One of the most difficult jobs I have in teaching people how to write better grants boils down to convincing them of one simple thing:

A grant is not about promoting or pursuing your own interests, it is about promoting and pursuing your funders and reviewers’ interests.

If you are so lucky as to be at a place where you can find the juncture between your interests and reviewer/funder interests, then you’re in the sweet spot.  But most people aren’t.

I have worked with a lot of people on their grants.  I’ve had some stellar successes helping folks – in fact, in the last month I’ve heard from at least three people that credit me for helping them to very good scores on big NIH proposals.

But, I’ve also seen too many good grants fail.  These are grants that are well written and well-planned, but fail to capture the interest and excitement of the reviewers.

Don’t good ideas always come when you’re in the shower, or driving the car?  The other day when I was showering it struck me why many good grants fail: too many people are treating science as a hobby rather than as a career.

Here’s my own distinction between the two:

A hobby is a self-reward-focused endeavor that you get joy out of, but that almost nobody else directly benefits from (or, at least benefit to others is not the core intent, though it could be a byproduct).  You do what you want, when you want to, often whimsically and playfully.  Timeframes are not important, since you’re doing it for fun.

A career is an other-focused endeavor, where you are exchanging your time and effort to serve others, in return for money or other material benefits.  In a career, if you’re not serving others, you won’t succeed for very long (though it always amazes me how many people treat a career like an entitlement). You have to do the service on their timetable and according to their wants, often subsuming your own.  That’s why you’re getting paid, because you’re spending your precious life time and energy in the service of someone else.

I’ll be the first to admit that in a tenured faculty job it is sometimes possible (for a while) to ignore this notion of other-service and nontheless retain the job and the pay.  But in most positions these days, if you do that for long, you’re going to be deemed “replaceable.”

Maybe there was some mythical time when grants were given out to hobbyists to “play” in science.  If there was such a time, I never experienced it firsthand (though I wish I had, it sounds fun!).

But in the present day time, hobbyists have almost no chance.  In your grant proposal, you must be doing something that serves the community-at-large.  You must do something that serves the funder.  You must be doing something that is on their timetable, satisfying their desires and needs — not yours.  In return for that, you get the money.

While more than almost anyone, I would love it if science could be more hobby-like (like it’s portrayed in the movies), it is not.  If you’re going to do grant-supported science, you must treat it as the career that it is.  That means that when it comes to thinking up ideas for your grants (assuming you want them funded), you can’t just propose whatever-you-happen-to-be-interested-in.  You must instead actually think about what-they’re-interested-in, and think about that very deeply.

If, in doing that reflective exercise, you can find something that represents an intersection of your interests and their interests then you can count yourself amongst the lucky few.  But even if you can’t, don’t be deceived.  If you treat it as if it is a hobby (i.e. trying to “sell” a project that comes from a self-centric place rather than an other-centric place), you’re not going to get very far.

Want to learn more about figuring out what they (your funders, reviewers) want? Have a look at my book, Four Steps To Funding.

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