When I first started teaching as an academic and told my family I taught 6 hours a week, they probably thought I had it pretty easy. I’m also sure they wondered what I did the rest of the time. Teaching a couple of new courses is a big job and it often absorbs more than the usual 40 hour week, but it’s hard to account for your time. The same with writing grants. The idea that writing my grant (I can hear the groans, already; he’s not going to talk about that again, is he?) is going to occupy 7 days a week until it’s due at the beginning of April probably sounds inexplicable and impossible to most people. What could possibly take all that time? You write it and that’s it. Yes, I am going to talk about it again because it’s all I talk and think about these days. And that’s one of the things that takes up so much time. It takes over your life and even when you aren’t writing you are thinking about it. But of course there’s more to it.
I’ve written a lot of grants and some of them were pretty straightforward. You know what you have to do, you’ve done it before, and you do it again. If you’re good at writing grants they don’t become routine, though, because you don’t have to do it all that often. But eventually the grant period is up and you have to do a competitive renewal or go get another grant or two, and that’s the position I’m in now, except that the grant whose time has come for competitive renewal isn’t an ordinary grant, it’s a multi departmental, multi-instituional grant worth over $3 million a year. The departments span several separate Schools in my large research university (arts and sciences, public health, engineering, medicine) and then goes outside the university to include two other institutions, one 75 miles away, one 800 miles away. The most difficult kind of grant for an individual to get from NIH is called an “RO1,” an investigator initiated grant, and the standards for RO1s are high. The average age now for getting your first RO1 is now 43 years old. The grant I am working on is like 9 RO1s rolled into one, with each headed by a senior investigator, plus an additional 5 core facilities, each led by a faculty member. It is an entire research program, so the components all have to be integrated and collaborative. With senior academics, each with their own labs and research agendas and belonging to different departments and universities it’s like herding cats, to use a trite but appropriate cliché. As Program Director I have to put all the pieces together, write the overview and administrative cores and vet all the scientific pieces. I just finished the “first draft” of the overview, called the Program Introduction. It puts it all together. I put “first draft” in quotes because it went through 9 versions to get it to the first draft stage. So while writing doesn’t take 7 days a week for months on end, rewriting does. And the adage, “Writing means rewriting” applies here as elsewhere. Did I mention the Progress Reports?
If writing and rewriting and coordinating were all there was to it, I’d be home free. But there’s more. Lots more. There are the labyrinthine directions to follow, with formats for everything and stipulations of what fonts and font sizes you can use (we are using Arial 11 pt.in case you are curious). There are also margin stipulations. This may seem trivial and nitpicking, but if there weren’t these kinds of restrictions people like me would be using quarter inch margins all the way around and 9 pt. type, because there are also new page restrictions. What I had 25 pages to do last time I now have to do in 12 pages. That’s one of the things that took 9 versions for the first draft, getting it under 12 pages. That’s not just cutting stuff, it’s rewriting and rearranging and screwing around with the pieces. And diagrams and organization charts to illustrate things to save space. Diagrams that are understandable and really show something.
Then there are all the other things. Last round this application was 900 pages long. About 400 – 500 pages was narrative. The rest was detailed budgets for the first year, composite budgets for 5 years and budget justifications for all the entries for each component and there are 14 components. Then for each of the key personnel — essentially all the scientists and consultants on all the projects — there is a 4 page biosketch, each with stipulated sections. There is a section giving details of the facilities you will have available for each project and core, including how much floor space you have and what equipment you have available. There are animal welfare and human subjects compliance forms to fill out and narratives to write for them (for example recruitment plans, informed consent forms, how you will secure the data for privacy, etc.). There are face pages and check lists and letters of agreement and subcontracts and all sorts of other stuff. And it’s not meaningless paperwork. Almost all of the things we need to include are there for good reasons. I hate doing all that stuff because I want to do science, but it’s necessary.
When all of this is assembled and pages numbered consecutively (not easy when you have pieces coming in from all over and including non electronic or separate items like letters of agreement), you have to have the whole thing checked by the grants office. That takes a minimum of 5 business days, so you have to be done at least 5 days before the deadline. It has to be signed by a specific institutional official. Two copies. Then five more photocopies sent to two different places and they have to get there by midnight on a certain date (this is still paper and not electronic because of the complexity of the program). After that you wait 8 months for it to go to a review section, where it is scored and you find out if you got funded. Except I’m not taking any chances with this one and I’ve organized my own Mock Study Section, with primary and secondary reviews for all components with written reviews and a meeting just like the actual meeting, all with enough time so that we can take the reviews (involving about 20 reviewers) and rewrite, addressing minor and major weaknesses they identify and punching up the strengths. Organizing that has taken me three weeks just by itself. Fortunately I have help from some wonderful staff and very talented scientific colleagues who write their own project sections. But it still feels like it still falls on me. I guess if I didn’t feel that way I couldn’t do it.
So if you were wondering what can take so much time, that’s a lot of it. The rest of it is lying awake at night or thinking about it while driving to work or eating dinner, thinking about the scores of faculty, post docs, graduate students, technicians and administrative staff who depend on funding like this. Not to mention my own sense of worth. This is my fourth time doing this particular application (we are are year 16), but it just keeps getting harder and the only one anyone remembers is the last one. That’s the way life is in academia and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
But when you succeed you get the Big Prize: someone pays you to do what you love to do, science. Not bad, I guess.