A lot of clinician academics, including me, only have a job if we bring in grants that pay our salaries. A lot of the time this means working my socks off to ensure I will have a job in 12 months time.
There are as many strong views about this as there are people, and I’m not going to say much about it. But as a disclaimer: yes, it’s a bit stressful but I also don’t mind the accountability as most of us are paid from the public purse. The system favours those who have the skills and put in the work. This does not always work out fairly at individual level – but seems overall a pretty fair and good system to me.
So, with that disclaimer, I’m in a middle of a fairly typical grant writing frenzy at the moment. What a better time than that to open up a bit of this aspect of being a clinician academic?
The situation at about three months to the deadline: I’m leading a bid to NIHR ICA scheme. This is about the time the call comes out. But I’ve been working on my proposal pretty actively for the past 9 months already. My proposal builds on my work over the past 5 years so I know the topic, literature, and key players in the field reasonably well. However, the point of a new proposal is to propose something new – so there are inevitably substantial aspects I know little about. At this stage I’m still digging up info, finding experts, negotiating with potential new partners. I’m also actively writing the bid, having read the guidance, and I have started the internal processes for securing institutional approvals to submit. While advancing the grant application, my other work (writing, research, marking, supervision, clinical) takes place at it’s usual pace.
One typical day about two months to the deadline: I’m properly in the hard-push phase now. I’ve been working on the grant for most evenings and weekends until about 10pm for the past three weeks. My asthma is definitely worse, and I’m unsurprised to notice one day that I’ve gone crazy.
I can’t remember most of today – not in the way “I’ve forgotten” but more in the way “I didn’t register any of it”. There are so many things to think about, so many things to resolve, and none of it seems to move forward. My brain has gone hysterical. While my body goes throught the motions my mind can only stare at the little lady inside my head screaming hysterically at the top of her voice.
It seems the lady has totally lost it and has no intention of stopping. I figure there’s no point continuing to work and at 4:30pm I tempt a friend to go for a glass of wine and a burger. First we talk and talk and talk about the screaming lady – until finally the lady stops. Then we just talk some more, just for the craic of it.
Four weeks to the deadline: It’s weekend, and for weeks now I’ve been up writing till midnight. Yesterday it was 5pm before I thought I should maybe eat some lunch. I took food out of the freezer for dinner as I figured it was very unlikely there was cooking happening tonight. My partner is mainly in charge of all food supply at the moment, but this weekend even he is roped into helping me with the bid. He has helped so many times that he is pretty proficient now in writing the collaborator bios, polishing my vision statement, proof reading the various kinds of abstracts…
I do feel very bad about it – but both of us know that our income as a family is affected by me having a job. I speculate that it’s not that different to how families of small businesses operate – everyone chips in. But I do feel guilty about it as I feel it’s a workload management failure on my part – and I’m always seeking for ways to learn to manage this better.
Summary: Everytime I go through this process, there comes a point I ask myself: why does it get this bad? Surely if I had done more earlier it would not be like this? But then again, it’s not like I’m just skiving and doing nothing until 3 months before the deadline. There is always a lot on – and there is a potential grant deadline about every four months. I’m pretty confident I’m working ahead of time as much as I can.
Any one grant takes about 6-12 months of work to prepare, and at the moment I have three grants on the go as the lead applicant. Plus 4-5 that I collaborate on as a co-applicant. The obvious thing to do would be to do fewer grants. And maybe one day I will do that, once my salary no longer depends on them. Until then, if I want to do what I do, I simply don’t see any other way. I have to work on a number of strategically chosen eggs in multiple carefully selected baskets. Off these eggs, you never know which will hatch and which won’t.
The other side of all this is of course that I don’t write grants just to have a job. If all I wanted was a job there would be much easier ways to have one! I write grants because I believe the research needs done. We know so little – and there are so many questions to be answered. Even if I lead 4-5 grants every few years this is only a tiny proportion of the open questions that affect our clinical practice every day. I want to write bids so that I can answer the questions.
I often wonder if the grant writing is perhaps a bit similar to being an entrepreneur – it’s about having ideas (novel, potentially powerful, and at least in some way feasible) and wanting to secure funding to take these ideas forward. It does end up paying your bills if you are decent at it and put in the hours, but it’s ultimately the ideas not the money that drives you.