Effect Measure

Why writing my grant takes so long

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.


  1. #1 glock
    February 18, 2010

    Owww, I went looking for my Ritalin just reading this….

    Wouldn’t it be easier to find one of these (TARP/stimulus/bailout assisted) over compensated Wall Street guys that needs a good tax write off for a 1/4 or two ?

  2. #2 Uncle Glenny
    February 18, 2010

    revere: yow! I knew it was big from your previous mention of the number of pages; this explains it. Over an order of magnitude larger than anything I actually worked under in my time as academic research staff. (Actually I think I was only directly covered by a grant once, the rest of the time – most of it – I came under lab overhead.)

    glock: doubtful. I think most their income, as bonuses, is taxed well below the top marginal rate, the f***ers.

    – Uncle Glenny, cynic

  3. #3 cmc
    February 18, 2010

    Each page is worth $3,500 when it is added to your completed stack of 900.

  4. #4 Don in VA
    February 18, 2010

    Are you familiar with Quark desktop publishing products? An application like QuarkExpress is heavy duty and in my experience, very useful for some, if not all, of the publishing tasks you mention.

    A lesson on using the application for automatic page renumbering and reflow.

    I have no association with Quark whatsoever. Have seen it in action though and it is arguably the Gold Standard for publishing.

  5. #5 revere
    February 18, 2010

    Don; Everyone uses MSWord. I have LaTeX templates for some of it, too, but don’t usually use them. The page problem stems from everyone submitting documents and also hard copies of letters, etc., that have to be inserted. Often it’s just simpler to do it by hand. I know it sounds ridiculous in this day and age, but for these humongous paper applications it seems to work. NIH is moving to electronic submission for most of their grant mechanisms, but some are still paper and this is one of them.

  6. #6 Alex
    February 18, 2010

    With this kind of grant, you must be working on the Theory of Relativity of Medicine. Can we have any clues on what your research is about or would that be revealing too much about the Reveres? You made me very curious with the description in this post.

  7. #7 revere
    February 18, 2010

    Alex: Sorry. That’s it. But remember, relativity is essentially the produce of a single person working by himself. Not this.

  8. #8 Paula
    February 18, 2010

    Sounds like writing books. Nonfiction, that is–with fiction, you can do your 999 rewrites/edits, have your 33 top-ranked authors’ blurbs, and still get 666 agent/publisher replies like “When we urged you to send this, we actually hoped for something like Star Trek 3 as written by Ernest Hemingway. Try us again if you’ve something in our new specialty, recipe books for juveniles.”

  9. #9 Alex
    February 19, 2010


    “relativity is essentially the produce of a single person working by himself”

    Very bad mistake. Nothing in science is the produce of a single person working by him/herself. Without Maxwell’s observations on viscosity of gases, Stokes’ Theorem, Brownian Motion, Avogadro’s Number, etc the small patent clerk could not have published his papers in 1905 and nobody would know about him today.

  10. #10 revere
    February 19, 2010

    Alex: You miss the point. Yes, of course we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” But Einstein was essentially the constructor of relativity. True, he talked it over with Marcel Besso. But the contrast that is often made– I didn’t make it up, physicists did — is with quantum mechanics, which is the product of several dozen people working in a fairly defined period. Quantum mechanics isn’t the product of Bohr or deBroglie or Dirac or Heisenberg or Schrodinger or Jordan or Einstein or Planck or Born, etc., but of all of them. Relativity is the product of Einstein. That’s not a controversial position but a well accepted one. It’s like saying the Mona Lisa was painted by DaVinci even though he built on a long tradition.

  11. #11 Alex
    February 19, 2010

    @Revere: Now I understand what you mean. I didn’t know you meant Relativity Theory compared to Quantum Mechanics. I wanted to emphasize that Einstein didn’t pull the theory out of nowhere. Instead, like all great minds, he built on the work of other great minds before him. That said, I fully agree that Relativity belongs to Einstein.

  12. #12 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 20, 2010

    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.

    Jesus fuck, holmes! You’re not fucking around!

  13. #13 revere
    February 20, 2010

    CPP: No shit, Sherlock. It’s all set up. It starts 10 am on Monday with me chairing. I’ve got 30 reviews to read this weekend. We’ll debrief in a week and have 25 days to fix things before I start to assemble. I have reserved a war room with a long table for 3 days at the end of March and if all goes as planned it will be to our sponsored research folks on April Fool’s Day. Symbolic.

    We’re using the new scoring system. Any info on what is fundable and/or relation to the old system (e.g., what does does the 20 – 30 range correspond to? 150 – 200?). I’m assuming we’ll need at least a 160 by the old system (these big programs run higher than RO1s because the target is so big). Last time we got a 159 and were #2 and there’s 3 slots this time.

  14. #14 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 21, 2010

    Any info on what is fundable and/or relation to the old system (e.g., what does does the 20 – 30 range correspond to? 150 – 200?).

    This is not really an answerable question, as the relationship varies quite a bit depending on the particular study section, etc. My experience reviewing R01s using the new system the last two cycles is that 20 in the new system was about the 10th percentile and 30 was about the 20th. For this study section, those corresponded to about 140 and 170 priority scores.

  15. #15 revere
    February 21, 2010

    CPP: Thanks. I phrased the question badly but you answered it exactly as I wished. Much appreciated. It roughly corresponds to my impressions from other sources.

  16. #16 antipodean
    February 21, 2010

    cmc. Thanks for that calculation. I’ve been writing since 15th Jan and it won’t stop until late March. I calculate my own and write that on the cage (I mean cell… office) wall.

    Thanks Revere. You. Are. A. Pro. Mock study sections. I’ll never get my clinical colleagues that organised though…

    Back to my RO1 equivalent…and then whatever the hell you guys use to fund your salaries after that…

  17. #17 Erin R
    February 27, 2010

    Of all the students in the biology department at my college, and all the students hopefully heading for a PhD and a grant-filled future, I think I’m the only one who knows what that entails.

    Growing up, for at least one month a year, I could expect not to see my mother, unless she fell asleep at the breakfast table with her laptop at her side. Every grant season, I would live in a single-parent household, while one disappeared to some strange land of papers and stress. And I have to say, I absolutely loved it. For the weeks before crunch time and the weeks after, I’d get to learn everything about what my mother was working on at the time. In the long days waiting to see if a grant got funded, I’d stay up stressing with her, wondering if the NIH funding would come. I learned that science is a labor of love, ultimately, and I became absolutely hooked. And hopefully, if my turn should come, my mother will be there holding my hand and waiting on pins and needles with me.

    What I mean by this, is good luck with your grant! And a big thank you to those friends and family and neighbors who lose their scientists every grant season, and who welcome them back with open arms after.