Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My (fellow)ship's taking on water! Abandon (fellow)ship!

          Fellowship applications…suck. There. I put it all on the table. It isn’t pretty or flowery or even “educated” language, but it’s true. They suck.  I’ve been writing, literally, for eons. And before you ask – yes, I do indeed know what an eon is. And I’ve been writing for that long. Literally. 

          Because I believe in planning life to the nth detail – I began writing last Monday with the intention of writing one section per day. I skipped Wednesday, which turned into a skipped Thursday which turned into “eh, it’s Christmas!” Now, here I am, a week later, with only 2 sections of my application completed, pancakes in my belly, donuts on my mind and application writer’s block weighing down my thinking cap.  Remember those movies where the directors think it to be extremely important to show various clips of the struggling writer as he moves around his home carrying his laptop and coffee with him. He’s lying upside down on the couch with his feet against the wall and his head on the carpet. Or he’s sitting at his desk, leaning back in the desk chair that inevitably goes too far back causing him to fall.   That’s me.  Without the embarrassing “falling out of the desk chair” scene. I’m too classy and nimble footed for that. I’m the Audrey Hepburn of Ninjas. Wait…where was I? Oh yes, fellowship application writer’s block. 

Spending two hours scouring various articles, biotech companies and pubmed web pages regarding information for one single, solitary cell line is not my idea of fun.  Naturally this search brought up various tidbits of information that I did not need, which lead my brain down various woodsy paths to arrive at destinations it had no business at. Every time I read something, I have a Eureka! moment and think of an experiment that is so breathtaking, so earth shattering, so scientifically pivotal that it must be written down! And then, I remember, you’ve only 5 pages in this research proposal, 2 of which are to be spent on research design and methods. I’ve already decreased the spacing of my paragraphs to single and my font to 11. So, my earth shattering, breathtaking, scientifically pivotal experiment will be put to death by the slow strangulation of page limits. I hang my head in shame. In the midst of the research and spontaneous Eureka-ing, I still cannot write a simple research design section. I finally know what cell lines I’ll need, what questions I’ll need to ask – I even know how to answer said questions. I cannot, for the life of me, put it down on paper. Oh, sure, I can think about it out loud to no one but my imaginary friend Bob (and, NO, that is not what one would refer to as talking to oneself. Bob is here. I’m talking to Bob.), but I can’t write it.  I’ve been TRYING so hard, but the dang on cursor just blinks at me on the blank screen taunting me and laughing maliciously as everything I write gets discarded like yesterday’s Christmas wrapping paper.

                I have discovered that it is slightly easier to get things done when I grab a notebook and a pen and write out on paper, in the least jargony language possible, what I plan to do and how I plan to do it. But, for whatever reason, I’m not doing so well at putting it into the language a fellowship panel usually fawns over. I want them to squeal with glee when I use words like “superfluous” and “erroneous” and “bifurcation” correctly. I want them to say – “that is vocabulary that deserves $25,000 a year in funding.” But, alas, the mighty sword pen fails again. I am not slaying my blocked dragons. In the midst of my turmoil, however, I found a blog post.  Gather round kids, it’s advice time. 

                Fellowship and grant proposal writing requires a certain amount of planning, unless you’re name is Sheldon and you’ve been a physicist since you were 13 (that’s a Big Bang Theory plug, in case you missed it). Since most of us aren’t Sheldon, we’ve got to take the time to plan out what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. I take my research proposals section by section, completing those that I think are easiest. For me those are usually background and methods. The background is almost always a breeze because there’s so much information in the form of review articles out there. It practically writes itself. I did encounter, for the first time, something known as “specific aims.” I had no clue what this was. I’d never seen it in any other fellowship application I’d worked on. If you ever come across a portion of the research proposal that you’re unfamiliar with, contact the organization that funds the fellowship/grant.  Ask them if they could provide you with a bit of guidance as to what they are specifically looking for, and don’t be afraid to tell them that the application process (or sections of it) is new to you. They’ll either help or they won’t. Talk to your mentor (if you have one), a research advisor or a peer. If all else fails, Google it.  Or Bing it. Or Yahoo it. Whichever crumbles your particular cookie.               

  Now that you’ve got your questions answered about the aesthetics of the application, you can start thinking about how you structure each section. People do this in all sorts of ways, but the one major commonality between all proposals is continuity. You want your proposal to flow exceedingly well. If you let someone read it and they find themselves confused from section to section, your flow is off. Think of your proposal like a story. A good story keeps its reader intrigued, and says what it has to say without forcing the audience go back and re-read everything, searching for what they missed. You want your proposal to get from A to C without going to Z first.

If you read it, and YOU get confused, there’s definitely a problem.  If you read it, and YOU get confused, there’s definitely a problem. (Notice that's there twice...that's what I like to call "emphasis.")

                I think the most important thing that anyone can do when writing, well…anything, is to make enough time for proofing.  Don’t wait until 5 days before it’s due to start writing.  You want to have enough time to write a rough draft, write a final, and get feedback from your professors and advisors so that you can write the final final, aka the final2.  More importantly, you want to have enough time to take a breather while you’re writing. If you wait, you’ll be rushed, stressed out and feeling pressure that doesn’t need to be felt. Starting well ahead of time allows you to plan for things like, oh I don’t…writer’s block maybe.

                With all of that said, I’m still a newb! Please, please, PLEASE talk to the more experienced people around you. This is all information that I’ve gleaned from my “elders,” if you will, and from reading a lot of how-to guides.  I hope my consolidation of what I consider to be the important points helps at least a little.  I’m off to take another stab at my methods section. I’d really like to give up and lay down in my comfy bed with a nice fantasy novel, but I’ve got miles to go before I sleep, and a (fellow)ship to save. 

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