I got the idea from Cindy Berg, who holds an annual writing retreat with her research group. Toward the end of Spring semester this year, my students and I scheduled a 3-day period and a 5-day period.
I recently decided to aim for a June 5 instead of an October 5 grant writing deadline. I had been thinking, October 5! Then I have the whole summer to write this proposal. But I hate writing grant proposals. It is a huge writer’s block issue for me, and I have been working on the same proposal for way longer than I will admit in writing. So I finally had an aha! moment where I realized that if I aim for October 5, then I actually have the whole summer NOT to write the proposal, while the proposal gets in the way of all of my other writing. So I committed to June 5, with the goal that it is out at the start of the summer, and then I have the rest of the summer for paper writing. The other advantage of June 5 is that after classes end, May often disappears and I don’t really know what I accomplished, so the proposal becomes a clear May accomplishment.
My three current students and I blocked off Monday – Wednesday, 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM of last week for proposal writing. I crammed all of my meetings for that week into Thursday (Fridays I generally don’t come into the office) and we claimed the conference room across the hall from my office (my lab space is 2 flights away from my office, not ideal for interactive collaboration).
It’s hard to convey how well this process worked for me/us. We certainly didn’t start from scratch, so I’m not saying that we wrote a whole proposal start to finish in 3 days. I had drafts of most sections by the start of Monday, in part with help from the students and some other collaborators prior to the scheduled days. On Monday and Tuesday, I mostly assigned people specific tasks related to holes in the proposal, e.g.: write a couple of specific paragraphs/sentences to beef up some sections; find literature to support specific points; work on the reference list; add details on measures or find new measures to address certain points; find relevant program announcements; fill out the enrollment chart; run frequencies on specific variables to add to proposal; take a first pass at some supporting sections, like resource plan or budget justification, so that I had a start or outline to work with.
On Wednesday morning, I sent around the full draft for everyone to read. Everyone sent feedback by the end of the day. Wednesday night I read through all of the feedback (about 900 revisions in the 20 or so pages), made edits, and then sent some final follow-up questions based on everyone’s feedback. Everyone had replied to me by the end of the day Thursday (technically not one of the grant writing days), and I was able to share with the other investigators for their feedback.
Reasons why I think it worked/what was great about it:
· We all had blocked off the time to work on it. Perhaps it goes without saying that blocking off the time means that we all concentrated on the proposal and not other tasks in our lives. This distinction was huge for me, because I tend to reply to things immediately and drop what I’m working on to respond to things in real time. For these 3 days, I mostly ignored emails that weren’t urgent. When my department head emailed me and asked if we could talk by phone about something that day, I replied, asked if it was urgent, and said if it was not urgent, could we wait until the next day. We could I never, ever say things like that to people, so it was a big step for me to prioritize my own research over an administrative responsibility.
· As I told my colleague, it was the first time in 3 years that I mostly neglected my Professor-in-Charge (PIC) duties for 3 straight days. And the world didn’t end. I did reply to a few urgent emails, but left the non-urgent tasks for Thursday and beyond. It was a good lesson to me of the value of occasionally stepping away from the tasks that are always there and never really finished.
· Being physically together – and knowing we were all working on the same task – was important for all of us. It really reduced response time and ability to check in about things. When my students had questions for me, they could come across the hall and ask me. Because the lab is 2 flights of stairs away, they never, ever pop in with questions. They always email me, and that obviously requires some delay in response time. Instead, I could answer their questions immediately. Similarly, I could ask them questions right away; give them a new task right away; or approach the group with a conceptual question I was struggling with, rather than waiting until our next lab meeting to do so. Currently, given my office location, departmental staff I work with pop in regularly with questions related to my administrative role, and that works well. I now look forward to moving to our new building in 14 months where my lab space will be next door to my office.
· The other advantage of being physically together is it made it harder to goof off. I didn’t want someone to walk into my office and see me surfing the web. One of my students in particular said that she really liked working with me nearby because it kept her on task and away from procrastinating, knowing I could walk in at any moment. She also said she looked forward to working near my office in the future for that very reason.
· There were 3 students working on my tasks, and as a result, I constantly was scrambling to stay ahead of them to keep them in tasks. Someone was always popping in to say that they finished the last task, what next? That time pressure was excellent for keeping my momentum. Again, if we weren’t together with blocked off time, it would have been me, alone, slowly working through one thing, emailing it to someone, slowly working through something else, emailing it… instead, it was a constant back and forth of documents.
· In the beginning, I really was thinking about the 3-days advantaging me and the proposal, and the students indirectly in that funding for the proposal would translate to student funding. It wasn’t until the last day that I realized the direct benefit to the students. They learned a fair bit about grant writing, what all the sections are about, what you need to highlight, how to edit it, etc. etc. By the end they said that they had learned a fair bit about proposal writing, and I think the intensity of the 3 days really made the process a better learning experience.
· Snacks! One day a student brought in lunch for everyone. Each of the 3 days someone brought in dessert. On day 3 we needed a change of scenery so I took them out to lunch and we didn’t talk about the proposal. Food was good.
I have fabulous students, whom I genuinely like, so spending 3 days with them all day was invigorating and enjoyable. I am so grateful to all of them for dedicating this time to the proposal, and am really impressed with how much we accomplished in 3 days. I highly recommend trying something similar to anyone working on a grant proposal.
In June we have our one week paper writing marathon. Stay tuned.
“The post Grant writing marathon first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on May 27, 2014.”