The difference between the newbie and the old pro

Grant season is upon us. Every day that I’m not in the clinic and the O.R., I find myself holed up in my office pounding my head against my monitor trying to write just that perfect mixture of preliminary data, blarney, and grantsmanship to persuade the Powers That Be to give me just a taste of that increasingly precious and scarce elixir of life for my lab, grant money. All I want is just enough to keep my lab going another couple of years and to try to add another person to my lab. Right now, I’m working on an grant to go to the Army for breast cancer research and a grant to a private foundation that’s a longshot but very prestigious if I can get it. I’ve also been helping a couple of more junior colleagues with their grants, and in doing so have come to realize that, sometime in the last seven years or so, I’ve stopped being a clueless newbie and have somehow become an “expert” in putting grants together, not to mention what we call “grantsmanship.” At least I am in comparison to real newbies.

In making this evolution, I’ve come to realize that there is one thing that distinguishes new, inexperienced faculty and old hands when it comes to grant writing. No, it’s not how well they can write, although seasoning does improve with practice and time. The same thing occurs with grantsmanship. However, some junior faculty are already pretty good at writing and grantsmanship, having had their skills honed in various research situations and postdocs before taking their first faculty position, and there are a lot more resources than there used to be to teach good grant-writing techniques. Even so, there’s one sure-fire way to tell a grant newbie, and it’s more how he or she puts together the the grant.

The newbie does the budget and administrative paperwork last.

Yes, that’s it. Having developed into an “old pro,” when I decide to start putting together a grant, the very first think that I do, even before I’ve crystallized the specific aims of the grant fully in my head is not to plunge headlong into writing the actual experimental plan for the grant; rather I plunge headlong into writing the budget and all the other administrative paperwork. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, doing the budget and supporting paperwork always takes longer you think it will. For another thing, you have to allow time for the budget to wend its way through the Research Office bureaucracy to be approved. Also, the cover sheet has to be signed by the Dean of Research (at least at our institution), and she won’t sign it until the budget is in order and has been approved by Finance. That can take time to get. Other administrative paperwork that can take a long time include various animal use justification forms (which often require statistical justification for the number of animals used) and human subjects forms (which have to be filled out even if it’s only human tissues that are being used and no clinical trial is involved). Newbies will concentrate all their effort into writing the experimental protocol first and then find themselves close to the deadline. They’ll be forced to scramble to try to finish all of this and be running from office to office (or sending their secretary running from office to office) to get the required signatures.

Of course, with the move to Grants.gov for all government grant applications, I’m less of an old pro now, because this cycle is the first time that I’ve had to deal with this new system, and the system is Windows-only, which leaves us Mac Users out in the cold. They had originally claimed that there would be a platform-independent solution by November. Now from what I hear it’ll probably be May at the earliest before a Macintosh version of the necessary software is available. The “Mac” setup that they’ve cobbled together works very poorly, resulting in frequent error messages and the software. Of course, I could use an Intel Mac and Boot Camp or Parallels to run Windows just for this. Too bad I don’t yet have one at work, and I do all of my writing and make all of my figures using the Mac OS X.

Grants.gov may be just the thing to make me a grant newbie again. I don’t want to be a newbie again. Once was enough. Even with the new system, however, it still pays to do the budget and administrative paperwork early on in the grant-writing process.