Monday, October 13, 2014

How To Drink and Write Grant Proposals

Amy and Meaghan are experts on writing grant proposals.

It takes lots of grants to fund these pimpin' gold chains.
No really, we are. We've written dozens of grants and scholarship applications, from tiny 100$ travel grants to enormous grants that provide funding for several years. We've also even received several of these grants - Amy received both the Goldwater Scholarship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and Meaghan has received grants from the Field Museum of Natural History, American Museum of Natural History, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and others. But this isn't going to be a post on how to make your proposal great, because honestly that's the least difficult part of actually writing a grant proposal (strange though it may seem). The very hardest part is actually vomiting that shit out on paper so you have something to get started with. That's what we're going to talk about today: paper brain vomit.

Step 1: Start Drinking.
Okay, okay, chill out and please put the vodka bottle down: what you are drinking does NOT have to be alcohol... and in many cases it really shouldn't be. Here's a figure that explains why drinking booze doesn't always equal good writing:
Not included is the phase where you procrastinate writing grant proposals by getting meta and writing a blog post about writing grant proposals. 
Falling into the baby-tapir trap is all well and good when it's 10:00 at night because frankly, it's pretty much time to sleep anyways and who doesn't want to dream about that sort of adorableness, but it's pretty bad when it's 10:00 in the morning. Also, proposals are much more than merely intros and references, so you're going to need a little bit more constructive writing time than the wine-curve will really grant you.

But you should be drinking SOMETHING, ideally something delicious, and here's why:
  1. You know how athletes have weird, superstitious pre-game rituals that get them into the right mindset? That's what the off-click of the electric tea kettle, or clink of ice cubes in a glass can become. Settling your brain into a "yes writing now" rhythm is a good thing, and creating a pre-game ritual will help establish that quickly.
  2. You are already punishing yourself by writing grants. A mug full of Chai latte helps the medicine go down, and all that. 
  3. There are going to be moments when you need to stop typing and think. Conveniently, you have a glass of something to hold and something tasty to swallow, which can keep you from performing the grant-killing "gimmee a sec" ritual of flipping over to Facebook.

Step 0: Start This Shit Way Ahead Of Time
Yeah we know we reversed the order, but that's because this is a boring lead-in even if it is a completely necessary portion of grant writing. Oh, we know, you think you do all your best writing with a deadline but this isn't a paper you have to get a C on, this is a product that you have to get an A++ on if you actually want to get any money from it rather than just getting research-depression.

Whenever your proposal is due, plan to have it finished at least a week ahead of that date, and ideally start writing it about three weeks ahead of time. You have to plan ahead because here's what is actually going to happen despite your best of intentions:

21 days to go: Cool I can procrastinate!
18 days to go: Maybe I should check out the guidelines. Wait, WTF is a data management plan?
17 days to go: How much detail do I need to put in this? Oh, I have to explain my statistical methods? Oh shit... guess that means I need to actually understand them. READING TIME.
7 days to go: Oh actually this isn't so - wait, how many letters of recommendation do I need?
6 days to go: My advisor says I need to re-write this whole section. SHIT.

Give yourself lead time because there are always random extra hoops you didn't realize, methods you need to look up, and writing blocks you need to get past. On the positive side, there are also revelations you are going to have at the very last minute that will vastly improve your proposal. Giving yourself lots of time to write these into your proposal will make the whole proprocedure a lot less painful AND improve your overall product.

(Side note to our advisors: yes, we know: this is an area we can improve upon too...)

Step 2: Develop an Enormous Ego

Grant reviewers are like tigers - they can smell your fear (that is a fact about tigers in addition to all these awesome tips, wow this blog is GREAT!). 

Seriously, though, writing a successful grant means communicating and maintaining the idea that your research is awesome  and you as a scientist are the person to get it done.  Grant writing can therefore feel kind of demoralizing. You have to produce evidence of your accomplishments and skills, which can be particularly depressing when you're new to the field and have a rampant case of Imposter Syndrome. Writing your methods section points out methodologies you don't always have a full grasp on, the background is weak because yours is, you can't see why anyone not in the exact same field would interpret this as useful, etc. etc. Grant-writing can be a downward spiral into sadness-town, so here's how to claw your way back out again:

  1. Consider it this way: everyone has gaps in their knowledge base. Because you are writing this grant proposal, you have figured out where yours lay. That makes you a step ahead of everyone else! Good thing you left lots of extra time to read extra papers about your topic... and chances are, as you read you'll find some really good ideas to shove into your grant proposal.
  2. Your research is worth funding, regardless of what it is. If your research doesn't have an instantly obvious "fund-me" hook, then this proposal is an exercise in collaborative thinking - how can your research product be used by other scientists? 
  3. Fake it until you make it! It is pretty normal to write down a sentence stating how awesome your research is and then panic a little bit while looking at it, but frankly big-goal sentences are important. Don't beat around the bush because you're worried you're overstating the importance: just state the damned thing! Especially women, who are prone to the sort of timid writing which gets nobody a grant, ever.
  4. Get a pep-talk from someone who understands science. Sometimes hearing the value of your research and your input to it from someone else is just the thing you need to crawl out of grant-writing sorrow. Getting a pep-talk from your mom is helpful, but it's often easy to dismiss the words of someone who doesn't know much about your project or your research. Talk to your advisor or a colleague and ask for a sounding board for ideas. 
  5. See Step 1 and ignore the part about "it can be not alcohol!" Sometimes all you need to gather your courage is a beer. 

Step 3: Figure Out What the Grant Wants From You

Figuring out what the grant wants will give you ideas for research spin and help fuel some of that initial writing fire, as well as save you time later. Some grants are simple: "this grant funds travel to the museum for systematicists working on under-studied taxa" is a pretty clear goal. Others can be vague in what precisely they're looking for, but offer abstracts of previous recipients or titles that won in the past. If you don't know, ask someone who's previously applied what their reviews were like and try to take tips from that.

There is a huge difference between figuring out what a grant wants from you, and how it wants it: don't fall into the trap of rigorous attention to guidelines in the initial phases of your proposal. How and What are very different: you should have a vague idea of the technical guidelines (how many pages, are figures allowed, specific sections they want like Broader Impacts) but not adhere to, say, how your references are formatted. Far more important is trying to get into the head of the grant reviewers you are writing for: are they biologists, so you need to talk slow when you spew geology at them? Or maybe most of the grants they fund are for people improving strat columns so you should focus on the biostratigraphy implications.

It's the same principals you should follow when writing job applications - every grant is unique, and you should write something tailored for them. If you don't, it really isn't worth your effort to apply.

Step 4: Turn Off Your Internal Editor and, Zeus-like In Composure, Hurl Words at the Screen Like Lightning - Erratic, Non-Spell-Checked Lightning
Have you ever heard of National Novel Writing Month? Well, Meaghan has... and she's written 4 novels because of it (published none of them, mind you, but written them and that is a start). One of the primary tips of NaNoWriMo is to just Shut Up And Write - don't back-track, don't delete, don't edit as you go. This is especially important if you have Imposter Syndrome, as re-reading what you just wrote and questioning it can be proposal-writing suicide. Consider your first attempt at writing to be very haphazard; just brain-vomit that shit out and then sort through it for the delicious kernels later.

Your first draft won't be pretty. It'll be repetitive, it'll be insane, it'll include sentences like "write something here that is awesome about PGLS and shit (ALSO CITATION????)."  It won't be great... but it will be more than what you had before. When you return to the pile of puke a day later you'll have a much better frame to begin your thoughts, and you'll have some golden little corn chunks hidden amidst the bile that you can pluck out and use to mold your first draft up into something approaching a comprehensible document.

As they always say during National Novel Writing Month: it is way easier to edit a pile of shit into a pile of gold than it is to actually write the pile of shit. 

Well, they say something like that. We may be paraphrasing. You get the point.


So that's it. That's all it takes to write a grant proposal, which really could be summarized as: drink tea, find your gumption, proceed to vomit. Seems pretty simple, right? In the end, proposal writing is the horribly frustrating task that should ideally be less intellectually challenging than it is. It's a necessary evil though, so put on your big-girl panties and Git. Dat. Monie.


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