Cath Ennis began her career in the life sciences by falling in love with David Attenborough’s programmes on the BBC. She subsequently studied genetics in Newcastle upon Tyne, England; obtained a PhD in molecular cell biology in Glasgow, Scotland; and did a postdoc in genome evolution in Vancouver, Canada.
She then spent two years in the marketing department of a biotech company, during which time she learned many things – the most important being that she does not enjoy marketing and much prefers academia to the private sector.
She has been a grant writer / project manager at a large academic cancer research organisation since 2007, and specialises in cancer genomics and bioinformatics.
The title listed on my business cards is Project Manager, a role that takes up more than half of my time. However, if I introduced myself to you in person I’d tell you that I’m a project manager-slash-grant writer, and it’s the latter role that I’ll be writing about in this post.
While freelance grant writers do exist, I’m employed full time by a large academic cancer research organisation. I’ve been here since 2007, in two different departments, after a PhD and postdoc in molecular biology followed by two years in the marketing department of a biotech company.
In my last department I was the only grant writer for five principal investigators (PIs); in my current department there are more than 20 of us in the Projects team, although not all of us are directly involved in grant writing. As well as managing one large and a few smaller research projects, I provide grant writing support to one PI and all the department’s trainees.
The primary role of a grant writer is to allow the PI to spend more of their time and energy focusing on the science behind the proposal, by taking on some or all of the other tasks involved throughout all stages of the grant writing, submission, and administration process. (I like to call this entire process “grant wrangling”, and sometimes describe myself as a grant wrangler).
Although most PIs already know which grants they want to submit well ahead of time, I keep an eye on all relevant funding agency websites and let the PIs know if any specific competition announcements are a good match for their research. Once the PI decides to apply to a given competition, I provide them with a summary of the external and internal deadlines, budget limits, proposal page limits, and the other sections required. PIs at our institution apply to a number of government and charitable funding agencies, in Canada and elsewhere, so the requirements seem to be different almost every time.
My role during the actual grant application development and writing process is different for every grant – it depends on how the PI likes to work, who else is involved in the writing, and how familiar I am with the subfield. In some cases I’ve merely collected the signatures required by the institution and the funding agency, proofread the final documents, assembled them into the final grant, and hit “submit”; in other cases I’ve worked with the PI to decide what the specific aims should be, done some substantial editing, and drafted whole sections (not the proposal itself, but other sections including the budget justification, technical and lay abstracts, etc). In my last job I was also responsible for updating the PIs’ CVs; in my current job, our Admin department takes on this task.
I’m one of those annoying people who (usually) really enjoys their job, and grant writing is my favourite part of it. (Even some of my colleagues think this is weird).
My favourite thing about grant writing is that I get to read, think, and write about an enormously diverse range of research projects, without ever needing to pick up a single pipette. This is something I’ve wanted from my career ever since I realised I was enjoying writing my PhD thesis much more than I’d ever enjoyed the lab work I was describing therein. I’m much happier as a generalist than as a specialist, and can be useful to the PI even when I’m working on a grant in a completely unfamiliar field (I trained in genetics and molecular biology, but I’ve worked on grants that encompass bioinformatics, organic chemistry, and nuclear physics). For example, I can flag specialist jargon that’s unfamiliar to me, and therefore potentially to a non-specialist reviewer.
I also enjoy the feeling of the whole team focusing on the same goal and working together to achieve it as the deadline approaches. Adrenaline addiction takes many forms…
You need perfectionist and control freak tendencies to be a good grant writer. You have to be able to quickly and accurately proof and edit large swathes of dense, technical text, and you have to check, double-check, and triple-check every single little thing against the funding agency’s guidelines.
However, if you have perfectionist and control freak tendencies, being a grant writer will drive you crazy at times. Specifically, the times when the deadline is a few hours away, and the pressure’s mounting, but none of the documents that need to be completed are currently in your hands, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the PI to send them back to you. Many PIs seem to suffer from “deadline addiction”, to the extent that they can’t write without feeling that pressure, and the final documents often appear with hours or sometimes even minutes to spare.
Deadlines really do rule your life in this job. You have to do whatever it takes to get the grant in on time, whether that means working over a weekend, coming into the office at 6am, or submitting a grant during the first intermission of an Olympic ice hockey gold medal game (I have done all of these things). As mentioned above, this is usually not your choice – you’re at the mercy of the PI and whoever else is working on the documents you need.
You also have to plan your vacation time around grant deadlines. In Canada, in my field, where deadlines tend to cluster, this means that you’re not going anywhere between late August and mid-November. Ever.
To conclude, grant writing is a great niche for highly organised research enthusiasts who have strong writing and editing skills, a good work ethic, and who can work well with academics. It’s not the best paying career in the world, nor the least stressful – but it’s a very intellectually satisfying one, even at 6am in an empty office.