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This one's for Odyssey
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A Meandering Scholar meanders once more
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Donors Choose do they?
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Hey, Ho, the Witch is Dead...
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INVITING CONTRIBUTORS TO A SPECIAL ISSUE OF IJAD
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I wonder...what if...
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
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Dear Barista...
Thursday, September 30, 2010

I hate sports
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Grantsmanship - skill or gift?
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Classic Sting?
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What I know now? You're not that special.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
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Wait. You are not the boss.
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Did you find what you were looking for?
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Smoke Break?
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Crash, Bang, Wallop...click, click, boom
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The Injury Re-re-post
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Don't tag me Bro!
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Here I am!
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
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Tideliar

I am scientist by training, inclination and temperament. However, this is a blog, not a lab. The title reflects my passion for hyperbole, so don't take me too seriously. I don't. I was a technician in a physiology lab, got my PhD in molecular genetics and neuroscience, was a postdoctoral fellow in biophysics and now am a Project Manager in a Clinical Science/Biomedical Informatics institute. I am a scientific jack-of-all-trades, and very happy because of it. I write about science that catches my eye, making the transition away from the lab bench, and the slightly odd and moist boundary where science culture meets the public. I am an Englishman by birth, an American by temperament and if I were you I wouldn't lend me money.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Most of my readers know I have an alter-ego in real life who blogs (albeit sporadically) at a different Blog Network. I'm debating about combining them - coming out if you will, but that's a different post for a different day.

Something that is constant between both my Tideliar and [REDACTED] personalities is that I love to tell stories. I love to teach, and offer instruction when I can. The subject of my pedagogy is the increasingly wide swathe of territory that life scientists inhabit after they finish grad school and when they finally settle into some kind of career. Today's post is a little pedagogical I think, but you'll have to help me find the meaning, and the advice in here.

**********


We're going to rant talk about grants and grantsmanship. I'm going to tell a tale of writing. If you want to understand the rules of writing NIH grants you must read and digest DrugMonkey, and if your tastes run to the National Science Foundation, then you shall want to visit Prof-like Substance and our own belov'd Odyssey. Read their posts on the subject and, importantly, read the comments and trackback to the commenters. There is a metric shit ton lot of great advice out there.

When I started in my graduate lab the PI gave me a copy his recently funded R01 to read and digest. It was, of course, utterly impenetrable. The language of a grant is different from that of manuscript (think Nature paper vs. JNeurosci paper kind of condensation) and more importantly, for despite outward appearances I am not a total lackwit, I had moved to a Drosophila molecular genetics lab from a mammalian biophysics lab. Gradually as I learned the language of genetics I understood more of the grant and my own project began to take shape. After a year of being a teaching assistant and a Lab Pup I was told I had to apply for my own funding and my PI had found a perfect grant at The American Heart Association (AHA).

Actually he said, "I'd rather you wrote an NRSA, I did. But you're a foreigner, and probably not good enough. They're very competitive. I won one."


I tell ya, that just made me feel grrrreat!


Anyway, he showed me the forms on the AHA and I thought I'd just jump and get it done. Doesn't work like that I found out plenty sharpish. I realised almost immediately I had no clue where to begin.


"Just start with your abstract and specific aims." He said

"What's that then?" I replied


Specific Aims, I learned with a sharp cuff about the ear, are the salient goals of your research project. Three highly focused and ultraspecific goals you will accomplish with the money and time that the funding grants you. My first effort, something like...


"Aim 1 We will find the gene responsible for..." is not a good example. " How will you "find" the gene? Which "gene" are you looking for? Two simple questions that turn a specific aim into a high school level piece of prose.


My final version...

"Aim 1 EMS mutagenesis will be utilized to identify phenotypes that can be screened by..." is better. It is specific, you see?

Essentially this process was repeated with every step of the process. "Tideliar, show me your introduction on Monday...[insert wavy passage of time graphics]...oh dear. No, no, no - this isn't an introduction. This is more like a background, and this bit will be in your results section, and this section...well, I expect the reviewers will know that the brain is "made of neurons" so we can delete that I think..."


My PI, Dr. Venkman (not his real name, but he bears an uncanny resemblance IRL) would, with infinate patience, review edition after rain forest-depleting version of this fucking bastard of a beast grant. Once the basic framework of the grant was in place we spent literally scores of hours in his office as he showed showed me how to craft the text line-by-painstaking-line. I remember once dozing off because it took him an hour to get one sentence to his liking.

Obviously, the grant was funded, I got my bottle of champagne and massaged my ego all over my colleagues because it was an immense boost to my self-esteem and expected graduation date. All was write with the world. Two year later I submitted an extension grant and this time I had to do it on my own. Thankfully Dr. Venkman had trained me very well, and the project was really a great and simple piece of work so my second grant was funded for the remaining year or my PhD.

OK. I have to brag. I scored a 1.2 and ranked in the top 2% of the applicant pool. I'm really very good at my job (and it was a nearly complete grant as well? Ed.)

In my first postdoc lab I immediately started looking for funding, but ended up moving on before much writing had been done. In my second it was the same thing. And (somewhat unfortunately) the same process as grad school. My postdoc mentor felt the need to guide me line-by-line and step-by-step which was demeaning to me and a waste of time for us both, but hey, different strokes for different folks. Anyway, these postdoc grants weren't funded (another story for another day), but the point remains. I wrote several grants as a trainee and had excellent mentors take the time to teach me their version of grantsmanship. For it is not just what you write, but how you write and indeed, to whom you write as well.

In my current job grant writing is a major part of my PDQ, and on average takes up at least 50% of my time. However, things are very different in the administrative world in which I now roam. Firstly, I am not Faculty and the rules of my institute mean I cannot be a PI, or even co-Investigator. So I write other people's grants and that sucks, but again, a different post for a different day. My Unit, my group if you will, provide bioinformatics support for level of effort projects such as fairly modest (R21) level preliminary studies; we do the same for multi-site (RO1) clinical trials; and even for some Core/Institute (RC2, U19, P01) level grants. My job is to get the greenbacks in so we stay afloat (pressure much?). I help our PIs craft the sections of the grant that deal with their informatics and databasing needs. To do so I need to know in great detail the specifics of their project (obviously...we're databasing for them). So I have worked on maybe 4 personal grants in 2 years, but nearly 20 site grants. And every one is subtly different and demands different levels of commitment, their writing and grantsmanship. Because I've worked closely with so many stellar and well funded faculty I have learned so much about writing grants I honestly think I could write a decent and highly competitive grant of my own if only had the rank and the space.

The current version, as followers of @tideliar, are seeing is not going so smoothly, but that's purely for political reasons. We've restructured heavily but no one bothered to tell the peons so writing sections that support missions you know nothing about is necessarily very hard (understatement).

But the point, if there is one, is I have been lucky. I know I work in a job that plays to my gifts, but most of us in active science live on tax-payer dollars and the spigot can run dry at any time. Being able to write scorable and fundable grants is a significant duty and one which requires extensive training and practice. But most of us never get that chance, especially non-US citizens for whom there might be cultural and language issues involved. But all of us are expected to somehow accrue grantsmanship skills during our training. If we don't need an R01, we need at least something to get some dollars in.

What can I do to help translate these skills to my fellow junior scientists? IS it even incumbent upon me to do so?

**********



I don't know what the solution is here. We are such a diverse population that what worked for Jane might not work for Johnny. In my case I have been fortunate to get enough on the job training that as disgruntled as I am, and as frustrating as it is right now, I know I can do the job. But I know others in my position might not be so fortunate purely because their interests focus on a more narrow band of science. Or they lack the self-confidence to begin "doing" and get caught out justing "trying". Or they don't have the writing experience I have - I'll admit that a lot of the experience that I rely on comes from ingratiating myself with PIs during their writing and essentially forcing them to teach me some tips and tricks. I remember seeing the aghast looks on my bosses faces when I volunteered my time and effort to help on grants far beyond the remit of my job. Fortunately it has paid off in new skills, new contacts and (thankfully) greater positive exposure for my Unit.

What does the blogosphere think? Should we have grant writing courses for postdocs? Does this not risk wasting their valuable lab time as well as enforcing skills they might not appreciate?

As lab leaders should we encourage all our trainees to submit K99 and NRSA (depending on their experience/rank) just to begin the training and hardening process?

What about ESL scientists, do we give them extra help? Or is good grantsmanship contingent upon a more ingrained skillset than the ability to form a perfect sentence?

Or do we maintain the status quo and just let the strong flourish while the weak are predated by Science, red in tooth and claw?

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Blog Comments
Balancing Act

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As someone who has now written 3 grants just to get a post-doc, I think it is well worth the time of post-docs to take a course to complement whatever skills/aid their mentor may share.

antipodean
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Should we have grant writing courses for postdocs?

We already do.

Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Yes, we should have a course, and you should teach it! I'll enroll!

Gerty-Z
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we have that course at my mru. it is required for all first-year students.

Doctor Zen
The University of Texas-Pan American
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Grant writing was not the part I was unprepared for.

Grant management was.

GMP
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I think grant-writing training would be very useful if done right.
There is some at my university, but here's the catch:
I think everyone would want to learn, just like you did, from experienced and well-funded PI's. The problem is that these PI's will not invest the time to teach anybody outside their labs, which is understandable. Unfortunately, at least at my place, the people who do teach others how to write grants don't have the credentials that I would consider necessary (i.e. actually having received grants from the agencies that they are giving advice about). *sigh*

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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At my University, there is a Research Design course during first semester. Too early, because we are just starting.
However, starting a course would be awesome. Not only for Post docs, but also for student who are looking forward for a career in Academia.

Well, who else than you who have fundable grant writing skills even as a graduate student.

Seriously, looking forward for one.

Odyssey
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For it is not just what you write, but how you write and indeed, to whom you write as well.

This alone will do a great service to your readers. Assuming they actually digest it.

Yes, there should be grant-writing courses. We have one for our first year grad students, but really these things should be offered to all grad students, postdocs and PI's (yes, PI's) who want to attend. And following up on Dr. Zen's comment - there should be a grant management component.

Does this not risk wasting their valuable lab time as well as enforcing skills they might not appreciate?
As lab leaders should we encourage all our trainees to submit K99 and NRSA (depending on their experience/rank) just to begin the training and hardening process?
What about ESL scientists, do we give them extra help? Or is good grantsmanship contingent upon a more ingrained skillset than the ability to form a perfect sentence?


Postdocs are trainees. As such it is the PI's duty to train them. Chaining them to the bench is not training. Grant writing is an integral part of the training all students and postdocs should receive. Writing and submitting proposals is, IMO, the best way to learn. ESL's included. Grantsmanship is a skill that is invaluable even if the student or postdoc doesn't go into academia. You need to justify funding (or the equivalent) in all aspects of life. Grantsmanship is about much more than putting it down on paper. It's about planning and organizing your ideas, planning and organizing how you will execute them, and selling the project to your audience. These skills are what makes a for a successful researcher.
DrugMonkey

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What Odyssey said.

Tideliar
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Thanks everyone for stopping by and commenting. I wonder if some folks would care to give specifics about the courses run at their institutions?

Personally, I think Odyssey's comment is bang on - courses should be widely available to all ranks, from grad to PI. But, it needs to be taught by someone who has received funding from that source. I don't want to attend a seminar or workshop on the NSF run by someone who hasn't even applied for, or been awarded NSF funding.

Likewise, some classes/seminars I've been to have been run by Greybeards who talk about funding levels and priorities from a decade ago :/

At my place, the majority of Grants Workshops are on HOW to find money. Not HOW to get money, which is a massive waste.

One good thing though is that we have one guy come and do seminars from time to time; an NIH Chief of extramural funding so he knows his shit and also does one-on-one consulting with PIs. That is a great resource (and very expensive).

Gerty-Z
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At my MRU, the first year grad student grant-writing course is led by well-respected scientist. All of the students write an NSF fellowship application and submit it at the end of the course. I didn't get to take this class, but from what I can see there are some good points made. There are rounds of drafts (first peer-reviewed, then PI-reviewed). Not only is there grantsmanship training, but at least a couple of students every year get the NSF award! win-win

When I was preparing to write the K99/R00 and I went to a several-hours-long workshop that was for postdocs and PIs. It basically sucked. I think at this level general statements are not that helpful. Although, there were a lot of folks asking what I considered really obvious questions so maybe it was useful for some.

It would be pretty awesome to have an NIH Chief give a seminar and do consulting! I will my Dept. would do that!!

Professor in Training
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Yeah, what Odyssey said.

It's also important to note that different people have different ideas about how to write a successful grant. Listen to those that have been funded in recent years, not those that got their last grant 20 years ago when the paylines were around the 40th percentile.

Genomic Repairman
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How the fuck does this post only have three sets of 5 stars? Mod this bitch you stingy motherfuckers. Oh and grad students are getting shitty grant writing experience too. No one is teaching us and the bosses are telling us to apply for fellowships and working with us on grantsmanship. Granted its not as important for us as it is for postdocs but it would be nice to lay a solid foundation as early as possible.

Tideliar
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Fuck yeah GenRepair! Rate this biches!!

Ahem.

Like a couple of folks have said, I think grad school is the time for the more hand-holding this is how we lay kind of teaching. There id a lot to learn about the really fine details of technical writing and that is a major part of learning to be a Scientist. Grad school needs to teach you all the skills for acting, thinking, reading and writing like a Scientist.

at postdoc it should be more hands off but supervised - go write and bring me whole drafts, not sections.

BUT

That is all contingent on the groundwork having being laid correctly in the first place. Something we've discussed here is the necessity of constantly returning to the basics because you don't know f everyone has received the same of training. That makes it frustrating for more experienced people though.

There is a wealth of literature on how to teach adults, and that needs to be carefully employed too. This isn't a fucking high school English Comp class, y'know?

Odyssey
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There is a wealth of literature on how to teach adults, and that needs to be carefully employed too. This isn't a fucking high school English Comp class, y'know?

I'm running into more and more students who would benefit from a fucking high school English Comp class. And it's not the ESL's.

Dr. O
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The problem is that these PI's will not invest the time to teach anybody outside their labs, which is understandable.

I don't think it's understandable, or acceptable, to not train postdocs in grant-writing, even when they're not in your own lab. Our PDA is starting a program where postdocs can participate in mock study sections, exchanging their grants with other postdocs to get reviewed prior to submitting them. The best part...we have several well-funded (by NIH) PIs lined up to host these mock study sections. The time commitment - reading 4-5 additional grants over the course of a year and spending an afternoon with eager-to-learn postdocs. The chair of our department, as well as several other faculty, also helped me immensely in the writing of my grant (in addition to my PI). The payoff to the university as a whole is substantial if these postdocs get their grants funded. The bigger problem might be getting something like this organized. Without it, though, there are still plenty of resources available - postdocs just have to go out and find them.

@GR - Our graduate school also has a writing course available to grad students, which they can take the semester prior to comps or when they're contemplating dissertation/paper writing. Same idea as the mock study section (grad students reading others drafts, with a PI to guide them), but it occurs over the course of an entire semester. Maybe see if your graduate student senate/council can lobby for the formation of something similar?

Tideliar
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I'm running into more and more students who would benefit from a fucking high school English Comp class. And it's not the ESL's.

My dad always said he could tell when an engineer had written a report because only the numbers made sense.

The bigger problem might be getting something like this organized.

This is what frustrates me so much around here. The inertial barrier/activation energy of getting anything started. the most common 'under the table' comment I hear is that it's not worth it because so many of our postdocs are on visas that few can apply for grants. This is so much BS it makes me want to scream

Without it, though, there are still plenty of resources available - postdocs just have to go out and find them.

And this is the other side of the coin. Postdoc apathy is the death of most programs. Disgruntle docs complain, the rest put up and shut up so as not to rock the boat. Very few actually DO anything.

ScientistMother
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For my comprehensive exam, I've had to write up my PhD project as grant application. It was hell. My PI, with infinite patience as well, edited, corrected, explained. I had to do everything on my own though. from coming up with the specific aims to the experimental design. It has been hell, but damn have I learned alot about grant writing.

Unforunately, many PI's just write the mock grant for their students...
namnezia

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I think the best way to teach students, postdocs and PI's to write grant is by having them write their own. A course per se is not very useful, certainly not as useful as writing a grant and having a mentor or senior colleague critique the hell out of it.

Dr. O
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This is what frustrates me so much around here. The inertial barrier/activation energy of getting anything started. the most common 'under the table' comment I hear is that it's not worth it because so many of our postdocs are on visas that few can apply for grants. This is so much BS it makes me want to scream

Funny thing is, I (a postdoc) organized the mock study section almost all on my own this past year, while also submitting a grant of my own and balancing a million other commitments. It wasn't too hard, but I had a huge support system on my side (postdoc office, association, and lots of faculty members on our postdoc training committee). It's SOOOOO worthwhile for the institution to get the framework laid for these types of activities (ie, starting a postdoc office) and having an administration that's supportive of its endeavors, then you can usually find postdocs and faculty that will take ideas and run with them. Postdoc and faculty apathy generally is at its worst when there isn't any support from the "leadership".

msscha
University of Florida
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As someone who trains undergrads to write scientific prose after having spent years training ESL grad students/profs to write in their disciplines -- but who does NOT have grant writing experience or training -- I wonder why my place of employ is so frequently contacted to train post docs in just these areas...b/c I agree, the best training comes from people who've been through the experience and for something like grant writing, an intimate, in-your-face editorial rip-fest is likely the best route. Because you nailed it with the audience thing: it isn't that hard to train people to write clearly enough to publish, to get scholarships, even to get their kids visas to get out of China -- but it's VERY difficult to get someone $$. I've helped a few get capital from non-science groups b/c figuring out the story in the science and selling that is fairly straightforward. But persuasion within a field is tougher, and best done by discipline-natives. And should PIs be helping? Of course. And don't get me started on what they should also be doing for the undergrads working in their labs.
Pharm Sci Grad

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We actually have a grant writing course here at my R1 U. We critiqued a grant that actually received NIH funding along with learning about each step of the process. It was taught by a professor emeritus who is now the director of Science Outreach & Career Opportunities Center at my U.

I waited until my third year to take the class on the suggestion of my committee and I think that made all the difference. I don't know that I would have learned as much or understood the process as well if I had taken it my first year before I did much in the way of lab work and paper writing.

The course if offered every other year and about twenty people took it from across the campus. That's the damn shame of the whole thing.

Tideliar
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@msscha, thanks for stopping by. Because you nailed it with the audience thing: it isn't that hard to train people to write clearly enough to publish, to get scholarships, even to get their kids visas to get out of China -- but it's VERY difficult to get someone $$.

This is exactly why we need to train people. Writing a major grant is nothing like writing a manuscript!

Hi Pharm Sci Grad (nice descriptive moniker!). We had a great (mandatory) "critical appreciation" class at my R1 grad school, but it seems these grant reviews classes rare. Between you and Dr. O it seems only 2 commenters have done something like it...

Looks like I found myself a nice project to work on over the winter.

We did do one thing like it here for junior faculty & postdocs but it was a mock open study section (like a little stage play) by some senior faculty so that us n00bs couldf get an inside peek at the process and see what to look for.

You guys have given me some ideas. It needs to be regular and combined with a writing component...

becca
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I really wish we had some input from people in the infamously vague 'industry' to tell us what they think about grantwriting training. Our comps were in 'write and defend a grant' format, of course, and I found it very good for forcing myself to think carefully about the science. So I *strongly suspect* that grantwriting practice really would benefit anyone, but I would REALLY like some input from people who don't end up writing grants for a living as to whether it was worth the time away from the bench.

We have good workshops (not classes) on grantsmanship here, run by two main people (one of whom is funded out the wahzoo, one of whom is not as active with research but he focuses more on career-development and only touches on grants- and his advice is generally excellent). But I'm betting those aren't nearly as useful as an actual class where everybody actually writes grants and gets feedback on them. Although Dr. Wahzoo *did* volunteer to read and give feedback for anyone, don't know how many take him up on it (I'm betting not *that* many...)

Tideliar
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Thanks for stopping by Becca (PSU huh! Ditto, 2003).

I would suspect that grant experience benefits everyone in science because, as you say, it teaches you a such fine level of focus and attention to detail. Unfortunately, I write for a living, so I don't fit your criterion LOL

Now you've registered, come join us in the Industry forum and see what folks have to say.

Start in "Newbietown and say hi. Then visit the Biotech Discussion Group.

NatC
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About once a year (i.e., once in a blue moon) there is a grantwriting workshop for postdocs at my MRU. It's a great idea, and they always have many more people wanting to attend than they can take.
Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to it's hype - there is no actualy writing involved. It's focused on how to find grants to apply for (INTERWEBZ!) and the remaining quarter telling us to have a draft written at LEAST 9 months before it's due.
Ummm...9 months?
I was left with the uncomfortable feeling someone had confused grantwriting with something distinctly more fun. (But no better idea of how to write a grant).

Dr. Girlfriend

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A grant writing workshop was always on drawing board of or college postdoc association, as was a mock grant panel. We had a number of experienced faculty to tap into but the problem was always how to make it worthwhile yet accessible to all postdocs (even just within bioscience). It would have helped if we (the college postdoc association) had some sort of support in our mission and were not constantly fighting against the mentality that postdocs should be happy to just do research.

Not all PIs are great grant writers, and a postdoc in a new lab is severely disadvantaged when it comes to training in this respect. This is where community should come in, and where junior faculty and postdocs can benefit from the collective wisdom and feedback of the department. We (the college postdoc association) attempted to initiate a practical workshop/resource-share for postdocs and new PIs, but, as is typical with our institution, getting PIs and administrators to back us and support us was challenging at best!

I find it a shame that so many people treat reading over a grant (or manuscript) as a favor to their colleague, rather than utilize it a great teaching tool. Giving a student a grant to read is a start, but for them to really benefit they need to see it in its various stages and be privy to the discussions between collaborators and senior postdocs. Scientists of all levels are deficient in their ability to explain their research to anyone who are not experts in their tiny field, so involving students can only improve their communication skills. This is especially important considering that getting funded is not just about having great ideas, but about communicating them effectively.

Tideliar
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This is where community should come in, and where junior faculty and postdocs can benefit from the collective wisdom and feedback of the department.

Utopia!
Pharm Sci Grad

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Glad you like it... :)

If you're taking this on as a project, you may want to check out http://www.preparing-faculty.org/ - my course was offered as part of our preparing future faculty certificate program, so they may have some resources you could use.

The only thing about the course I took that I would change is the amount of time spent talking about how to find grants. Give me the website and I can go from there.

The best part about it was that we were given detailed information on each part of the grant - i.e. Specific Aims: they are x, y, and z; do/do not include a, b, or c here; write this for a scientist in your field/the program director/a scientist in your subfield; etc. If there was a way to combine this sort of information (including an example of "good" and "bad" version of this section) with a writing assignment to work on this part of your grant during the week/class, I think that would be awesome. Assuming the writing part is critiqued afterwards of course.

Good luck! :)

Tideliar
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Hey! THanks for the heads up. I think I could run this through our PDO and do a version of the mock-study section...

I have a few ideas, and I want to (within) reason minimise faculty effort, because if it looks like a chore they won't do it...
jetty

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Hi,

I am on the other side. My PI taught me how to get the science done by putting the belly to bench, but not the writing part. Let alone grants, not even manuscript writing did he allow. No, I am a PI of a lb with 2 years already waited with our submitting anything to get own funding, and receiving serious signals from Dean of the school. I am in physical sciences. do you think you can help me a bit? Or any other places that I can go to for help on it? I know my subject pretty well, and can compete with the top tier being at tiny place. I just suck at writing grants, wth the time devided in the lab and with the family. Pretty stressed out. I just wish I had some formal training on it, and my visa problems also compound the problem a bit. Please send me any useful articles or model proposals that you have for NIH and NSF type?




Tideliar
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Hi Jetty, send me an email at tideliar -at- gmail dot com and we ca talk off these boards about it.
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