Beware of Grant-Writing Mercenaries

Writedit, who supports biomedical researchers at an academic medical center – investigators to whom writedit is fiercely loyal – was dismayed to discover this blog is being devoured by inexperienced grant-writing mercenaries seeking to make a quick buck writing Challenge Grant proposals:

I just got hired by a research 501c 3 on a three month contract to write NIH challenge grants. I’m underqualified but posessed of great enthusiasm. Plus some resources to hire help if I need it.

I read all the NIH information. And I do mean ALL of it. I thought I understood what I’d be doing. Then I read your blog. I am SUCH an outsider! How do I become an experienced insider. This week.

Thanks for any direction.

MB

I would be devastated if anyone I wanted to see succeed purchased such services thinking they were getting qualified help. Please, if you are looking outside your University for assistance with grant preparation, be sure to check credentials and references carefully. Now, writedit is very happy to help the other genuine writeditors of the world, and there are qualified freelancers/for-profit operations out there who can offer real help with NIH and other grant applications. These folks generally have a research background of their own plus funded PIs (check the names in CRISP) willing to confirm said freelancer’s qualifications.

What makes me upset, I guess, is that someone like Ms. MB probably has no idea that careers, in which the PI has already invested years of education and indentured servitude, depend on securing grant funding (as do scientific advances) – this is not just some money-making sideline University professors do to augment their salary. Writedit wants to help investigators reading this blog advance as independent researchers, and I gain more satisfaction from watching such career development unfold at BICO (& prior universities) than from drawing a paycheck. Way more. Okay, off my soapbox and back to the serious business at hand.

22 Comments »

  1. iGrrrl said

    To which I say, hear hear! on all counts.

    I have a hard time finding qualified help, because the work we do requires a fairly rare combination of skill sets and background knowledge. I’m appalled by the idea that someone led Ms. MB to think she could write a successful Challenge grant with the little background she describes.

  2. BB said

    iGrrrl, I know a wonderful grant-writing service for personalized help. I would be happy to pass on info to you.

  3. D said

    I wonder what the ghost writer’s charge? Do they advertise on Craigslist?

    D

    Please – don’t give them any ideas! – writedit

  4. Odyssey said

    I honestly don’t know who’s more naive – Ms. MB or the research organization that hired her. That is truly remarkable.

    Naive? Ms. MB is the one laughing all the way to the bank. I hope she didn’t have misspellings in her cover letter at least. – writedit

  5. Odyssey said

    Depends on whether Ms. MB’s job security depends on success (if she has any job security at all). If it does, she’s likely toast.

  6. iGrrrl said

    BB, do they have PhDs in a biomedical or other STEM discipline? That’s often my stumbling block. In any event, more information on resources is always good. LMK if you want an email address rather than posting here. Not sure of writedit’s policies on that sort of thing.

    I can connect you folks via e-mail. I trust BB’s recommendation, but I can’t vet everyone who claims to have grantsmanship abilities so would rather this blog remain informational than a job board. – writedit

  7. I’d call this person a whore, but whores are generally qualified for the work that they contract to do.

  8. writedit said

    Hmmm … this letter in Nature describes something that sounds vaguely familiar …

    People often choose an academic career for the freedom and creativity of doing research. Overburdening them with administrative tasks means that their creativity is hardly used. One solution might be a ‘grant-writing’ office that would know all about the availability of grants, how they might apply to specific topics and what they should contain.

    … could be because it’s what I get paid to do. And then some. I’ve always thought it was a good investment for Universities to make – and it avoids the pitfalls of the scenario above.

  9. Delenn said

    My job mirrors Writedit’s – I assist faculty in multiple fields and disciplines within the Health Sciences. I possess a PhD in a biomedical field, and was funded by federal and private foundations as an Assistant Professor. Family considerations led me to my present academic/administrative position. I have also served as a freelance editor at times. I can honestly say that I abandoned that line of work (aka good extra money) when I was asked to write a grant application that I clearly was unqualified to write. I know that the client was promised an experienced grant writer – and charged dearly for it (the grant writer and separately, the editor, received a certain percentage). Some of the grant writers had PhDs, most did not. Some of the editors had PhDs, some did not. I think it is critical to understand who is assisting you, and what qualifications, experience, insight, and motivation they bring to the table, and the client. For me, integrity was paramount. I’ll help investigators all I can, with the salary my university pays me, exclusively.

  10. D said

    The Devil’s Advocate says…..It sounds like there are also different opinions about what a “mercenary” grant writer should be doing.

    If I write most of the grant and then turn it over for editing by a science editor to make it more readable, consistent, get rid of jargon etc. that is fine.

    If I am going to give my specific aims page to someone and tell them to turn it into a 10-25 page R01 grant that is another thing.

    It is possible that MB could do the first but not the second. I have no problem with using her services. But, any PI who does the latter and expects a great product is naive at best and deserves what he/she gets.

    I never had the opportunity to work with a professional science writer when writing grants… I wish I had had a WriteEdit at my BICO. But, that is what Post-docs are for I guess😉

    A “three month contract to write NIH challenge grants” by someone who knows nothing about the NIH sounds a bit opportunistic to me and sounds like it involves a bit more than page editing, which I agree, is always acceptable (encouraged!) and can be accomplished by any competent editor with no NIH awareness. BTW, writedit only writes, from whole cloth in partnership with the PI, non-hypothesis driven grants (equipment, construction, training, education, conference, etc. – ie, boring but important infrastructure stuff) and substantially edits (sometimes drafts portions) and guides narrative development for science grants … but the PI must generate the words and ideas first (and last). More of grant mentorship than grant-writing. Plus a lot of match-making (collaborators) and networking (sponsors) assistance and lots of non-threatening what I call “research therapy” sessions for new investigators (listen/respond to their ideas, let them ask questions they might feel embarrassed to ask senior colleagues, etc.). I’d show any PI to the door who arrived with some aims, preliminary data, and papers he/she wanted converted into an R01 for them, but I know it happens all the time at grant-writing shops. In fact, I might give the lazy bastard a PhysioProf piece of mind. – writedit

  11. iGrrrl said

    Interesting, Delenn, and all very good points. Before I ran into writedit, I was starting to feel like a species of one.

  12. D said

    Wow. Now I reaaaaaalllllyyy wish I had a WritEdit. BICO faculty are a lucky bunch.

  13. bean-mom said

    I don’t blame poor MB, who knows that she is in over her head and does sound sincerely committed. She probably just didn’t understand *how* underqualified she is until she started this. I blame the lazy ass research institute that hired her without due diligence.

    I’m a writeedit in training, by the way. I”m a recent postdoc in the biological sciences, hired by a large cancer laboratory to write/edit manuscripts and grant proposals. I’ve never written an RO1 before this year, but the PI who hired me knew that. He knew exactly what my background and qualifications were.

    And I just hope that I can one day approach writeedit’s knowledge and mastery of this crazy system…

    Only takes 2-3 decades … Good luck & have fun – you’ll do quite well and have a very satisfying career if your heart is in it. – writedit

  14. Delenn said

    Bean-Mom – my best advice is to ask investigators who hold successfully funded federal grants (e.g. NIH R01s, R21s, etc.) and ask them for a copy. More importantly, ask them for copies of their summary statements, whether they ended up getting their grant application funded, or not. Also, reading successful and unsuccessful grant applications while your tired, grumpy, distracted by your children, overworked, hungry, with less than 24 hours before the review deadline and study section discussion (or all of the above), will put you in a place that many (if not most) grant reviewers find themselves in. Reading a grant application under these circumstances will give you a fabulous perspective regarding which grants are clear, consise, and compelling vs. grants which are disorganized, rambling, and are trying to baffle with bologne! It will make you a better grant writer/editor, and a more valued employee!

  15. bean-mom said

    Writeedit–Thanks for the encouragement! And thanks for providing us all with such a valuable resource in your web page!

    Delenn–Your advice is brilliant! Thinking back on grants I’ve read and putting myself in the position you describe (sleep-deprived, cranky, etc)–provides an entirely new perspective! Now I see why that grant that I thought was so brilliant (if a little difficult to get through) might come off as entirely incomprehensible at 2 am…

  16. Delenn said

    For even better advice and perspective, read the list compiled by Writedit and contributors – to paraphrase – everything you always needed to know to kill your chances for funding!

    https://writedit.wordpress.com/2008/04/02/how-to-prevent-grant-funding/#comments

  17. Serenity said

    Although I don’t know MB or the organization in question, I’d venture to say the organization is more at fault than MB. Under-qualified people apply for jobs all the time, and it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that they offer the job to someone who can do it. If MB misrepresented his or her abilities, that would make the task a bit more difficult, but the hiring organization should still take the time to check references–even (or perhaps especially) when the task is time-sensitive.

    I got my start in grant “writing” by hanging out a virtual shingle and waiting for the work to flood in. For months I looked for job listings that matched my skill set and experience. As you might expect, no one advertises for a writer with no experience. After about six months, I received an email out of the blue asking if I would be interested in assisting a major medical university with a grant proposal. Of course I said yes. I got the job because I was the only person willing to tackle a 250-page document due in six weeks. I wasn’t qualified, but I was willing. And the rest is (job) history.

    Now I make $120K a year for part-time work that is essentially concentrated in three or four months of the year. I work from home, and I don’t retain difficult clients. I understand the views of the respondents who say that researchers should take advantage of their in-house grant shops, but I’d don’t agree with them in most cases.

    While writedit and others here may provide valuable services at their universities, I don’t think that is the norm. All of my clients are researchers at major research universities that provide grant offices. I’ve asked them why they don’t use them, and they consistently provide one of two responses (or both). 1) The staff provide editing services or help with mechanics, but they don’t understand the science well enough to help with content or to identify problems with the proposal. 2) The staff aren’t available when I need them.

    Usually number 2 is what drives researcher to hire a grant consultant, and number 1 is what prompts them to use a consultant over and over even though it can be expensive. Few researchers begin writing proposals six months in advance, and many leave the bulk of the writing until a few weeks before the deadline. University grant offices aren’t designed to provide hands-on assistance 80+ hours a week in the final weeks before a proposal is due, but contractors thrive on that schedule. And if you do good work, regardless of whether the proposal is funded, the researcher will return to you over and over because you provide valuable insight that strengthens the proposals, and you make their lives easier in the process.

    Unfortunately, if you do a good job and your clients are good scientists, they’ll need you less and less often as the grant dollars pile up and they have real work to do. When the Challenge grants announcements came out, I thought this would be a great time to find a few new clients to fill some of those holes. Although organizations like the one that hired MB are keen to get the stimulus money, they are in shock when they find out what freelance consulting costs. MB is probably working for one of the places that told me “that’s outside of our budget” or “we really don’t think it will require that much work.”

    So I’m doing a few Challenge grants for existing clients and keeping my fingers crossed that a new client will call late next week in a panic looking for someone to save them from the “less expensive” help they hired. But I don’t begrudge MB the opportunity to get his or her foot in the door–you have to start somewhere, and working for a desperate or cheap client is as good a way as any.

    • NY said

      Serenity, is there anyway that we can email about your background and how you got into freelance grantwriting?

      • writedit said

        NY, you can read the good points made by my colleague here at BICO about getting into this sort of work. Serenity is on faculty at a college so does the freelance bit on the side when he’s off for the summer, which I’d say many of us do as well (whether or not we have summers free) – me to help friends, Serenity to make serious cash writing CTSA applications it seems … with payment up front rather than contingent on obtaining an award, fortunately for him.🙂

      • Serenity said

        Writedit can pass along my email address to you if he doesn’t mind.

        Actually, I left academia at the end of the 2007-2008 school year to freelance. For me the hours are better, the work is more enjoyable, and the pay is much, much better.

        The CTSA apps are definitely good money, but most applicants are using in-house staff (if they’re using anyone). My most recent CTSA client was funded in this last round, so it’ll be a few years before they need me again.

        R01s and the like are sufficient to keep a part-time consultant in six figures for now, but some of the proposed changes at NIH (e.g., new page limits) may make it difficult to survive as a freelance unless the smaller proposals are augmented with several large center proposals each year. Whatever your situation, I wouldn’t abandon your current job until you have a solid base of repeat clients.

  18. Rena Hines said

    Serenity,

    Thank you for that information. I have witten several humanitarian proposals to the NIH that was heavily funded at other University Research Centers. Ten years ago, I wrote the original proposal to show how exercise reverses or prevent alzheimers from a cytopathology perspective. To my surprise I read that over 600 studies were done.

    I would like to find scientists that would be willing to consider acting as PI to more important proposals I have for preventative programs in alzheimers , and reversing chronic kidney diseases. I have a good record for receiving support for humanitarian programs and I think I can continue to write compeling proposal that effects a large part of our society, however, I need a physicain or university research center that would be interested in my concerns. If so please contact alzheimprevent@aol.com

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