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I am just back from a shopping trip to NYC  the NIH Summer Institute on Social and Behavioural Intervention Research and it was marvelous. I have rarely been to a grant writing course / seminar that I have regretted, but this was one of the best. It was taught by a mix of Columbia faculty and NIH staff and I was amazed at how much I learned. In fact, my original plan had been to share the best parts on my blog, but in fact, they were too many. So, I leave you with these musings:

Before I started writing grants, this is how I thought the process would go:

1. Be struck with brilliant and dramatic idea that you simply have to get funding to do

2. Discuss idea with mentor

3. Refine idea with mentor

4. Draft specific aims for a specific mechanism, based around the scientific idea

5. Send specific aims to mentor for feedback

6. Modify specific aims based on feedback

7. Repeat steps 5-6 for a few iterations

8. Assemble a team of willing, motivated and invested academics to be part of the grant, based on the scientific needs of the grant

9. Send grant to those in 8 for feedback

10. Receive feedback and lovingly crafted letters of support

11. Make minor revisions to grant

12. Send to peers

13. Revise grant

14. Send to your office of sponsored programs

15. Several days later, sit back and enjoy as the deadline passes with a glass of champers

16. Pat yourself on the back and take a few days off.

I am now on my third grant writing attempt, after one failure (scoring 1.7/5 when the payline was 1.4) and one success, but not accepting the grant, and moving to UT instead. And, for me at least, I am learning that this is more the process while I am still massively junior:

1. Realise you are under pressure to write a grant

2. Woefully hurry to get your pressing projects under control, while desperately thinking which one of your research interests / ideas might actually be able to be turned into something fundable

3. Rule out the majority of your ideas as too expensive or completely implausible

4. Hone in on one possibility

5. Start to draft specific aims on that possibility to speak to mentor

6. Realise this idea is not going anywhere, and repeat steps 5-6 for several iterations

7. Come up with specific aims you feel damn proud of

8. Try to locate mentor to discuss idea

9. Continue to try to locate mentor

10. In absence of mentor, start to half-heartedly write the rest of the grant

11. Feel yourself transformed as you go through 10 and care deeply about the grant, and convince yourself that there is no way anyone would not fund this

12. Start to seek feedback from grant (mentor still MIA), seeking NIH program officers, grant specialists at your institution, peer review

13. Learn grant idea is 100% implausible for you at this stage / unfundable / already done from a source in 12

14. Redraft grant from, what feels like scratch

15. Hear from another source from 12 the mechanism is wrong for you at this stage / wrong for the type of grant / no longer offered

16. Desperately hack and slash / artificially rebuild your research plan  and redraft grant…

17. Repeat 13-14

18. Wonder if mentor has disappeared forever

19. Have draft grant and start to assemble team of support based on politics / name dropping ability / cost of salary vs. available funds

20. Send grant out to those in 19…

21. ….

22 ….

23.. Write letters of support for members of 18

24. Send grant out for peer review

25. Receive pretty quick feedback… but from those who have never achieved their own grant / are not in your field … but it is useful

26. Redraft grant

27. Receive cryptic feedback from someone in 18

28. Try to get in touch with person from 17 for clarification

29. Keep trying

30 Decide that 27 means substantial rewriting

31 Substantially rewrite grant, with no time to send out for feedback

32. Send to office of sponsored program 1hour before deadline

33. Watch email confirmation of submitted grant

34. Slink home and cry from emotion / sleep while other half drinks celebratory beer and you stare numbly into your still full glass of wine

35. Return to work early the next day to catch up on all the projects that got left behind.

36. Receive feedback from mentor

37. Recover for a few, hectic weeks and begin the cycle again

I am, as you may know, a huge fan of writing grants. So, it is not that I am complaining. More that I am preparing myself for the realistic stages of this process. Currently, I am in my first faculty appointment, which I took with no data nor any grants to import with me. There are a lot of data and highly supportive people around. I am currently focused on honing down what I want to do, finding projects that ‘fit’ with the overall plan of   what I want to do (no more scattered projects; as a lack of a coherent research area = no tenure), actually getting the data to complete projects within my theme (much is ‘taken’ etc), finding people to support / mentor me. But, I am also desperately trying to push out a grant; I had been aiming for a large K / R in October, but my course awakened me to the challenges of leaving the safety of ‘secondary data analysis’ / ‘reanalysis of existing samples for some new data’. I want to do it, I want to become a clinical researcher. I want to be an independent one. But recruiting, seeing patients / participants, and managing their data is a tough challenge. So far grant-wise, I am stuck in stages 10-16 in endless iterations. It is partially my fault: I am still seeking the appropriate mentor, with support and care from someone who is probably not appropriate / qualified to mentor this grant. And I am taking 1 step forward, .9 steps back. But, in today’s uncertain funding world, which only heightens the need to get grants, it is a scary place to be.

Part of me loves it though 🙂