I just had an interaction that typifies my five years of experience working with people on getting grants funded. It was with someone who has the belief that if he just gets “one more piece of essential information about how to write a great proposal” that his grant success will suddenly turn around.

While I’ve had a lot of stunning successes – the latest being a client who’d never had NIH funding before just getting notice of his R01 being funded – I’ve also had quite a few interactions that leave me cold about the whole thing. This is because there are a lot of people who have one or more major misconceptions about what this game is all about. Not only are there misconceptions, but those misconceptions are often defended heartily by ego.
So I’m going to bust a few of these bogus grant writing notions today to clear the record.
Let’s start with this: Writing a successful proposal has become a sport for experts only.
It used to be something that amateurs could compete at, but the competition has now moved far beyond the amateur stage.
Yet the majority of people I interact with are playing an amateur game, and doing it with quite an ego to boot.
These are common attitudes and beliefs I see that reflect this ego-driven, amateurish approach:
  • “If I just get one more piece of information about how to write my grants, I will have this thing licked.” It is VERY common amongst academics to be focused on information accumulation as a proxy for getting real world results. However, grants are about real world results, not about more information. Writing a fundable proposal at the professional level requires professional level skills, not just that one piece of “information” that will change everything. One does not become a grandmaster-level chess player just from reading a book or from learning that one “secret move” that nobody else knows! One becomes a grandmaster chess player from practice, smarts, and persistence! The same is true of grants. There are certain misconceptions that many grant writers have about what makes a great grant (which I address in my classes like Grant Dynamo 2.0), and those must be fixed at the information level before someone can move to the next step. However, once those are fixed, no amount of additional information will help, only practice and feedback will help.
  • “I’ve written lots of grants so I am an expert.” There are lots of egos in academia. Big ones. By the time one becomes a tenured professor at a big university, the ego thinks it knows “everything” (or nearly everything). The ego thinks that it is really smart. The ego thinks that it doesn’t need more training or “skills development” because that’s for students. And the ego couldn’t be more wrong. Proposal writing at the pro level is like playing grandmaster chess, playing piano at the concert level, being a second level blackbelt in karate, etc…. You’ll notice that any of those things I’ve listed involve years of practice, training, and mentoring to achieve. Unless you’ve had years of practice, training, and mentoring, you are not at the grandmaster grant writing level, no matter what your ego thinks. And submitting lots of rejected grant proposals (using entirely wrong approaches) does not amount to much in the way of “practice.”  Here’s a real example of this. One of the very best grant writers I know – a client of mine who has had a stunning track record of NIH success – still participates avidly in getting mentoring and feedback on her proposals! She has gotten her ego out of the way and realized that in this game there is always room for improvement! Yet in contrast, I often get people coming to me who are much more junior than this person who think they only need a little tweak here or there and that things will turn around. That’s BS. Every single person I’ve engaged with at a deeper level on grant proposal writing can use a LOT of refinement in their approaches.
  • “I can figure it out on my own.” There’s another common misnomer in academia (also from ego) that once we are at a certain level, we are smart enough to figure things out on our own, and that seeking mentoring is a sign of deficiency.  I used to have this attitude, and I suffered greatly for it. It wasn’t until I let go of my ego about becoming a student again, and got down to actually learning what it takes to write a great grant proposal from my own mentor, that I made a massive shift. (From six grants in a row rejected to four R01’s in a row funded with no resubmissions or revisions). Yes, I’ll give you that you are smart (or you wouldn’t be reading this). But smart people are our own worst enemies when it comes to seeking help on new skills like grant proposal writing. We are so used to “figuring things out” on our own that we think we can do that with this too. That plan may work if you have all the time in the world to “figure it out,” but most people don’t. Most people are on a tight timeline where grant funding is essential, and fiddling around for a decade or more to figure it out isn’t going to lead to a positive result.
  • “All information – including grant writing training – should be free!” It strikes me as so odd when sometimes I quote a price of a few thousand dollars to someone to help them bring in million dollar (or more) grants, and they say “that’s too expensive.” Wow. These people don’t understand how the universe works. The universe always presents us with a mirror of our deep-seated beliefs. So if we believe in scarcity so much that we “can’t afford” a few thousand dollars to do better on our grants, then that same scarcity is going to come right back at us in the reviewers’ and program officers’ opinions of our proposal. There is almost nobody I know of who can’t find a few thousand dollars if it is a priority. The statement that “I can’t afford it” is more of a statement of “I don’t think I need it” or “I think it should be free to learn how to bring in $millions for my research” than it is a statement of true fact. And the attitude underlying this – that you as an academic are in an exalted position where you should receive everything for free (or very cheap) “just because you are an academic” is totally bogus. If that is true, then please: start working for free for your university. Send back your paycheck to demonstrate how committed you are to the idea of “everything should be free” (including your labor). This notion just doesn’t hold up in the real world, and I’ve seen it sink more than one career because the holder of this belief clings to it until the bitter end (lab closure and forced retirement).
  • “My grant funding has only to do with the technical aspects of how I write it and the science I propose.” Or “My grant funding is entirely due to random chance, whether I get the right reviewers or not.” I’d love to hear how people explain away the client who recently wrote to me, calling me her “hero” for helping transform her from no grant funding in early 2014 to $10.3 million as PI or Co-PI in mid 2015, through five independent grants funded. Yes, maybe she’s the luckiest person in the world. And maybe I am also one of those exceedingly lucky people too (having had a string of grants funded that defied all odds of “random coincidence.”) I often see people in one or the other of these two camps. They either believe foolishly that it’s all random – and hence they do nothing to enhance their skills – or they shift to believing that it’s all about the technical aspects, and if they just write it “correctly” they’ll get funded. Both groups are missing something fundamental. To get funded, your grant proposal has to have the right timing. It must be in front of the right people at exactly the right time with the right message to get funded. How do you coordinate such timing, and is it all just “random?” Hell no. Your timing is an intuitive skill that  few scientists have developed. And yet it is the most valuable skill of all when it comes to getting grants funded. In order to unlock this intuitive skill set, you have to get rid of lots of mental baggage that shuts it down. For example, that client I mentioned (and two others of mine who recently had big grant wins) were successful because we unlocked their intuitive abilities, not because they learned brand new technical grant writing skills. When you become a master of timing, then you are a master of grant funding (and not before).
Mastering the art of getting your grant proposals funded is a lifelong pursuit that requires a major taming of the ego. It requires being open minded, being a learner, being humble, and working hard at developing new skills that nobody taught you when you were in school.
If you’re playing the game any other way, good luck to you. You’ll need it.

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