Grant writing for promotion:

In the many discussions we have had with academics from assistant professor to full professor, the biggest challenges faced by everyone are either time management or grant writing. It is the latter that we would like to address today.

Writing research proposals has become an essential survival skill for any academic. As soon as you are being recruited as a new academic staff, you quickly learn that without your own grant, you will not go very far. Ok, you could get PhD studentships and supervise students and generate excellent publications which will contribute greatly to the scientific output of your institutions and enable you to become an independent scientist. However, in the long term it will become difficult to sustain your lab expenses, get new equipment, and increase the size of your group. Moreover, your chances of promotion will be greatly diminished if you do not get significant external research income. Obviously, you won’t get a grant if you don’t apply for it, so grant writing is pretty much fundamental.

Writing a grant is an art in itself and would deserve a complete article for this, and we may get around that if you are interested. However, what we would like to first discuss is getting into the habit of writing grants. We hear from many, and we suffer from this too, that getting into consistent grant writing is difficult. Many will acknowledge that grant writing is one of the most important tasks they should be doing, and yet it is postponed week after week. Why is that? Isn’t it one of the most exciting parts of the academic job to plan the research you want to do in the next few years? Maybe it comes from the nature of funding agencies that give priorities to research that is not so innovative and blue-sky research but instead a continuity of what has already been done. Whatever is the reason, the truth is that many procrastinate while intending writing grants. We’d like to offer some possible solutions to stop procrastinating. 

Making writing an habit

First of all, writing must become a habit. There have been a lot of studies on how to generate habits, and you can find many references indicating how a habit is made after a certain number of repetitions. However, the two most important prerequisites for any activity to stick are motivation and purpose. The purpose should be relatively easy to identify since writing grants forms part of the core of your research goals. Still, it can be easy to forget and therefore it is useful to remind yourself of why you are doing this research and taking that direction. This should also drive your motivation as you will remind yourself of the importance of your work, the meaning of your work and why it is important to make some efforts to write an excellent grant proposal. By thinking on how this grant relates to your group and enables you to pursue further research, the motivation should come to you.

Trigger, organisation and reward

You then need to move into action and start writing. A recent study on tiny habits by B.J. Fogg has shown that in order to get a habit to stick, it is essential to provide a trigger to start the activity. That means that for any new activity you want to introduce as a habit, you need to find something that you already do in a regular basis and add your new activity onto it. This can be as simple as starting writing at the same time than when you take your morning coffee or tea, or doing it after you have finished checking your email in the morning for example, or simply by setting daily or weekly reminders on your phone.

Then, you need to organise yourself for success. That means to split the grant writing into many smaller tasks and schedule them realistically in your agenda. Decide how much time you have on a given day and try to define a realistic task that you can accomplish during that time on your grant writing. You schedule those tasks and spread them over the next few weeks and then you execute them. Don’t be overoptimistic as you would feel bad if you never managed to accomplish the tasks, yet let the tasks be challenging so that you get a sense of true accomplishment when you have finished.

After one or a series of tasks that you have accomplished, reward yourself. Take the time to step back and realise how much progress you have done and that you are going in the right direction. For example, that may mean baking your best cake recipe, or going to the restaurant with your best friend, or simply taking a couple of hours for yourself to do something that you really enjoy.

Tips for habits to stick

There are some useful tips that can also make it easier for new habits to stick. For example, if you partner with one or more colleagues, it can be easier to stick to a timetable. If you decide to write together in the same room at the same time, then it forces you to really stick to that time and to really do that activity during this time. It works better being physically together, but it can also work online. 

It is also important to have some accountability to others. Whether it is in the form of setting a meeting to write with others, or simply reporting to them about your progress. For example, in our group we report regularly to each other on where we are in terms of grant writing, whether it is a new idea stage, or if it has progressed, or if it is about to submit. Once you have committed to someone else, it is a much stronger commitment than just to yourself.

Another tip is around financial incentive: you can put some money for someone or something else if you do not achieve your goals of grant writing. Not losing money is usually a good motivator and it can get you into the habits of writing even if the intrinsic motivation is not quite there yet.

Embrace the scientific writing culture

Writing is an activity that must be practised regularly in order to become more effective and turned into a habit, so there is also a benefit to start early in your career. If you are a post-doc, there are clear benefits for you to start writing your own grant and submit it within a fellowship scheme for example. And if you are already a permanent academic, part of your duties as mentor is to incentivise your post-doc to write grant proposals, either for themselves or with you to give them opportunities to grow within your lab. If the culture of scientific writing is spread across your lab, then it is likely that new ideas will sprout at lab meetings and everyone will benefit from it.

We hope that this article can help you reflect on how to stop procrastinating at writing grant proposal and that you will find some advice useful to implement in your current working routine. We’d love to hear what you find easier or most challenging to implement in your own routine.


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