Writing Zombie


Writing as a profession sounds so romantic. Visions of a cabin in the woods or on the ocean in the Florida Keys with a fisherman sweater, beard, and pipe come to mind… but alas…. that is not so for me. I write science. Last weekend, exhausted on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May, I was in my son’s twin bed writing and eating out of a jar of peanut butter. I write at work. I write on the train. I write in bed at 4:30 am. I write in bed when my son goes to bed. I write on my couch… and apparently, I write in a toddler bed. When I drive my car, I think about what I am going to write. For the past 5 months, I’ve been working on four grants. The last for this round is due in 3 weeks, then I will take some vacation, and return so I can write… manuscripts.. I have 3 now piled up that need to be published.

Very few people actually know what I do. What I do can change from year to year and month to month. In 2012-13 we had a huge grant where I spent 6 hrs of the day on my feet or running down a hall. It was physically grueling, but great for recovering from breast cancer treatment because I didn’t need to think a whole lot. It was kind of like shift work with some thinking to problem solve the mitochondrial respiratory assay that wasn’t working… Now with all the sitting I do, I look for opportunities to walk or stand. I’m not sure how much longer my back can take it. I’m trying not to covet the walking desk a PI has down the hall from me.

When I tell people I’m writing grants some think it’s like writing a grant to get a piece of playground equipment… or some undergraduates say they write grants in college (sure….). I always wonder what that means when an undergraduate or recent graduate claims they did grant writing for a lab they were in….. did they write some of the administrative pages…. find some papers for the person who actually was writing the grant (the PI)… get the PI coffee???

So here are some scientific writing factoids:

1. You have to have data to write anything. Unlike writing fiction, no one wants to hear from you unless you did an experiment and have data.

2. This means you have to, a.) design good experiments (requires synthesis and knowledge of vast bodies of literature), and b.) get things to work in the lab (problem solve), have skills, and work and/or get other people to work (management skills), and c.) CREATE! Yes, being a scientist is creative, but very few people understand what you created. Rare is the patient who knows the scientist that created the treatment that cured their cancer etc. It’s like top secret art that very few people will ever appreciate… the opposite of performance art.

3. Everything has very specific space limitations. Therefore, even though I would like to wax eloquently on the subdural space and if there is actually a space and summarize an interesting literature review I did on the anatomy 5 years ago- it won’t fit. Being a scientific writer means that you read every other type of literature and edit in your mind all the words and details you would remove. I am about to finish Oliver Sacks’ “The Mind’s Eye” and I can tell you that he has not written scientifically. Yes, he is a very interesting neurologist who writes large volumes about science, but has not published scientific papers. If he had written scientifically, his books would be 75% shorter.

4. The current average age for a PhD at the time they get their first RO1 is age 45. An RO1 is the standard large grant from the NIH for a single scientist somewhere in the ballpark of $5 million over 5 years. Once you have an RO1, you are considered an independent scientist. Therefore, let’s say you get your PhD at age 27- it’s another 15-20 years of training! It used to be one postdoctoral fellowship (3-4 years). Then it was standard to have 2 postdocs… and in this current funding environment a PI may have a handful of scientists in their lab working towards their first RO1. As a result, there are an ever increasing amount of “training grants” to get you from the postdoc to your first RO1. This is what I’m working on now. To get an RO1, you need dozens of publications and have generated good, interesting data that will impact human health.

5. The grant body of my current grant has 12 pages limit.

6. I have spent about 250 hrs on those 12 pages- so far. it’s dense.

7. The entire grant application will be about 100 pages total including 12 letters of support and administrative pages. Learning how to do all the administrative pages and budget work etc. is quite the undertaking if you’re in a small lab who does not have a person who specializes in that. Fortunately, I have had lots of experience doing the administrative pages for other’s people’s grants and a few for my own applications.

8. The NIH instructions for the grant given by the NIH including all the instructions for the administrative pages is 200 pages long. If you are proposing experiments that involve people (clinical trials), there is a 100 page supplement of instructions. I have a writer’s workshop manual on how to specifically organize each section that is 170 pages long. About 30 pages of this manual is instructions on how to write the specific aims page that is 1 page. It has instructions for every sentence on that 1 page.

9. The average reviewer will spend 15 minutes reading your grant.

10. I don’t have stats for the success rates of grants, but you have to be the persistent type and not be afraid by the possibility of failure nor discouraged by failure.

11. As my boss says, “the difference between those that accomplish things and those that don’t is those that accomplish things do it.” My PhD advisor liked to “brute force” approach to science- experiments… publishing papers… grants.  After this round of grant writing, I may come up empty handed, but in the process have honed my skills of grant writing.

12. You learn by doing.


3 thoughts on “Writing Zombie

  1. The scary part is contemplating the people who read these grants all day & actually know all of the rules & guidelines by heart. Persevere! If it’s one thing you’re particularly good at (…besides designing experiments, writing grants, managing people …& being a mom!), it’s perseverance!

  2. Mom- I should rename my blog, “for my mom… who is the only one who read this…” 😉 The people who review the grants are other scientists who just do review panels out of the goodness of their heart, which is why they probably spend 15 minutes on it. Though it’s probably helpful to see the review panel in process. The program I’m applying for will probably be an ad hoc review panel, but for larger programs you can actually see who will review your grant and the year they rotate off.

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