Part One: How Long Does It Take to Write a Grant? In Praise of Going Slow

January 3, 2017

I have been working with a student on his personal statement for a fellowship application. The document is two pages, double-spaced, so the statement will be less than 600 words by the time it is complete.

We’ve been working on this document for about a month. I think this afternoon I sent him the final edits.

Some of you, dear readers, are thinking there is no way you could spend a month on a personal statement. I agree. Neither the student nor I had a month to spend on a personal statement. Over the course of the last month, I suspect we have spent about six hours on the personal statement.

This leads me to the most dangerous question in grant writing: “How long does it take to write a grant?”

The glib answer is to quote Parkinson’s Law and say, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, it will take as much time as you have.

My less-glib answer is: It depends on what else you want to do during that time. You can write a grant proposal in just a few days, but like the paper you write during an all-nighter, it probably isn’t your best work. And, you aren’t doing anything else while you write the grant proposal. You aren’t sleeping or talking to people; you are just writing. So my advice is to give yourself at least six weeks. That way, you can write, receive feedback and revise, and you can have a life beyond writing the grant proposal.

I stand by every one of those words (obviously, or I wouldn’t have bothered to transcribe them), but I realized recently that I answer the question with two assumptions:

  1. The person asking is a procrastinator, this because I am a procrastinator (if you haven’t read Tim Urban’s Wait but Why blog on procrastination, you should).
  2. The question “How long does it take to write a grant?” means just the writing—that the planning and resource gathering has already been done.

These two assumptions need to be addressed. Here, I am going to talk about the first one. In a future blog, I’ll provide a grant development/writing to-do list.

Here’s the truth: Slow and steady wins the grant writing race, not being a pre-crastinator/procrastinator. Productivity does not mean fast; it means done well, which means taking control of your time. It also means taking time away from the proposal.

You need to have time away from the proposal. Like wine, most writing does better if you let it breathe. Believe me, when you return to it after some time away, you will find ways to make it better.

Depending on the program to which you are applying, you can have as much as a year between the release of the solicitation and the deadline for the proposal. For regular programs, the overall goals don’t change much from year to year, so you can get quite a bit of work done while waiting for the new solicitation to be released. But, since several programs release six months before the deadline, I am going to use that for the math.

Let’s say you need to work for 120 hours to write a grant (you need at least this for an NSF grant or NIH RO1):

  • If you give yourself six weeks to write the grant, you are writing twenty hours a week.
  • If you give yourself six months to write the grant, you need to write five hours a week.

In addition to how your life is improved by taking your time, it will be much easier for you to get the internal and external paperwork done for your grant. If you need letters of support, you will have plenty of time to request the letters as well as receive them, and you’ll have time to have your draft reviewed by mentors/colleagues and copy-edited by the Office of Research. All of these things will improve your proposal.

So focus on your proposal for a few hours each week. I recommend dividing it into sections and working on one section at a time. But, rushing through a proposal will most likely end with your proposal being rejected and even your hurried time may feel wasted.

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