Against exhaustion

Deborah BrianDeborah Brian is Senior Research Administration Officer in the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at The University of Queensland. She coordinates grant applications and research activities for a diverse group of engineering and computer science academics, with a focus on supporting early career researchers. In her alternate (academic) existence, she is an anthropologist and archaeologist with research interests in Indigenous cultural heritage and the construction of social memories, histories, and identities. Deb has been one of RW’s featured RO Peeps She tweets – entirely too much – at @deborahbrian.

Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.
Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.

Now, it might be because I was in the final throes of #grantfest, but when Jonathan Laskovsky’s piece on exhaustion popped up on Twitter this morning, it made me want to hurl my iPad across the room. And I love my iPad.

I won’t tell you what I said then, or what I was still muttering under my breath when I finished reading the post, but I will say this: PLEASE DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

Instead, I want to offer three pieces of advice for those struggling through the genuinely exhausting process of writing grant and fellowship applications, which for reasons unknown, always seem to be due all at once.

Follow these three simple rules to give yourself the best shot of: a) writing a decent grant or fellowship application, b) not pissing off your colleagues and support staff, and c) coming out alive. Give me your tired, your poor, your exhausted early career researchers, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free of the stench of deadlines, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore in search of shining, funded, academia. (with apologies to Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty)

Rule No. 1:   You are not a robot:  self-care during #grantfest

I know what Jonathan Laskovsky means when he writes that exhaustion hones your focus, makes you direct your limited attention to the simplest solutions to the problems that really matter. I know that when I was working on my PhD, often the best supervision sessions would be those where I turned up utterly exhausted from a day of writing and analysis. I was too tired to overthink things, more inclined to listen, much better at cutting right to the chase, but I also know I wouldn’t do my best work in that state. No, while I recognise that #grantfest inevitably means putting in a lot of extra hours, and that not all of those hours will be spent in a blissful state of pure inspiration, I advocate meaningful attention to researcher self-care. What do I mean by self-care? I mean plan ahead, jettison discretionary commitments, enlist support, so that you can afford to focus on your grant. I also mean pay closer attention to the basics, like decent sleep and nutrition, stress relief and regular breaks, so that you can maintain this focus right through to the deadline.

Rule No. 2:  No grant-writer is an island:  enlist support

Grant-writing does not only take a toll on us as individuals, it also affects our families, our colleagues, and our students. We often expect the world to simply make allowances. Think about ways that you can make grant season easier on yourself and on those around you. Taking care of yourself is key, but you may be able to enlist some help in that department, too. Perhaps you can trade teaching or committee duties with a colleague, reschedule items in your calendar around grant timelines, avoid scheduling assessment during the peak busy period, and prepare teaching materials well in advance? At home, you may be able to ask your partner to take on additional responsibility for childcare, cooking, or household chores during grant season, then make up for it after the deadline. Stock up on fresh fruit and healthy snacks and throw together a pot of soup, or other easy heat’n’eat meals. At work, you might get together with colleagues to shut up and write, or read and critique one another’s grant applications. You could take turns doing the lunch run, or pool resources and time in other ways. Let your research support staff know that you are writing an application early in the process, attend the workshops, and seek help when you need it.

Rule No. 3:  Pace yourself:  project manage your grant application

Researchers, especially less experienced early career researchers, have a tendency to approach grant applications like they are solitary works of individual genius. They retreat to a dark lonely cave and labour away, producing a perfect 8-page manifesto of the research they want funded. But writing a grant application is not like writing a paper; it is a technical writing genre unlike any other, and it requires a strategic and systematic approach. It is an exercise in matching your research agenda to the perspectives and priorities of the funding body, filtered through what often seems a wilfully, even maliciously, byzantine application process. Approach the grant application as a project, with specific technical requirements, and requiring input from multiple sources. The guidance of your friendly local research support staff, and the feedback of your colleagues, are vitally important in maximising your chances of success. Make room in your schedule for this input, and don’t spring your magnum opus of a project proposal on these people two days before submission! Seek feedback early and often, and save some of your own time and energy so that you can take advantage of that feedback to improve your application. It’s a win-win: you get a better application, and survive the process intact, and – who knows? – the good karma you generate could make all the difference! So, no, I don’t recommend working yourself to exhaustion when writing a grant application – or at least, not on purpose, not in the belief you are priming yourself to do your best work. In fact, if you’re not careful, severe exhaustion brings with it a kind of intoxicating delirium that makes you feel like you’re doing a great job. Meanwhile, you may actually be editing furiously, turning perfectly decent draft material into gibberish, introducing inconsistencies, and making poor judgement calls. And the longer you persist in working past the point of exhaustion, the less likely you are to be rested and rational for tomorrow’s efforts. Most of us will, at some point, be that dead-eyed, wild-haired, zombie researcher shuffling double-time across campus at five minutes to deadline to deliver our application, ink barely dry; or sitting at our computer at midnight, fighting hallucinations and double-vision as we stab at the ‘submit’ button; but we should not valorise this kind of overwork. Kate Bowles’ post on “Irreplaceable time” is a must-read at this point. It’s also instructive to read Tanya Golash-Boza’s post on why academics should only do a 40-hour week – the comments are well worth reading. We certainly should not labour under the delusion that this is how we do our best work. While there may well be something to be said for the detachment that comes with exhaustion, there is also much to be said for taking care of yourself in busy times. But, hey, I wrote this post while chugging down the jumbo coffee with two extra shots that counted as breakfast for this exhausted research manager on the very last day of the DECRA round, so what do I know…?


  1. When I’m focused on grants I usually set aside several days to work from home. That saves on travel time and I can work in my PJs with bed head hair if I’m really running out of time. (Reminder to self. Don’t arrange Skype sessions then).
    I also plan my work day in my calendar with what I will work on, where I want to be at the end of the day, and schedule breaks at regular intervals (tendency to neck and back problems working at the computer for too long. I invested in a dictation program to help with that too). And dont underestimate the power of chocolate as a reward system. 🙂


  2. Thanks Jenny – great tips! Scheduling time for grant writing is really important. A lot of people I speak to find themselves struggling as we get towards deadline because they’ve assumed they will somehow fit grant writing in around teaching and other commitments. It doesn’t just happen. Hate to break it to you, people, but there is no grant-writing fairy…

    Some people find the pomodoro technique useful for helping them to focus on discrete tasks, and building in breaks and rewards (chocolatey or otherwise:)) If you can schedule a whole day away from campus to work on your grant, that can help a lot. If not, you might find a shut-up-and-write session with colleagues, or an hour each morning with the office door closed are good strateegies for focus.


  3. This is a great piece, I could not agree more. I also love the phrasing of ‘jettison discretionary commitments’ — it reminds me of that introvert meme saying ‘cancelled plans are better than crack cocaine’.


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