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Grant Writing Advice

Today’s guest post is a contribution from Seán Mac Fhearraigh, PhD. Seán was a PhD student at University College Dublin & a post-doc a Cambridge University where he studied mechanisms of cell division. Currently Seán run’s an ELISA assay company where you can find some great information on ELISA assay protocols and ELISA kits.

Like most things in life, research requires funding and scholarships. This becomes increasingly apparent as researchers progress through their career. At some point, everyone has to jump on the funding treadmill. For many researchers, the first experience of a grant application process may be applying for postgraduate scholarships for their masters/PhD. While I never pursued this option myself, as a postdoc, I now see it from the other side of the fence. It is a good opportunity for PIs to employ someone for 3-4 years at no cost. So if you’re an undergrad looking to apply for such a grant, expect pro forma replies from people only too happy to apply with you. If you already have funding, most PIs will happily host you even if your CV is hand written on the back of a napkin. If you are a young, clever, enthusiastic scientist make no mistake, you are a sought-after commodity – so shop around.

Postdoctoral funding
is a little different but the same general dynamics apply, particularly with regard to postdoctoral fellowships. What you need to be mindful of is that the application process may be a lot more gruelling and competitive. It is important that you gauge carefully what your chances of success are. Remember, a PI may agree to put their name on your application but the grant writing may be left entirely up to you. It can be a big commitment, particularly when you are in the midst of finishing up your PhD and writing your thesis.

This can be a particularly stressful and unnerving time as you don’t know what the future will hold. It can be difficult to put together a competitive grant proposal under such conditions so it is not for the faint-hearted. If you are lucky you might just get your dream fellowship and a flying start to your career. If you are less fortunate, the PI you apply with, impressed by your efforts, might keep you in mind when they next secure funding. However, if you are unlucky, you get nothing but you learn from the experience always look at the positives. It is, admittedly, a lot easier to focus on writing a research proposal when you know where the next paycheque is coming from. For this reason, many choose to secure a postdoctoral position before pursuing fellowship funding – a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. This is probably a less stressful approach than applying for funding during the latter stages of your PhD. However, don’t forget that the clock is ticking from the moment you finish your viva – you will not be eligible for certain early stage fellowships after you clock up certain amount of experience e.g. Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowships (ineligible after one year of postdoctoral experience).

My first postdoc was in the same lab where I did my PhD. In reality, this was more of a mop-up period for my doctoral work; several manuscripts were submitted, all of which were eventually published, so paper-wise it was a productive time. My advice to anyone considering this option is don’t do it for too long – identify short-term achievable goals and make sure you have an exit strategy. Unless there is something truly amazing happening in the lab, there are a number of reasons you should probably move on after your PhD. Firstly, moving to a different lab is a new experience and will force you outside of your comfort zone, to meet new people, learn new skills and develop fresh ideas. Secondly, if you want to apply for a fellowship, there are often mobility clauses written into fellowship grants which preclude staying in the same lab where you completed your PhD e.g. Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowships for career development (IEF).

Aside from fellowships, there are several other funding opportunities for postdoctoral researchers. These generally take the form of larger collaborative grants where you, as an early stage researcher, may not be the lead applicant. If successful, these grants may cover your costs for a number of years so they can buy you breathing room and time to focus on your research. These grants can effectively represent a fellowship from your perspective although their raison d’etre is likely to be delivery of a research goal rather than a postdocs career development.

After a six month stint, I waved goodbye to my old lab in 2011. As I was finishing up, I applied with my current PI for a postdoctoral fellowship but was unsuccessful. In spite of this I moved to this lab in 2012 as funding became available and so began my first postdoctoral post outside my alma mater. The first couple of months were given to setting up the lab – things like ordering equipment and organising paper work, getting to know people in the department/university, supervising undergrads and then (eventually) getting on with my experiments. However, aside from research, the main focus has been on grant writing.

I have written eight grants and am currently drafting my ninth
; one was successful, another three are still under review and five were unsuccessful. It’s a learning process. There is no magic formula for writing grants and even if you write the best proposal imaginable, success can be decided by factors beyond your control. Nevertheless, to begin with, the guidelines and eligibility criteria need to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb. Read the notes from the funding bodies as carefully as possible and check out the success rates to see exactly what your chances are before you even begin writing. Make sure you know exactly who you are applying to and what their mandate is. You may need to tailor your research aims to fit the call but remember that if successful you’ll have to deliver, so your aims must be genuinely achievable. You might have to consider drafting in a collaborator who has a strong track record in a particular field to strengthen your proposal. I would also advise getting in contact with researchers who have written successful grant applications (sometimes they are listed online or you might know somebody who has been successful). If you want to see some examples of high quality proposals, check out the NIH website where you can download some successful R01 grant applications. These are high-quality applications and a good benchmark for any proposal.

Importantly, don’t forget that there are no marks for effort if you are unsuccessful. Aside from grant writing you need to be generating quality research and clocking up the publications. You can’t spend all your time writing grants, it’s a question of balance. For what it’s worth, I suggest using grant writing as a vehicle to develop your ideas and plan your research. It’s amazing how great an idea can seem until you put it down on paper. Writing really helps crystallise your thoughts.

While grant applications may seem a lottery at times, don’t forget that chance favours only the prepared mind. This is as true of funding applications as it is of science. Although grant writing takes time and includes elements which are not purely scientific, it is probably the best chance you have of taking control of your career and driving your research in the direction you want.

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. Yes, maintaining the balance between papers and grants seems difficult. Ideally I'd like to always work on X papers and Y grants, rather than focusing only one of the task, but finding X and Y seems difficult.

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