Grant writing for love and/or for money

May 06 2014 Published by under grant writing, ideas, life in the lab, postdoc, science

The question that's been on my mind a lot recently is what exactly to put in the next grant that I'm writing. My current position will end in a year and 3 months from now and before then I need to find my own money somewhere. I have a bunch of review comments from previous (rejected) grants so I can modify those previous proposals OR come up with an awesome new idea (no pressure right?!). The end result will probably somewhere in between I guess.

The other day I was unpacking boxes that we stored for the previous four years and I came across a notebook from when I was doing my Masters in neuroscience (and a whole bunch of other things like my old Walkman. I'm not a hoarder though). One of the assignments that I had written in the notebook was to write a fake grant proposal and my first idea for a research question was "How does the brain work?". First I laughed at my 10-year-ago self but over the next few days it did make me realize that writing grants isn't just about what to put in to persuade the reviewers and/or committee but it is mostly about doing the science that you love. This seems like the most obvious thing in the world but I realized that in my frantic quest for money I had almost forgot about it.

So I thought a bit about what I really wanted to know science-wise and what the questions are that I would like to answer. I'm still very much in the process of doing that so I talked to one of my new bosses who has been very successful getting grants recently. The first thing he said when I asked about grant writing was: "Nowadays reviewers love genetic models. You should put in some genetic model and people will love it." Mmhh that sounds a lot like something else I've often heard: "You need to put in something with optogenetics for people to love your proposal". What I had in mind as the question I wanted to answer neither needs a genetic model nor optogenetics... But should I try to modify it in such a way that I can add one (or both!?)? That to me feels very artificial but perhaps it's necessary to obtain funding...? How do you write a proposal, dear readers: choose the question that you'd love to answer or choose the question that you assume reviewers will like? Or do those usually overlap for you...?

7 responses so far

  • Ryan says:

    The two should not be mutually exclusive. If you are just sticking some paradigm into your proposal because it's a hot topic or approach, reviewers are going to see right through it. It's better to develop your own ideas, theories and approaches. That's a lot more difficult to do, but I think you have to be passionate about the work and the ideas. Writing the grant and getting funded is just one part. If you want to actually do the work and be sucessful, I believe you have to love it. Just my opinion.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I realize that the two are not mutually exclusive. I just haven't been able to come up with a good idea in which it doesn't seem like I'm sticking something in just for the sake of having some buzzwords in my grant. Which I think you're right that the reviewers will see right through that.

  • Whoosh says:

    In my very short career of grant writing I always searched for a topic that I'd be interested in in general. Then I'd look what I bring to the table to address that problem and then I'd look what fancy techniques I'd like to learn in the course of the project, who has expertise in these techniques and if I can get them as collaborators or CIs on the proposal. I thought about writing a proposal on a hot topic for having the buzzwords in my proposal, but didn't do it in the end. I would not be motivated enough to rock a big project, when I think the topic is boring. And there is always just a short period of time when it's possible to jump on a hot topic as a newbie in the field. If you are too late then there are already so many other, more experienced researchers that it will be hard to find your innovative niche.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Good point that maybe _learning_ the fancy new technique could be a spin I could give to this. Thanks, I'm going to give this more thought.

  • ecologist says:

    I have always tried to write proposals to do something that I find really interesting. My first task is to convince the reviewers that it really is interesting; this requires an understanding of the intellectual structure of the field and how it got that way. My second task is to convince them that I have an good way to get the answer, and that I can carry it out. Many of my proposals are, in fact, to develop and use a new technique to address the question. A proposal for "how does the brain work" is going to fail the second test, although it might pass the first. A proposal that has some current bandwagon method might pass the second test and fail the first.

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