advance.
- How long will it take to write the proposal? How long is a piece of string? This will depend a lot on the scheme and on how much you already have prepared. Junior fellowships like Marie Curie, 1851 and Leverhulme are quicker (you can write one in under a month with suitable help and motivation). Things like NERC and URF fellowships, and standard grants that are not fellowships, tend to take much longer, and may require pilot data and pilot analyses that you’ll need to factor in some time for. My rule of thumb is to give myself far longer than I think I need initially, then after I do a chunk of work I reevaluate. Note that often you can use the same project for multiple applications, so after writing one the process gets a lot faster and easier.
Once you have all of this information to hand, make yourself a (rough) timetable and try to stick to it. Make sure to block out time in your calendar for working only on the proposal close to the deadline. Of course due to all these factors, everyone’s timetable will vary hugely, so don’t compare your progress with others, stay in your own lane.
Before starting to write
Before you start writing it is good to gather up the following:
- Templates. You can find these online. Note that they will change from year to year so make sure you use the correct one.
- CHECK FORMATTING REQUIREMENTS. I do this repeatedly, but check before you start. No point choosing a lovely font if the philistines want Arial 11pt. A trick I sometimes use to help with page counts is to use slightly larger fonts/margins/line spacing than required so I then cut down a number of lines really quickly once I’m finished and editing for length.
- Successful past proposals. Remember that templates change so don’t copy these. Also remember that judging criteria change all the time too so make sure you follow the most recent ones. The research office where you are applying will probably have some examples, and hopefully your host/mentor/supervisor can also help out.
A side note about reading other people’s grant proposals and retaining your sanity.
Reading past successful applications is probably the best way to get ideas of the kind of stuff the grant agency will fund. However, it isn’t infallible - criteria change, templates change, panel members change. Sometimes the same proposal in a different round wouldn’t quite make the cut. It’s all part of the “fun” of grant writing.
Another problem is that I often find reading other proposals really intimidating and overwhelming. Grant writing in general triggers my imposter syndrome, and reading a polished proposal can send me into a crisis of confidence that prevents me from doing anything useful for days! If you feel the same, at least know that you are not alone! A few things I have found that help: (i) only read the section of the proposal that you’re currently working on - the whole 20 page proposal often seems an impossible task before you start, so if you only read part of it at least you’re only panicking about content not length; (ii) don’t look at people’s CVs - it’s way too easy to look at the CVs of others and feel inadequate, but we all have different skills (for example all my friends with big grants have Nature/Science papers, but I have a paper with a Star Wars joke in the title so I think we are about even) and the profile of who gets funding tends to be quite fluid; (iii) remember that these are the result of months, and sometimes years, of work and editing. The people writing these also felt as overwhelmed as you do now at some point.
Finding an idea
This is hard, and in my experience when someone has said “come up with an idea” I’ve usually failed. Instead my ideas grow naturally over time, so usually by the time I’m ready to write a grant I have some sort of overall aim in mind, even if I don’t have any of the specifics tied down. Hopefully you’ve already got an idea. If not, try reading papers in an area that interests you and looking for gaps, chat with mentors, colleagues and friends. Inspiration often comes from unusual sources! Sadly there’s no magic formula for this.
Getting shit done: writing the proposal
Some people find this bit fun. I do not. I find it is accompanied by a sense of crushing despair and imposter syndrome. But I’ve found some ways of making it a little quicker.
Chunking. There’s often a temptation to try and do everything as you go along, but I find chunking my tasks helps me do things more quickly. My routine now is as follows: (i) Gather papers/information. I blitz this, often over a couple of days for a few hours at a time near the end of the day. I just download all relevant looking papers with my chosen key words on a topic from Google Scholar. I focus on recent papers, as these tend to help with identifying the key older references, and the overall top hits across years. (ii) Read and make notes. I then set aside a whole day or two to sit in a coffee shop or my flat and I skim read all the papers. I make brief notes on the key things I think I’m going to need to cite that paper for. I also have a set of notes for adding any ideas for my grant that come up as I go. This process often highlights some papers I missed in my first pass, so I then download these and repeat. It’s important not to get stuck in a loop with this though, so I’m allowed only one extra set of papers at this stage! (iii) WRITE. I then set aside a couple of days to just write, preferably away from any other distractions or with my office door closed.
What order should I write write things in? (i) The first thing I decide on are my objectives. For me this is usually one overarching aim of the proposal, and then 3 or 5 objectives. Apparently 3, 5, and 7 are the magic numbers here. You can have sub-objectives if that helps with the structure. Often my objectives change or merge through the process, but they’re vital for setting out the structure of the grant. (ii) Next, I build a skeleton of the proposal. Often this will be Overview, General Motivation/Background, Objectives, Motivation/Background for each objective in turn, Methods for each objective in turn, Practical considerations such as budget, GANNT chart etc. Sometimes it’s useful to divide the actual “doing science” bits into Work Packages, which don’t need to match the objectives. For example you could have a work package for collecting data which is then used in all the objectives. (iii) The temptation for me then is to work on the methods section as that is the bit I find easiest. However, I have also found that I often end up deleting huge chunks of this later when I realise the method no longer fits my objectives. Instead I try to write the first page of the grant. This should include an overview and hopefully lead into the motivation and overall aim. The sooner you state the aim/motivation of the grant the better, as it helps people assessing it know where the rest of the material will lead. Put this bit in bold. (iv) I’m then a lot more flexible and tend to skip from section to section depending on what feels easier to write at that point.
Don’t forget the bullshit (non-science) parts! These are also important. A common error is doing these in a rush at the end. Set aside some time for these parts. These bits are also much easier to get ideas for from other people’s grants as they don’t vary so much in structure or general content. Be aware that some funding bodies also require you to enter things into text boxes on the application, so make sure to check the forms in advance of submission so you aren’t surprised at the last minute.
Avoiding staring at the blank screen
A lot of grant writing involves psyching yourself up to actually write something, and then making sure that you’re making progress and not stalling on one section. Some things that help me are:
- Try the Pomodoro technique or similar. The proper version of this involves a set amount of work, rest and work. I have my own version I like to call “Ugh this is the worst”. Any task I feel that “this is the worst” feeling about, I decide what is the longest amount of time I can possibly face doing that task for, even if it’s only 10 minutes. I then set a timer on my phone and force myself to write, even if it’s terrible. Either I work for the short time and get something done then stop, or (quite frequently) I get into a rhythm with the task and carry on for longer. This technique just removes the horror of getting started.
- Write then edit. When writing don’t worry about finding the perfect word or phrasing, just write it as best you can and come back and edit later. I often struggle to remember words, so in this case rather than spending 10 mins on Google, I just write XXX and come back to fill this in later. Likewise if you are using the same word repeatedly, just leave it for now and look up synonyms later. It is much easier to make progress when you’ve got something in writing - a page of imperfect text is better than one perfect sentence.
- Write then reference. Same as above, don’t check references while writing, just write something vague, make a guess at the reference (e.g. that paper about fish that Matt wrote in 2016/2017) and keep writing. You can then go back and confirm the details later.
- Task switching. Sometimes you just don’t feel inspired to write, and that’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Have a break, and if that doesn’t help, try switching tasks. I’ll often switch between the science and “bullshit” sections - both need writing so it’s not a waste of time. Do some editing. Format your references. Make a figure. Make a table. Anything that moves things forwards. However, see next point…
- Avoid procrastinating on small details I. Making figures is fun and useful. However, spending hours making a figure and doing no writing is not going to get your proposal finished, nor is it likely to increase the likelihood of it being funded. For tasks I like and can spend hours on, I give myself a time limit. For example, you can spend two hours making this figure then you have to move on. Even if you move on to another procrasti-task, at least you’re completing something else!
- Avoid procrastinating on small details II. One thing I, and many of my mentees, get caught up in is methods details. It is important to choose appropriate methods, and to have a good idea of how you’ll achieve your aims, but the point of the proposal is that you’re going to learn and apply these methods. You aren’t supposed to be an expert now. A good rule-of-thumb for how far down the rabbit hole to go with methods is to think about how much you will write about it in your proposal. If it’s the key method for your research and you’re going to write a paragraph about it then yes you should do extensive reading. If however, it’s likely to end up as a throw away sentence, or as part of a list of methods, you don’t need to read every paper ever written on it. You also don’t need to solve every single methods detail in your proposal - you don’t have the space for starters! Be precise but concise.
- Avoid procrastinating on small details III. Formatting is a good thing, but again don’t get bogged down by it. This is particularly true in early drafts that will be editted so much that the formatting will need to be redone. Same for references - do these when you’re certain these are the references that will be in the proposal. To facilitate this I tend to draft in Google docs then convert to Word closer to the deadline. I then know the formatting will have to be done in Word so there’s little point worrying too much up til that point.
These tips may not help, but hopefully something in here is useful! Good luck!