August 20, 2013

Dissertations and Grant-Writing: Lessons Learned.

Note: The article below was originally published in the SSCP Newsletter (Clinical Science Vol. 16 (2): Spring, 2013)

Dissertations and Grant-Writing: Lessons Learned
Amanda S. Morrison, Temple University

When I started graduate school, I was thrilled for the opportunity to develop study ideas and work on my own projects. However, the idea of a dissertation felt different. I attached greater significance to it, like it needed to be particularly exemplary of my research interests and the research direction I would like to take for the rest of my career. Although I tried to keep in mind the sage advice that “the best dissertation is a done dissertation,” it was important to me that I value the hours I would eventually dedicate to the dissertation. Now being able to look back on my experiences, I would, without a doubt, recommend applying for a grant or fellowship. The perks of being awarded funding for your dissertation are obvious, but perhaps less obvious are the perks that come with the actual preparation of the application. Writing a grant application requires you to start thinking about your dissertation early and with a critical eye, both of which, at least for me, relieved unnecessary stress down the road.

Our program requires that we orally defend a preliminary examination paper and dissertation proposal prior to applying to internship, so students typically begin working on their dissertation ideas during their third or fourth year. When you prepare a grant application, however, you have to begin much earlier than this if you ever hope to have the funding in time to run the study! I planned to spend five years in graduate school, followed by internship, so I figured that applying for a National Research Service Award (NRSA, also known as F31) during the summer after my second year would allow me, if I were fortunate enough to be funded, one to two years of funded research time. Given the late summer NRSA deadline, I planned to start developing some ideas during the spring and work on preparing the grant until August, keeping in mind that I would have to balance the other clinical, research, teaching, and course requirements at the same time. Fortunately, our department offered a seminar in grant-writing during the second semester of my second year. Although I felt overwhelmed by the notion that by the end of the semester I would have to have developed a dissertation idea and written a full draft of an NRSA application, I still consider the decision to take this course one of the best decisions I have made in graduate school for at least three reasons.

First, the grant-writing course made it impossible for me to procrastinate on what initially felt like an overwhelming project. During first and second year, I had not yet quite mastered the art of heeding self-imposed deadlines, but through my twenty-some-odd years of schooling, I had finely tuned the ability to complete large amounts of work for grade-related deadlines (i.e., the type of deadline that would be reflected in permanent ink on my transcript). Assignment deadlines required me to be realistic when I was feeling overly ambitious or perfectionistic. Likewise, the structure of the course naturally segmented a large task into feasible steps. Without the imposition of deadlines, I may have found myself preparing a dissertation proposal (or grant application) at the ninth hour, stressed and unhappy.

Second, the iterative process of receiving and responding to feedback about my ideas helped me to generate a research idea that I was excited to pursue. I had heard plenty of stories about senior students feeling burnt out and having difficulty bringing their dissertations to completion, so I wanted to be excited about answering my dissertation question. In fact, had I not taken the course, I likely would have ended up with a different idea altogether. While I was decently familiar with the research in my primary area of interest, I had struggled during the first few weeks of the semester to hone in on a study idea. Then I started formulating an idea I liked and wrote a couple of grant sections. After presenting these early sections in class, I received feedback from the professor and classmates that the idea might be too narrow to grab the attention of a grant reviewer. I took this feedback under serious consideration and, in the end, decided to pursue a totally different idea. Although this resulted in a decent amount of extra work to re-write those sections of the grant I had already completed, I never looked back on this decision. My second idea was measurably better than the first. The empirical support was more sound, the aims and hypotheses more clear, and the potential implications more important. I also found it to be a more interesting idea, as did my classmates, professor, and advisor. I am nearing the end of data collection right now, nearly three years after the completion of this grant-writing course, and I am still excited to work on my dissertation.

Finally, hopefully unsurprisingly, the grant-writing course improved my ability to prepare a grant application. I had assisted with grant applications as a research assistant, but preparing an application of my own was an entirely different, and sometimes very difficult, experience. The process feels more transparent now, and I feel more confident in my ability to prepare a grant in a post-doctoral or professional position. Whether my application had ultimately been funded or not, I had begun to learn a skill that will make me a more attractive candidate for future positions. Having achieved the funding, being able to be supported to conduct my dissertation research, and learning about the management of a funded project were great additional benefits.

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