How to write a CIHR or NIH grant without dropping the ball on everything else

NIH CIHR Grant Writing.jpg

Picture this: the grant deadline is tomorrow. You've slept maybe 4 hours a night for the last week and a half, and not (always) because you're writing late into the night—it's because your mind won't stop spinning with all the things you still have to do. (Also because you've had way too much coffee.) You've neglected your other research, your admin responsibilities, your family, and—let's be honest—you haven't had time to shower for a couple of days. (Ew.)

You're still waiting on letters of support from your collaborators. You've emailed them at least a dozen times but you've heard crickets. Nada.

You got your internal reviews back a few days ago but you haven't had time to look closely at the comments, let alone integrate them into the final draft.

You've put aside all of your other projects to do this two-week sprint. It happens Every.Single.Time. Those weeks before the deadline are brutal. Horrible. When they're over you think you'll do something different next time. But it's always the same.


Grant writing—even for CIHR or NIH—doesn't need to be so stressful


Writing a grant proposal, even a big, complex one, can actually be a meltdown-free activity. I know because I've done it. Many times. (#sorrynotsorry)

That doesn't mean it won't be challenging. It just doesn't have to be overwhelming. Here are seven ways to make grant writing less stressful:


1. Start early

It ALWAYS takes longer than you think. Have you planned for internal deadlines, reviews and comments, and emergencies?

Starting early doesn't mean you're extending the stressful period by two or four weeks. It means you're giving yourself some breathing room. You can let it sit for a few days and come back to it. Turning the grant proposal into a long jog rather than a sprint means you make it to the finish line without getting red-faced and sweaty.


2. Read the instructions

Funding agencies don't give you instructions on eligibility, proposal length, and font size to be jerks. They do it because a) they have specific funding objectives that they're trying to meet, and b) they're trying to make sure their reviewers are able to read all of the proposals that come through.

And they notice when people try to bend the rules. Sometimes that automatically disqualifies you from the competition. But even if it doesn't, it pisses off your reviewer. NEVER PISS OFF YOUR REVIEWER.

So read the damn instructions before you start writing so that you're not scrambling at the last minute to fix your proposal because you used the wrong margin width.


3. Make a plan

Grant proposals don't write themselves. You need a plan to get you from start to finish. The best way to do this is to work backwards from the deadline and figure out what needs to be done and when.

For example, do you need support letters from partners? When do you need to have those in so that you can submit on time? When do you need to ask for the letters from your partners? Do you need to give them a fake deadline so that if they miss it, you'll still be fine? Put it in the plan.

Take a look at the components of the proposal and ask yourself what parts can be written concurrently, and what needs to be written sequentially. The more you can do concurrently, the better. Especially if you have a team. Which leads us to...


4. Use your team (delegate)

Even if you're responsible for writing the main sections of the grant, you're usually not writing alone. There are other people you need to lean on for project or organizational details, support letters, matching funds, and so on.

Most of the time you can lump contributors to a grant proposal into two categories:

  1. Core team

  2. Peripheral team

Core team members are responsible for shaping, writing, and managing the grant proposal. They're involved from Day One and usually have a pretty good picture of the whole proposal. Think: Postdocs, grad students, RAs, etc.

Peripheral team members are responsible for a small component of the overall proposal, like a letter of support. Think: Collaborator from another institution or your Department Head. They don't necessarily read the proposal (although sometimes they do). They have a single task which might be vital to the final submission package, but they aren't involved in the process beyond their single contribution.

You built a team. Now use them.

Using your plan, make sure that everyone is assigned work so that the parts that need to get done early in the writing sequence are finished in time for the next phase to start. For example, what needs to be written before you can draw up a project budget? Who needs to hand off that material to the person writing the budget, and when?

Everyone on the team—core team and peripheral—needs clear responsibilities and clear deadlines.


5. Follow up

Truth #1: Deadlines work maybe thirty percent of the time.

You need to follow up with everyone on your team before the deadline to make sure they're on track.

Truth #2: Following up with everyone means that you need to know everyone else's deadlines on top of your own.

Truth #3: Some people on the team will be pissed that you're following up with them. Do it anyway. You're in charge, not them.

There are a couple of ways to approach following up, and it usually depends on your stress level:

  • Good Cop: "Hey! Just checking in: are you on track to meet Deadline X?"

  • Bad Cop: "Deadline X is tomorrow. I'm expecting it by 9am. DO NOT DISAPPOINT ME OR THERE WILL BE HELLFIRE."

You get to choose which approach is best for you. But you gotta follow up.


6. Block out small chunks of writing time

If you start early enough you have the luxury of writing in smaller chunks over a longer period of time. I don't know about you, but that seems WAY less stressful to me than an all-out writing binge.

The other advantage to writing in small chunks is that you can let it sit for a while. Stepping away from your writing can give you a fresh perspective, which is especially helpful when you're trying to think like a reviewer and looking for missing links in your logic.


7. Get it reviewed

One of the absolute best things you can do to make grant writing less stressful is to get it reviewed before you submit. Having someone else take a look at your proposal and offer commentary will give you a sense of what your reviewers will see.

When you're immersed in your proposal it's easy to forget that not everyone has the same level of knowledge about your project as you do. Having a friendly reviewer take a look before you submit gives you a chance to make some changes that can clarify your proposal and put you in a much more competitive position.

The reviewer doesn't have to be familiar with your work. In fact, sometimes it's better to ask someone who isn't involved in any way, because they offer fresh eyes. You can submit your proposal knowing that you've fixed any inconsistencies and clarified the murky spots. What's less stressful than that?


Want more tips to set your CIHR or NIH grant apart from the competition? Download my free cheat sheet: Ten Tweaks for Better Grant Proposals



    Tell me what you think! What's the most useful of these tips? Which ones will you start using? Tell me in the comments!


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