Grants 101 Writing Skills Scholar Voices

Part I: An Interview with Dr. Caitlin Martin-Wagar

Aug 17, 2023

It’s almost the start of a new semester here, which can be a nice time to reflect on our journeys as scholars. In that spirit, and as part of the Scholar Voices series, I’m delighted to share an interview with Dr. Caitlin Martin-Wagar.

Dr. Martin-Wagar is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Montana. Dr. Martin-Wagar just finished her second year on the tenure track. She studies eating disorders and weight stigma, with some work in trauma and PTSD as well. During her time as an assistant professor, Dr. Martin-Wagar has secured a grant through the Center for Population Health Research. She’s also secured several grants through her university.

~~~~The Interview~~~~

What was your early exposure to grant writing?

My advisor, who is the most lovely person, doesn’t need a lot of grant funding with the type of research she does. So I didn't get a lot of exposure in graduate school to the specifics of grant writing. I did try to submit a couple of American Psychological Association grants for a few thousand dollars, but I was unsuccessful. I didn't even have anyone review them. I didn't know how to prepare a budget. I didn't include anybody in the university in those discussions. It wasn't until my postdoc that I got more grant writing experience. I worked in a lab where there were maybe three or four R01 studies, a K, and several foundation grant studies. [Betty’s note: R01 and K grants are National Institutes of Health grants.] I was doing a lot of the clinician components of the studies. But I got some behind the scenes training in looking at what was submitted, how they went about proposing grants, what kind of feedback they received, and more.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as you learned to write grants?

A challenge I continue to deal with is all of the terminology. Everybody speaks in a way that assumes you already understand the terminology. Recently there was a conversation about “fringe.” I've taken the approach that I let myself ask everybody at the university a million questions. I'll let them know that this is new to me. The only way I'm ever going to figure it out is if I ask. So I say, “What does that mean? How does this look? Would you meet with me to talk me through this?”

How did you learn grant writing skills?

I attended trainings and webinars. For some trainings, you were able to submit your materials. For the National Institutes of Health Loan Repayment Program, they went through my application with a fine-tooth comb. Having people tear things apart is a little painful because you put your whole heart and mind into your work. But I knew it was to help make me better at this. I'm seeing grant writing as a really particular skill that’s different than the rest of the way that we write and think in our fields. I see it as building a muscle. I attended so many different trainings, like I did a training with you, we have a Mountain West training here, there are NIH trainings. Hearing the message that grant writing is a skill from multiple sources, I started to believe it. I did worry that attending trainings was a procrastination technique. I try not to sign up for as many trainings now that I'm starting to get it. But I think if I slip or if I'm having a really big string of rejections, I might do a refresh training.

What changed for you after you submitted?

I'm more confident. I’m still in the smaller to medium grant range, preparing for bigger grants. But I feel much more confident because now a grant gave me pilot data for my next grant application. It’s nice to be able to include that as rationale for the next application. I've had some really nice feedback from reviewers. I've been better about meeting with a lot of people and asking them questions about particular mechanisms like the one I'm preparing right now. I've met with probably a dozen different people to understand what's important, what's not written in the instructions, what is actually something that I need to be really paying attention to. Often in my writing, I make some assumptions about what other people might know. I assume they know this is an important area they should fund. And instead, I realize I have to specifically articulate why it’s important and why it's relevant to a funding source.

What’s your process for understanding a funder?

I spend a lot of time looking at what's required on the websites. I meet with the folks at my university. I look to see who's received the grant before. If I can, I will contact people and ask them what the process was like for them or if they could send me any example materials. Even if it's a different research area, it's still helpful to know how they framed things. Sometimes I talk to the program officers. My next grant writing step is a little bigger, maybe going for an R01 grant. When I shift that way, I need to have more program officer conversations.

Have grants had any other benefits for you?

Grants have helped me support students, both undergraduate and graduate students. Then one thing I didn’t know is that you can pay yourself with grants. Like many folks, I'm on a 9 month contract. So I have 3 months where I don't get paid at all. There is some freedom in that because it means you could choose how much you want to engage in work. But we all know the reality of academia, especially tenure track, is that you're going to be working during the summer. I thought to myself, if I'm going to be doing research over my summers, why would I not try to get paid for that? So now I'm very motivated to get paid every summer. That's a big chunk of difference in your annual salary. I'm also very motivated to try to do some course reductions here and there, so that I can have more space to work on research.

~~~~End of Interview~~~~

Thank you to Dr. Martin-Wagar for sharing her experiences to help others. Scholars like Dr. Martin-Wagar make academia a brighter and more welcoming space. If you’d like to read more about her work, check out her article on day treatment programs for adolescents with anorexia nervosa. You can also find her on Twitter.

If you know someone who might be interested in today’s newsletter, would you mind forwarding it to them? As always, thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


Stay in touch: The Newsletter, Twitter, TikTok, and The Grant Writing Guide book.

P.S. I hope you are enjoying August! I had a great work meeting at Tatte where I got to try this pistachio latte. I highly recommend.

Pistachio latte in a black cup.

P.P.S. I published a new opinion piece on how faculty can help students deal with disasters. I wrote it as part of a Public Voices Fellowship with The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. I highly recommend the fellowship too!