What is wrong with how and when we are taught to write grants

Plant & zo

The science of plants and more


What is wrong with how and when we are taught to write grants

Doing science for a living is one of the most fantastic jobs you can think about. And in general we scientist have a pretty good deal, being at the forefront of new discoveries and getting paid for learning new things. However, for all the great things that go along with it, job security is not one of them. Most of us have faced the situation of being in a great place, working on a  fantastic project, dreaming of making a home in this place, when the reality hits, our contracts run out and without any new grant on the way they have to let you go.

Is it then not strange, that for a sector so dependent on grant money coming in, that scientist are hardly thought how to write grants. As students, all up to the end of our PhDs and even when being postdocs we learn how to do science. From the most basic of how to make up solutions, maintain cell lines, and germinating seeds. To designing and executing complex experiments aimed at answering our questions. We get thought how to write down our results, how to report them to others. Both in writing and in presenting those results in meetings and conferences. During our PhD and while doing our postdocs we get opportunities to supervise others, learning how to lead. We get chances to review papers and to scrutinise the work of other scientists. But the one thing, the most crucial thing on which science relies, applying and with luck receiving a grant to do the research that we are dreaming of, is not thought in any reliable way.

Yes if you are lucky, you might have had an assignment of writing a grant when you were doing your bachelors or master degree. But, who will remember that when they are in the middle of a second postdoc trying to figure out how to get into that magical kingdom in which PIs seem to live.  When you are part of a well financed lab, you would have no need to apply for any kind of grant up to the point that you decide that you have that great idea and want to start your own lab. To be honest, this is not great timing, being thought how to write and apply for a grant or a fellowship at the moment your career depends most on it. It is the one and foremost thing postdocs ask for, teach us how to write and apply for grants. Grant writing courses for postdocs are filled up in no time. Because we know our careers depend on them.

I would suggest a change of practice. Not only should PIs encourage PhDs and Postdocs to apply for travel grants. They also should start a policy in which all new postdocs, will need in their first year, write and apply for a grant or fellowship. In this way postdocs get the training in writing and applying for grants without any real losses when they don’t get them, but with big wins when they do. For those who win the grant it might buy them an extra year or two on their contract. Enough time to cash in on their hard work in the form of some nice papers and preliminary data which they can use in their application for their next grant.

If at the same time PIs introduce a second standard policy, by asking postdocs, for example during those annual review meetings, what they want to do next. And then, of course, not file this information away, but actively help to work out multiple ways for the postdoc to get there, irrespective if this in academia or outside. It might be a way for postdocs to land that fabled staff scientist position they have heard about but never seen advertised. It might be how a postdoc find themselves on an institutes magazine on their way to become and actual science journalist. It might be how as a postdoc you take your results outside the lab and into your start up. And, who knows, it might even be the way how a postdoc finds it way into the magical kingdom of the PIs.

I know this sounds like a lot of extra work for PIs. But, once the first year of postdocs have been initiated in the art of grant writing they are able to help the next who arrives. The same with knowing the passion of your lab members, once known they can be applied when needed. Benefitting both the lab and the person doing it.

Published by Femke de Jong

A plant scientist who wants to let people know more about the wonders of plant science. Follow me at @plantandzo

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