Part of my responsibility this summer has been to introduce our new interns to research articles and teach them how to read, interpret and critically analyze the literature. After struggling through a particularly complicated paper a few weeks ago, the question arose as to whether publishing research is more difficult than grant writing.
From my perspective, grant writing is more challenging but this is for several reasons.
1. There is always a journal out there somewhere that will publish your work, even if it’s the Journal of Useless Stuff. On the other hand, there are a limited number of agencies that would consider funding your work and convincing them to do this is getting more and more difficult by the day.
2. Writing and publishing a manuscript is telling the story about what you’ve already done and why it’s amazing. Writing a successful grant should involve telling the story about what you’d really like to do, why it’s amazing and convincing the reviewer that it’s worth pursuing. More often that not, though, grant writing is also about telling the story about what you’ve already done (aka preliminary data), why it and you are amazing (aka biosketch) and why your potentially interesting follow up ideas deserve the cash.
3. Publishing a manuscript is working with knowns and is often the end of a long journey. Grant writing is dealing with a lot of what ifs. What if aim 1 is shown to be shit? What if my preliminary studies cannot be replicated? What if the reviewers don’t see that my preliminary data are the coolest things since Doritos?
Interestingly, I think #3 can also be the best part of grant writing. In essence, I get to come up with my own ideas and find ways in which to test my hypotheses. I spend my days asking myself questions. What studies do I really want my lab to do? Does my supercool hypothesis make sense given the existing data? Can I generate enough preliminary data within my meagre budget to convince reviewers that my hypothesis is going to blow the lid off my field? If my hypothesis is proven, how will this impact science as a whole? Where are the Doritos I hid in my desk last week? Why am I wearing socks that don’t match?
Granted, though, writing proposals that don’t get funded can be a frustrating experience, much like banging one’s head up against a brick wall. On a bad day, I see grant writing as a complete waste of time, time during which I could be writing the manuscripts I’ve put aside in order to meet grant deadlines, time that could be better spent with my trainees actually doing science rather than crafting ways in which to ask for money to do it, time that I could spend hiking. On a good day though, going through the sometimes nasty comments from grant reviewers can be a good lesson in designing your research, looking more objectively at your proposal and seeing the flaws, coming up with a better approach, finding better experimental groups, learning to write more clearly, and being more critical of your own work.
Sigh. In an ultra competitive grant era, having seemingly flawless proposals, an incredible track record and an environment that is unbeatable seems to be beyond reach, at least at the moment for this newbie. Start up funds will only stretch so far and showing that 95% of your Big Ass Multi-Year Proposal has already been done just isn’t feasible within the time, personnel and budgetary constraints. I spend most of my days trying to make my grants better, tighter, and to provide more convincing evidence that I’ve done the work I’m asking for money to do in the hope that someone, somewhere, sometime will point the magic funding wand at my proposal. At this point, I’m not sure what else I can do. In theory, it’s fun. In practice, sometimes it is, but sometimes not so much.
A day out
8 hours ago