The emotional roller coaster of grant writing
A little while ago I finished up a rather large research grant proposal, one for which I was the co-lead. It was a collaborative grant, involving over a dozen academics and researchers from different institutions*. The written proposal was about 20 pages long, but there were an additional 30 pages of other materials, and a separate (complex) budget. The development of the proposal took over four months, over 500 emails, late nights, early mornings, conference calls, lots of coffee and many meetings.
This is all pretty standard practice for many academics. We need grant money to hire post-docs and students, run our labs, pay for chemicals and consumables, do field projects, pay for publications, photocopies, and go to conferences. For many, grants are central to academic success, and therefore grant writing is central to the job!
In this post, I wanted to explore some of the intangible / emotional aspects around the process of grant writing, in part because I am still in recovery mode after clicking 'submit', and I hope some of these personal reflections may be useful to others, in particular to graduate students wondering about this process. It's also important that new professors, for example, are fully aware of the challenges and opportunities related to what I might call the emotional roller coaster of grant writing.
After I submitted the grant, I went home early, promptly fell asleep on the couch, waking up a little while later feeling like a significant weight had been lifted. My wife said "oh, you're back now". Indeed, as I had been carrying a lot around, and this was affecting a lot of different parts of my life. It was affecting my "work life balance" and it wandered into all aspects of my daily life. I was waking up at night with thoughts about the grant, and finding that my daily thoughts often drifted towards the grant, and drifted away from whatever else was going on. I would find myself sitting somewhere, looking vacantly into space, with my mind full of ideas about budgets, collaborators and project design. Emails about the grant were always a top priority, were always answered, and I was consistently pushing what I perceived as lower priority to the side. This meant I was not as responsive to my grad students, I was late on review requests, and many other things slipped. The process was exhausting, and took a very significant amount of time and mental and emotional energy, and energy that went far beyond regular working hours (whatever those are!). I think that most people who are leading (or co-leading) large, complicated grants would agree with all that I have written. The emotional process is a roller coaster, in part because collaborative grants depend on other people contributing, and those contributions are not always timely! It's also an exhausting process because it's long, yet the work increases in intensity, and the flurry of activity on the last days is rather demanding. Overall, I think the following figure depicts the highs and lows of writing a large research grant proposal:
You may wonder why I would EVER subject myself to the physical and mental exhaustion which came along with preparing a large, complex grant proposal. Am I being over-dramatic? Why on earth would I invest so much, given that success is not even guaranteed! Think of this: many academics always have one (or two, or more) grant proposals on the go, and thus are always balancing things to make sure the proposal get submitted on time.
As mentioned, getting grants is an ingredient for success if you wish to have a productive research laboratory. Fundamentally, there is no choice in the matter and for many disciplines, getting promotions is very difficult without evidence of successfully acquiring research funding. You just have to stick to it and get the proposals written, even if the process can be painful at times. More importantly, however, it can be argued that grant writing can be an exhilarating and exciting experience. It forces you to read new literature and seek new collaborations and networks. It expands your horizons, and gets you thinking about research problems in new and exciting ways. Writing grant proposal can feed the curiosity, and foster creativity. It hones your writing skills, and makes you think about ways to rephrase, re-write and 'sell' the importance of your work. Even unsuccessful grant proposal can be worthwhile because they force you to crystallize your thoughts and package things up neatly; unsuccessful proposal can be turned around pretty quickly to other granting agencies and over time... will be successful.
In sum, I have long told my friends, colleagues and family that grant-writing is one of my least favourite parts of my job. However, it's absolutely a necessity, and as I reflect on the process, I realize that perhaps I have not enjoyed it as much because it's hard to do. It's important, instead, to recognize the process of grant writing is valuable and holds many rewards. In the long run, it's worth putting in the time and energy.
* You will all eventually hear the full details, especially if the proposal is successful! For now, the details must remain confidential.