You did it. After an entire weekend of nothing but strong coffee and Red Bull—you pulled together a major grant application in a single weekend!

Congratulations, you’ve succeeded in career suicide.

You cannot write a major grant application in a single weekend and expect rainbows and gold. You just can’t. This fact becomes more and more clear to me with each passing day. Even if you devote all forty-eight hours to ensuring you have every i dotted and every t crossed, you may have a document that is eligible for submission, but it’s flavorless, unimaginative and dull as dishwater.

The NIH will not fund your dirty dull dishwater.

Good researchers know that it is pointless to force a grant application when the project isn’t ready—and yet, there are a number of academic administrative policies that encourage researchers to submit time and again whether they are ready or not. The policies are derived from the idea that it takes three or four submissions before a competitive grant will be awarded.  In the meantime, all of the monotone, apathetic, characterless submissions are flooding the grant review system. Don’t fall into this trap and be remembered by reviewers for the wrong reasons.

handsdirtyclayYes, there are some very seasoned researchers—at the very top of their careers—who could pull off an all-nighter and get the grant funded. I have worked with my share of superstars and I have seen it done. But it’s their name, their careers, their long history in the field, and their reputations that are backing that application. They have a new story in their back-pocket at all times, a narrative to tell with splashy characters and vibrant plot twists. They have established projects, background stories, and preliminary data waiting expectantly to be reworked, analyzed, defined, and illuminated.

It takes a long time to earn the spot of a seasoned researcher; submitting wishy-washy, flat-as-a-pancake applications in rapid-fire bursts is not the best way of building your career.

Slow Academia or Slow Science is not the answer to this problem either. The answer for dullness and dime-a-dozen grant applications is not to slow the process down, science slows for no man—the answer is in progressive elaboration, industriousness, and constancy.

  1. Progressive Elaboration: Start with one small good idea, that’s it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be good. Then refine it, and build it up. Refine and edit it more, and then build it up bigger. Refine it, and then build it up to its biggest.
  2. Industriousness: Keep working at every aspect of the application until every paragraph—every paragraph from the introduction to final biosketch—is polished and electrifying.
  3. Constancy: Have a reliable research support team in place to lend you a hand in developing every aspect of the application—build a reputation and never waste their time.

Grant applications take time and careful thought—but can be done in a reasonable amount of time if you start with a good idea, give it time to grow, and have a reliable support network. Surround yourself with staff trained in research administrative support, who can lend a hand in proof-reading, polishing final figures, and tracking down documents. If there are people around you to help develop your application—don’t waste them!

It’s hard work, there’s no denying it. But find your motivation, whatever it is, and vow to never submit a dull, half-baked, and wishy-washy grant application ever again for as long as you live. You’ll thank yourself later.