Job description for a Mizzou grant writer: Prepare to act as teacher, researcher, red-tape cutter, finder of opportunity, critic, negotiator, editor and advocate. Attention to detail required. Some nerdiness needed. Expect bonding to occur.
In the world of funding, if you don’t ask, no one is going to say yes. MU’s grant writers have worked on nearly 2,000 proposals and helped attract more than $300 million of external funding.
What grant writers do is felt across campus in diverse projects that may advance scientific knowledge, develop a new medication or introduce school children to opera. Grant writers partner with faculty members to attract funding that can move research to new levels.
Heather Brown, new director of Grant Writing and Publications in the Office of Research, leads the group of writers responsible for preparing proposals that will be as competitive as possible. It’s an important job, especially during challenging economic times.
“Even though the proposal is not ‘ours,’ we think of it as ours. We think of the faculty we work with as our faculty, as our colleagues. We’re invested in their work,” Brown says.
Like a complex puzzle
MU grant writers focus on clarity, fitting together the pieces of a proposal puzzle to make it understandable and desirable. Above all, they help communicate the importance of a research project and get people excited that this work can make a difference.
Because every faculty member has different needs, a grant writer’s duties fall somewhere between full immersion in a project and simply writing a draft, acting as a coach or training a researcher in the skills of grant writing. Some researchers just need a good editor who will ask questions to help them clarify.
“Our goal is to make what our faculty propose as competitive as it can possibly be.”
– Heather Brown, director of grant writing and publications
Brown offers a view of effective writing that demonstrates the need for clarity: A reviewer from a funding agency may be reading 20 proposals at a time, on an airplane, on the way to a meeting. So that MU proposal had better clearly explain why the project is important and what its benefits are.
As a team, MU’s grant writers have been helping faculty do that for years. Service of 10 years or more is common, and Brown says there’s not much turnover in Mizzou’s grant-writing jobs.
As journalists do, grant writers follow a style and help hone narratives that basically tell the “who, what, when, where and why” of a potential project. But the finished proposal goes beyond creating a narrative. There are timelines, outlines, completed forms, references and appendices needed. The funding agency also will want letters of support, a bio sketch of the chief investigator and — perhaps most encompassing of all — a budget.
In all that, what’s most important is saving the professors’ time. “You don’t ever want to waste your researchers’ time. You help them focus on things where they’re the expert and can make the biggest difference,” Brown says.
Time is also the enemy for grant writers. Bondi Wood, headquartered in the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, says that even when her calendar is “woefully overbooked,” she has difficulty turning down faculty members who have an opportunity to seek funding. It’s just too important for them.
“When I talk about my profession, I usually say, ‘I get to help people help people’; whether it’s research or humanitarian aid, all the proposals of which I am a part are an effort to improve the human condition. I think that’s pretty exciting,” she says.
Fields of expertise
Many of Mizzou’s grant writers have advanced degrees and could be faculty members themselves.
Brown has a master’s degree in theological studies and a doctorate in education. Associate Director Mary Barile has a doctorate in playwriting. Mark Child, based in the School of Health Professions, has a doctorate in anthropology. Sherri Sachdev, senior grant writer for Mizzou Advantage and the Office of the Provost, has a PhD in nutritional sciences and was a bench scientist for more than 15 years. Sara Vassmer, in the Office of Grant Writing and Publications, has a doctorate in health education.
Writing training and experience are certainly musts for the job, and the MU team has a varied range of degrees that include English education, composition and rhetoric, and the liberal arts.
Most Mizzou grant writers have other writing experience, as co-authors of journal articles, freelance writers, journalists, book authors, editorial assistants on scholarly journals and even playwrights.
As an award-winning playwright, Barile’s experience in the arts opened her eyes to the need for knowing how to raise money. She sees many similarities in grant writing and playwriting.
“You’ve got characters (many, many characters), a driving reason (for the plot or the funding need), timelines (production and funder) and drama. You are, in effect, showing your audience and readers what they can gain from spending time with you (for two hours or two years). You also need to be a mistress of timing and be able to read your audience,” she says.
Barile also writes books. She’s written about Missouri legends and hauntings and just finished a book about traditional rug hooking in the Midwest. She teaches rug hooking and dyeing as well. “There are quite a few hookers at MU, by the way.”
A sense of humor is also a plus in this job.
Creating a culture
Students of the sciences learn early about the importance of external funding for their research, sometimes as early as high school; it’s engrained in that area of study. But other fields, especially the arts and humanities, are different, and MU grant writers set the stage for people who haven’t had as much experience pursuing grants.
That’s one of the major roles Elizabeth Miller performs in the College of Human Environmental Sciences. In the competitive world of grants, she concentrates on the regulations and updates so faculty members can focus on their research. Funding agencies are as varied as the people who operate them, and knowing the “inside secrets to getting funded is often the difference,” Miller says.
Christine Montgomery’s specialty area is the arts and humanities, where funding opportunities are typically less lucrative than in the sciences, but that doesn’t alter her zeal. She loves assisting the faculty, whom she describes as dedicated to exploring new ways of presenting knowledge.
“It makes me hopeful for us as a culture to have people so committed to the study of the arts and humanities, which I see as the cornerstone of being an educated person,” she says.
“I like a lot of things about my job, but if I had to choose, I would say the best thing is that each day is different, so it never gets boring.”
– Shelley Hilton, MU grant writer
Loving the job
Shelley Hilton, grant writer in the College of Engineering, says the profession brings a love of learning new things. “I like a lot of things about my job, but if I had to choose, I would say the best thing is that each day is different, so it never gets boring.”
Suzanne Hansford-Bowles, who works for various units including Human Environmental Sciences Extension, learned to write through MU’s Honors College and writing-intensive courses. Now she continues to learn through the content of proposals she works on, which is the “fun part” of the job.
Hansford-Bowles has learned about pasture-based dairy cows, distribution bottlenecks for Missouri-grown produce, strategies to reduce untimely deaths from medication errors, how to teach older adults about science and the advantages of setting up 4-H Clubs in prisons. And that was in just one week.
Writers who help writers
One of the most valuable assets to Mizzou’s research endeavors is the MU Grant Writer Network. It’s where the grant writers learn from and assist each other. They discuss challenges, debate what their roles should be, take training, provide guidance and examine how new policies affect them and their researchers.
Each grant writer brings specific strengths to the mix and shares those with others through the network, Brown says. For example, if a writer needs help with a large, challenging budget, Sheryl Koenig is considered a “master.”
As grant writer for the Christopher Bond Life Sciences Center, Koenig works with 30-plus scientists. She doesn’t pretend to understand the deep science of what they do, but she knows numbers and logic and can analyze “the heck out of everything.” Using her capability in pattern recognition, she can tell if the scientists are making logical arguments and if they’ve left things out.
Koenig has degrees in mathematics and technology, but she took a technical-writing class in college and loved it. That writing skill, added to her left-brain expertise, translated to funding of a grant application in one of her first jobs in higher education, and she was hooked.
Just like the rest of the team.
When proposals are funded there are celebrations to share, of course, and thank-you notes or emails from grateful faculty are always heart-warming, Brown says. But to this team, the greatest pat on the back is when a researcher returns for help again and again.