Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Five Stages of Proposal Writing

This week, various ideas for future proposals have been circling around in my brain. Despite the fact that the issue of proposals and grants can be stressful, and despite the fact that there are some aspects of proposal assembly that I truly loathe (budgets), and despite the fact that I am not always successful at forgetting some of the more obnoxious comments that I received in past proposal reviews as I write new proposals, I really like writing proposals.

One of my grad students asked me recently "Why are you thinking about proposals again already?". So I explained some of the basics of what is involved in terms of timing of proposal submission, decisions, and (if necessary) resubmissions, and typical grant durations and so on. I think it's good for graduate students to have an understanding and appreciation for where their funding comes from, especially if they are going to participate in proposal-writing at some point.

I have a few ideas for proposals I want to write in the next year or so, and although my ideas may change over the course of the year, I like to have a general plan. For me, the construction of a proposal commonly involves various stages:

1 - Some possibly interesting (and of course transformative) ideas buzz around my brain until they settle into distinct ideas that can be packaged into focused and compelling proposal-units.

2 - The beginning of proposal writing is not a linear process. I don't start at the beginning and work my way through to the end. I write various pieces of it as best suits my mood, move bits of text around, create or assemble figures, talk to colleagues, edit what I've written, write new sections, and so on. This is my favorite part, and it can be exhilarating.

3 - The reality of having to fill out forms starts to reach the outer fringes of my consciousness, and I start to think about budget items, obtaining support letters, and other technical matters. I acquire budget numbers from various sources and I put files in a folder, but I don't yet feel like dealing with them. I still feel like writing, and so I focus on that.

4 - I force myself to do the forms. I check the boxes that say I will not be experimenting on humans or animals (other than students). I do the budget. I come up with some synergistic activities to list on my CV. The Chair and the Dean and some other people give me permission to submit the proposal even though they haven't read it. The deadline looms and the exhilaration has faded, though even the Oppression o' the Forms cannot ruin my overall fondness for writing proposals.

5 - Everything is assembled. The forms are uploaded. The text is uploaded. I hope that the grants office won't submit the proposal until the last minute in case I want to change something. And then.. someone in the grants office pushes a button and the proposal is gone. I get an automated email. I am relieved, but there is also a melancholy feeling of emptiness at the departure of the proposal out of my intellectual grasp. What will I do next? I contemplate cleaning my office, but I don't actually do it.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you start working on things before a month before it's due. Glad to see my advisor's model (only working on things when they become IMPERATIVE) isn't the only one. I think he is stimulated with a looming deadline. Unfortunately, I think good science (and good preliminary results) don't happen in two weeks.

LE said...

I love you! Your posts are well-written, relevant, and regular.

I want to be an FSP too (post-doc now) and my PI just asked me to find grants to write. Today's post was especially timely.

Anonymous said...

I'm sad to see more than half of the steps involve Form Hell. I'm in the midst of submitting my first large proposal and I did find step #2 exhilarating. This last bit,not so much. And apparently it won't be over any time soon...

Anonymous said...

"I really like writing proposals."

Me too! I love having the opportunity to think about new questions and ideas. Unfortunately, I seem to write best very late at night...any ideas for conquering and changing this habit?

average professor said...

I HATE writing proposals.

I think it's because I get so bogged down in the mechanics that I forget that I am actually enthusiastic about the concept of the research described - which of course makes me describe the research in the most boring way possible, which makes my proposals not very successful, which makes me hate writing them even more, and so on.

So I really appreciate you reminding me that the best part (the research) is the part that I should focus my mental energy on.

Female Science Professor said...

Time.. I didn't say anything about time. I spend a lot of time thinking about proposals in advance, and then I write them within 2 weeks. Two weeks for a proposals is fairly typical among my colleagues, not because we are poor managers of time or respond only to deadlines, but because there are so many other things that take our time.

Female Science Professor said...

I also like to write late at night, and this is when I write best. Why change? This is not a habit to conquer but to enjoy.

PhysioProf said...

I fucking love writing grants! It is so much more fun than writing manuscripts. This is because you get to write about how totally fucking cool things are going to happen, instead of about how totally fucking cool the things are that have already happened.

Doctor Pion said...

It is absolutely essential for graduate students to learn what is involved in earning tenure at a research university, not to mention paying them.

Anonymous said...

I am in the middle of writing my first "single-author" proposal as I started as a faculty member a few months ago. I am loving it so far. I finally get to write down this idea I've had for 4 years! I am also already starting to think about the best strategy for the next few proposals and that prevented me from falling asleep last night...
I also think about cleaning my office after... but since i have another proposal to write (6 weeks after this one) I doubt that will happen..

Becca said...

I love this description. Though I don't know how I feel about the forms part- since (as a student) I've only written a psudeo-grant for our comps.

@ doctor pion- it is absolutely essential to tell grad students what's involved in obtaining tenure at a research university... but you have to remember that only ~1-5% of those that enter the field as students will ever be getting tenure at the sort of institution they were trained in (this is true for medical bioscience, it might be less true for other fields... but in any, it is an extreme minority). I think grad students are best served by learning to write grant proposals generally, not *only* those details that are germane to the kinds of grants one must write to get tenure. Proposal writing is an imporant career skill in more places than TT-positions at Res I unis.

Uncle Al said...

Professional management is about process not product. Management is rewarded for enforcing rules whether or not they make sense in context - or any sense at all.

American grant funding is management dictated by politics. Young faculty are not funded because they lack a success inventory. Those are the folks with new ideas! Accountancy values an enterprise upon liquidation - but science is not meant to go bankrupt.

We defer to vermin defining truth and morality by convenience of the moment. It is a sad day when a country's future arrived yesterday.

http://blogs.scienceforums.net/swansont/archives/325

Aussie postdoc said...

How do you stay motivated to write grants after a particularly nasty review? I am a junior postdoctoral researcher in Australia and was blessed with funding success in my early carrer, but have now hit a "bump in the road". How do I push forward with confidence and retain my sanity?

female Science Professor said...

Is there a way to figure out if the negative review was an anomaly that can be ignored (these happen even to senior researchers) or if there is something constructive you can learn from it to help you with a new proposal (i.e., by talking to a funding program administrator)? Negative reviews are painful, but the best antidote is to submit another proposal (or two) and try to move on. Your previous success might indicate that your negative experience might be an unfortunate random event.

Anonymous said...

at it again...grant writing, my third this year. I feel like the stress and exhaustion associated with writing grants has caught up to me. How do you consistenly stay focused and enthusiastic to get the job done?

Anonymous said...

I'm a successful post-doc, lots of good papers, good ideas etc, but the idea of writing endless grants that seemingly get accepted or rejected on largely irrational or subjective grounds has been enough to convince me that I don't want to be a TT academic. I've also figured out that I really want to remain in intimate contact with the detail of the science, and this doesn't seem to be possible on the TT- the work is more or less handed over to students and post-docs and the prof takes on more of a managerial role. I've often seen TT academics flounder in talks when asked a simple but detailed question relating to 'their' work, I don't want to end up that way. I'm now thinking of an alternative scientific career that fulfills some of these preferences, but such positions, a 'permanent independent researcher' if you will, are very hard to come by in most countries. For good financial reasons, I suppose...