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Three simple tips to survive grant writing

Tip 2: To survive grant writing, take a break from the computer and go on a walk with friends. Image via Core Athletics.
Tip 2: To survive grant writing, take a break from the computer and go on a walk with friends. Image via Core Athletics.

Like any field, working in research has its ups and downs. Ask any scientist and they will likely identify the opportunity to guide their own inquiries through research as an upside, but grant writing as one of the main downsides.

A recent PLOS ONE paper by Ted and Courtney von Hippel notes that the average principal investigator (PI) spends a minimum of 116 hours per grant submission. That’s at least one full month of work for the PI alone! Add to that the fact that grant funding can make or break a career and it’s no wonder that grant writing is stressful. To avoid burn out from writing a grant (or dissertation), try the following tips.

1. Give yourself a break

Keep your mind energized by taking breaks from work. Image courtesy: Marcel Oosterwijk from Amsterdam, The Netherlands [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Grant writing can be an all encompassing process in positive and negative ways. Grant writing is a wonderful opportunity to take a deep dive into a body of literature. However, it demands time you might rather spend doing something else (e.g., conducting research as opposed to writing about research conducted by others). To avoid turning into a dull boy or girl, I suggest you engage in at least one small pleasurable activity per day. The activity depends on your interests, but there’s a whole body of literature on the benefits of this approach, so choose whatever is right for you and be sure to stick to it. If you find that you’re making excuses to cancel fun activities, try asking yourself, “What makes more sense, a 15-minute break now or a 2-hour breakdown later?

2. Give yourself an energy boost

When you’re on a deadline, it’s tempting to work around the clock, but it’s likely that this sort of schedule does more harm than good. For example, the evidence shows sleep deprivation reduces creative thinking. Without enough food or sleep you’re unlikely to have enough energy to engage in a task as cognitively complex as grant writing. There are at least three components to getting an energy boost. First, eat regularly. Don’t go for more than three to four hours without eating. Second, sleep regularly — go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Third, exercise regularly – engage in some physical activity every day, it can be as simple as going for a walk. You can even combine giving yourself a break with an energy boost; walking with a friend for a snack is a way to have fun, get some exercise, and get enough to eat.

3. Give yourself some props

Tip 3: Think positive by writing affirmations around your workspace. Image by Ignacio Palomo Duarte, via Flickr.
Tip 3: Think positive by writing affirmations around your workspace. Image by Ignacio Palomo Duarte, via Flickr.

Getting feedback from mentors and peers is an important part of grant writing. It also exposes you to a near constant stream of criticism, which, while (hopefully) constructive, can still take a toll on your confidence. To combat this, remind yourself of your past accomplishments and the exciting work you’ll do if the grant is awarded. It’s tempting to do this in your head, but it’s more effective to write down these positive statements and keep them on your phone or on a piece of paper by your computer, that way if you’re feeling down and can’t think of many positive qualities, you’ll have a cheat sheet. If nothing else, the affirmations can improve your mood (though research shows it may depend on your initial level of self-esteem).

These tips may seem simple, but they’re often overlooked and undervalued. Even as a clinical psychologist, it took me weeks to realize that taking care of myself made grant writing easier. While there’s no guarantee that following these tips will increase the likelihood of getting funded (as Drs. von Hippel note, ever-diminishing funds and the excellent quality of many grant applications makes winning funding a “roll of the dice”), they are important to preserving your well being and productivity. After all, having fun, eating and sleeping well, getting exercise, and building your confidence will probably improve your quality of life, which is ultimately more important than grant money. Right?

Dimidjian, S., Barrera Jr, M., Martell, C., Muñoz, R. F., & Lewinsohn, P. M. (2011). The origins and current status of behavioral activation treatments for depression. Annual review of clinical psychology, 7, 1-38.

Hames, J. L., & Joiner, T. E. (2012). Resiliency factors may differ as a function of self-esteem level: Testing the efficacy of two types of positive self-statements following a laboratory stressor. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(6), 641-662.

Landmann, N., Kuhn, M., Maier, J. G., Spiegelhalder, K., Baglioni, C., Frase, L., … & Nissen, C. (2015). REM sleep and memory reorganization: Potential relevance for psychiatry and psychotherapy. Neurobiology of learning and memory.

von Hippel, T., & von Hippel, C. (2015). To Apply or Not to Apply: A Survey Analysis of Grant Writing Costs and Benefits. PloS one, 10(3), e0118494.


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