NIH Grantwriting Circles of Hell

T.S. Eliot says that “April is the cruellest month”, but if you work on NIH grant applications for a living, April’s got nothing on May. For those of us whose professional lives largely revolve around the NIH grant cycles, May is the month leading up to all those dreaded deadlines in June. Forget Eliot, this feels more like Dante’s Inferno:

First Circle: LIMBO. This is where the guiltless damned reside. Sounds about right. It is when a client sends you a dreadful first draft of their Research Strategy and you read and re-read it, and think, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

Second Circle: LUST. Where your appetite sways your reason, and you are consumed with fantasies of eight- and nine-figure grant awards.

Third Circle: GLUTTONY. You are at your computer at 2am. For the ten thousandth time this month, you do a global find-and-replace to change “data is” to “data are”.  With red-rimmed eyes, you decide to crack open your fifteenth bag of peanut M&Ms. Large bags of potato chips wait nearby.

Fourth Circle: GREED. When you lose your ability to understand why any other person’s grant applications should ever be funded.

Fifth Circle: ANGER. May is not the month to spend time looking at funding statistics on the NIH Reporter website.

Sixth Circle: HERESY. You start to believe that other federal funding agencies, such as Department of Defense or NSF, are evil or satanic because you believe their funding levels are better than those at NIH. You generally find yourself in this circle of hell after a conversation with a grantwriting colleague who has recently landing a DoD or NSF grant.

Seventh Circle: VIOLENCE.

Outer Ring: You fantasize about sabotaging the portal.

Middle Ring: You fantasize about being transformed into a gnarled thorny bush and being fed upon by Harpies, because anything would be better than spending one more minute creatively formatting to meet a page limit.

Outer Ring: You shake your fist at God and rue the day you ever applied to a biomedical research graduate program.

Eighth Circle: FRAUD. You tell your client their R01 will not be competitive with so little preliminary data. They miraculously return two weeks later with seven more figures. You say nothing.

Ninth Circle: TREACHERY. You recall the client who first talked you into trying your hand at grantwriting and remember how he recommended you to all his research colleagues. At the time you were grateful for his having launched this lucrative segment of your business portfolio, but you now recognize it for the act of treachery that it truly was. You recall the day he kissed you on the cheek at a department-wide meeting in front of the faculty, and kick yourself for having missed the symbolism.

The Centre of Hell: SATAN. Satan is portrayed by Dante as ignorant and full of hate—i.e., a Study Section. He has three faces: one represents basic science, one clinical science, and one translational science. He is waist-deep in applications, entrapped and weeping tears from his six eyes as he shouts, “You have given poor consideration to alternative hypotheses! You have not run the appropriate controls! Your ideas are not innovative! Your diffuse study design has dampened our enthusiasm for your project! You did not cite me in your references!” The icy winds of bureaucracy ensure his continued imprisonment in the Pooks Hill Marriot. Each of his mouths chews on an unscored grantee, as he rakes his hideous claws over the applications, reducing them to shreds. And just when you cannot stand one more moment…

You reach COB June 5. And your phone starts ringing for help on the Cycle III apps…

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