So, the topic of this post is hopefully clear from the eponymous statement above.
The reasoning behind writing it?
Well, in part because this is a huge passion of mine; I chose to write 3.5 grants during my (hopefully-nearly-ending) postdoc (.5 because one was a resubmission) and encountered a lot of opposition to this activity – especially the first one which was a K99/R00 ‘Pathway to Independence’ Award, and submitted at the end of my first year. Despite the opposition, I wrote and submitted them anyway, because I adore my mentor who told me to (David Allison) and because I am extremely stubborn. I am not sure which of those two accounts for the greater part of the variance in my submissions, but there we go. When I say I got a lot of opposition, this is not an understatement. I got it from students, postdocs, faculty, people on ‘grant writing helper’ courses, external reviewers of my drafts and more. And I got it intensely. I was told that I was arrogant, foolish, deluded.. and those were the nicer words. In front of a room full of other UAB students and early career Scientists I was shouted at and told to get David on speaker phone with NIH so that THEY could tell him not to get me to do this. Only about three people believed in me (and here is one). Yet, and I stand by this, writing a grant, as PI, on my own was the single best thing I have done during my postdoc. So good, it gets pink writing. So, it is a huge passion of mine, to get others writing and submitting grants at this stage.
I also am writing it, in part, to encourage others who are starting this process, and motivate them to keep going.
I am writing it, in part, so that anyone who has written a grant early on as a postdoc, and not got it funded (a very depressing moment, which yes, I have been in) may be able to look back more positively.
And I am writing it, in part, because my next grant goes in on Friday (5 pm, EST) and I need a distraction that isn’t quite as guilt-inducing as Gossip Girl.
So, why write a grant? What was so wonderful for me that I felt moved to wax lyrical on a blog more often than not devoted to my latest weightloss efforts and wayward animals? Well…
1. Writing a grant, early on in your postdoc, may be the only chance you get to write one, when the outcome doesn’t matter.
Here is your chance to take risks, to learn the ropes, to figure things out, when if you fail, you (hopefully) are not going to lose your contract. There are many different types of faculty positions, but more and more, maintaining (and even getting) faculty positions is becoming dependent on getting independent funding. Something I often here is ‘you have 3 years to get 80% funded’. If you have to resubmit a K or an R01, which you submit for the very next round of reviews after your summary statement, from starting to write to funding is going to take 2 years. Pretty much at a minimum. If you are unsuccessful – that leaves your faculty position very tenuous (no pun on tenure there, although the etymology is the same). Why leave your first grant proposal to this point?
2. Writing a grant should give you a direction to your Science.
You have to come up with some Science, right? You have to put pen to paper and at least draft a plausible Scientific story, based on a feasible project. If nothing else, working towards such research until you get it funded, whether this involves producing review papers, secondary data analysis, getting involved in consortia or collecting pilot data, will give you a focussed story.
3. You may get to meet a lot of people at your University.
So, you are a young and inexperienced postdoc. Your wonderful, illustrious mentors took you on to complete parts of their grant, and don’t have time to help you piece together a grant, sentence by sentence. Who does? Other PIs will usually meet for a chat, other postdocs will usually read your proposal (one undergrad worked wonders on mine). I was forced to email people I had never spoken to and ask for a meeting (they were all wonderful, and welcoming). I was forced to go out and find out exactly what resources UAB had to help early stage investigators (and they have A LOT). I got to meet more people, I got to work with them, and though scary (and somewhat belittling to be begging), it was fun. It made me love UAB even more.
4. Putting 2 and 3 together: You should improve as a Scientist
Ergh. I have had my writing , my presentation of ideas, my statistics, my methods everything scrutinized, challenged and ripped apart. But I have improved them all. These are all skills you desperately need as a Scientist: and again, do you want to be developing them when you are faculty and supposed to be (largely) in possession of them?
5. You’ll probably gain a lot of respect from other investigators
I have just noticed that people are semi-impressed that you, as anew postdoc, can get everything together to get a grant together, and submitted, while maintaining your postdoc work.
6. And so, you’ll gain a lot of respect from yourself.
It feels amazing to get that grant off. Less so to receive the ‘no we’re not finding this score’ but to loo at the grant, having got IRB together, Office of Sponsored Program approval, protocol laid down, collaborative chosen and subcontracted, and everything put together feels wonderful.
7. It may be your best argument that you are ready for a faculty position
Nearly all faculty positions I am applying for ask for ‘evidence of readiness to achieve independent funding’. This is hard to argue if you have just written a loan repayment application and re-written sections of someone else’s grant. More than evidence that you know some of the vagaries of obtaining funding, you have evidence that you have independent, exportable project idea (funded or not). Makes it easier to argue you are not just doing your postdoc mentor’s ideas…
8. It might get just funded
Still keeping fingers crossed that the resubmission of my first ever grant submission will be funded mid-Feb. It’s looking good IF Congress don’t cut the budget… which admittedly, is not looking so good… and IF NHLBI don’t have a shift in their funding priorities to not support early stage investigators so much. The recent Council Advisory minutes suggest that is not their intended MO next year… crossing everything.
So… how do you argue against the naysayers? I mostly meet 2 objections:
1. You have other priorities during your postdoc
There is some truth to this – you need to present well, write papers (man is this crucial), start being a good on-time reviewer, do a million other things. But… you think these get any less as faculty? You think when you add in teaching commitments and sitting on committees, and faculty meetings and service and students to supervise this miraculously frees up time? I don’t. So, in my opinion, you had better learn to balance your time while you are reasonably protected as a postdoc – when you have some leeway to “catch-up” if you let things slide (guilty as charged, Sir).
2. You are not advanced enough: You don’t have enough preliminary data / publications / experience
Yada yada yada. The more I write (darn well-scored) grants and help people with others, the more I see that there is no perfect grant application. Something is always “wrong”, and I think something always will be. Your job is to learn to explain and reassure the reviewers about this. Or (occasionally) to pray they don’t notice (or pray other areas of the grant make up for it). Along the lines of 4 above, you’ll see how YOU need to improve and what YOU need to do to get yourself to the next stage.
So: do it. Pick a grant, write it. Get it all down on paper, solve every hurdle, learn to jump through every hoop. It is HARD, but you can do it. Case in point: about 4 weeks ago I ended up deciding to write a randomized controlled trial based on an exercise intervention, which I would conduct from scratch. How far was this out of my “comfort zone”? Ask the many people who helped me with the early drafts and almost didn’t know what to say about how to improve it, as it was so far removed from what it had to be (although they admittedly liked the overall idea). The whole protocol was wrong, I had no idea how to get IRB, the original idea had already been done to death, I didn’t know the difference between plasma and serum for measuring the main outcome variables, I had no idea how to recruit participants or how to get them to participate or how to assess exercise physiological measures. I learned today that the statistics were totally wrong. At the beginning. Now I have gone some way to fixing all of these (or, more accurately, funding people who can show me how. Props again to the wonderful environment at UAB where I feel so supported). I have learned a lot, on the whole, loved the experience. It is a classic case of objection 2: I am a psychiatry-trained genetic epi person who has only done secondary data analysis on large epidemiological samples.
Or, am I: a trained psychologist, with understanding of intervention data, trained in gene-environment interactions, looking to collect some preliminary data on those environmental effects that might mediate my genetic data analysis?
As my Dad used to say: “It’s the way you tell ’em”