If you are trying to get your NIH (or NSF) proposal funded in 2015 and beyond by doing the same old thing that used to work a decade ago… you’re likely in for a world of hurt!

I’ve been running this blog since late 2009, and in that time, the changes that I started talking about that have accelerated. More people are struggling than ever.

The typical responses to the current grant challenges include:

  • Writing more grant proposals than ever, trying to increase the odds through increased submissions…
  • Becoming ever more frustrated as the increased writing (often) fails to pay off, and seems like a game of diminishing returns…
  • Ultimately experiencing other symptoms that include depression, exhaustion, overwhelm, writer’s block, and procrastination
  • Those feelings just making it all the more difficult to get clarity…
  • And so the spiral goes.

The most prevalent problem I see, over and over again in my work with 1000’s of students on their grants, is that they are still trying to use a model that worked 15-20 years ago in this very different environment.

It is a model where “great science speaks for itself” and where there is “shame in selling.”

Let’s be clear:

  • Great science does not speak for itself when it comes to 1:10 odds of getting your proposal funded. The odds say that at least half of those proposals will have great science. What makes your “great science” stand out against the other 4-5? You think reviewers will just “discover” you? Remember: reviewers are just as busy and overwhelmed as you are. If you don’t make it stunningly obvious and crystal clear why your science is absolutely awesome, then you can forget funding.
  • Scientists (and much of society) has shame about the art of “selling.” Yet as Dan Pink showed in his book “To Sell is Human” (backed up by plenty of sociological research), to get anywhere in life, we must sell. We sell our ideas, our desires, our sex appeal, etc. When we have shame in selling, we attempt to avoid it, but it only works against us getting what we want out of life. Our own shame at the art of selling isn’t going to stop those who are engaging with it from engaging with it! We are only hurting ourselves, and nobody else! When you are asking for a group of cranky reviewers to give you $1M or more for your research, believe me, you better be damn good at selling!!! (I’m not talking about pushy selling – that’s a topic for a different blog post)

What I’ve witnessed over the past year is nothing short of stunning. I went to work with a small group of clients on changing their grant funding fortunes around. The results have been profound. Of this group of 11 people, all but two have now received at least one major federal grant (or a fundable score) within this time. Several have received multiple grants, completely changing around their fortunes. Here are some anonymized excerpts from an email I received last week:

I am writing to share some more good news. I am still waiting to hear about my NIH grant but in the meantime I got another grant!!!! …. This is directly related to all of your help during pitch day, and all of your work on me! I cannot thank you enough, this align your core stuff is no joke!! 🙂 Thank you for opening my eyes and believing in me. I am swamped with work but these are good problems! What a change in a year!

Another client is faculty at a small(ish) public university in the Southwest. She was an untenured research assistant professor (non tenure track) with no widespread recognition in the field. Within the space of the year, she received an R01 from one of the most difficult institutes (NCI), along with angel funding for her therapeutic company. Job offers are now being thrown at her, and she is moving into a tenured position with a nice startup package.

What made the difference?

It’s not what you think! With these and my other successful clients, I did very minimal work directly with them on grants. In fact, for the majority of these who had big wins, I never even looked at their grant or their specific aims!

So, if it’s not about me giving feedback on their grant, then what the heck did we do?

We went to work on their creative mindset!

Grant proposal writing is a creative skill. We don’t teach for creativity in any graduate program I know of.

As a result, most of us end up in a negative creative spiral – especially after too many rejections. This shuts down our creative abilities, and those abilities are essential for producing a grant that stands out in this environment. If your grant comes in as just another generic “me too” grant, you can forget it. It doesn’t matter how good it is, you are toast!

So, during this year, I focused on removing all the blocks to creativity that existed with these clients, so they could be their best, most creative selves in their grant and paper writing (along with presentations).

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know whether it would work. I had a hunch that it would. But that hunch now has solid evidence backing it up. It does work. Far better than anything I’ve ever tried!

And the best part is that it also frees up other areas of life. It reduces the anxiety and depression. It encourages you to work less, rather than working more. It reduces the overwhelm and the stress.

If you are finding yourself trying to pursue the “old way” of grant writing, then perhaps it’s time for a change?

My suggestion is this: instead of striving to write more grants or “better” grants, strive to enhance your creative clarity and creative flow. The payoffs of doing that will far surpass  anything else you could do for your grants to make them stand out.

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