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Fractured Prism

Welcome to the Fractured Prism. This is my domain (I love the sound of that, kind of like my kingdom), where I will share reflections of the many facets of my life. At the very least, I am a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, friend, homemaker, teacher, counselor, and grant writer. Through the years, I have been professionally cut and polished or just accidental fractured into thousands of pieces and have thoughts about them all. I have found that I am writing for many reasons but mostly to share my small bits of wisdom. Come back often because each reflection will be different. My ultimate goal is to have a place where grant writers, grant reviewers and funders can network. So if you are into grant writing or grant reviewing please leave your name and email. Linda Beason

Peer Reviews

The peer review section is provided for those who are interested in being peer reviewers. I am not sure that all the contact information is current but you can always call the office and get current information.

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Category: Peer Reviewer Tips

How to Get Started as a Peer Reviewer

The Federal government has been contracting outside peer reviewers to review grant proposals for about 65 years (no, I was not there for the first one…it just seems like I have been around forever).  These reviewers evaluate grant proposals for programs that offer millions of dollars every year. Most government grants provide funds for specific activities over specific time periods.

The key to becoming a grant reviewer is to research the many grants that are available and determine if you are qualified and have the needed expertise.  You might be surprised what you qualify for as not all programs require reviewers to have expertise in the subject area of the grant. To work as a grant reviewer, you must have the ability to read and analyze proposals, the ability to evaluate proposals in terms of specific criteria, strong written communication skills, the ability to work effectively in a group and the ability to maintain confidentiality.  The first grant program that I ever reviewed was a bilingual program…and I am definitely not bilingual and do not know much about bilingual education programs.  However, I am an educator and I worked diligently to understand the program requirements/criteria.  I found that I could easily determine if the applicant was addressing those requirements.  From that point on it was simply a matter of providing appropriate comments (and that is definitely the subject for a later blog). 

You should research grant opportunities that you might be qualified to review.  The best way to find government grants is addressed in my blog, “Find Federal Grants Fast”.  Also, be sure and look at the many agencies listed in this blog who have databases for grant reviewers.  Sometimes you apply directly from their websites or you may contact the Program Officer listed in the grant announcement to request information about the agency’s application process.  Usually they ask for a resume.

In order to review you will need a computer with Internet access.  You will also have to be able to travel and commit the required time for each review.

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A Week in the Life of an Onsite Peer Reviewer

All the work for an onsite review is done during five days in Washington DC.  Everything is paid for and you generally stay in very nice hotels.   However, the time commitment for this review is intense.   You generally travel on Sunday, start work on Monday morning and leave (after five) on Friday. 

Monday starts at a reasonable hour with an orientation that can last a major part of the day depending on how many people have not read the preparation materials and have a lot of dumb questions to ask (or how many of the “I just like to hear myself talk” people are in the crowd).  Following orientation, you meet in a designated panel room and introduce yourself to your panel (usually three reviewers and a chairperson).  The panel develops a work plan and if you are lucky enough to have your own computer, you go to your very nice room and start work because you generally have to have one review done by about five and two more done before noon of the next day.  If you do not have a computer, you might check one out from the department and still get to go to your nice room.  If that doesn’t work out, you go to the computer room and pray there is an open station.  That creates a new problem when they close down for the night because they do get to sleep.  You?  Not so much.  The first grant is always the hardest and takes much longer to complete.  The good news about Monday is that they usually provide at least one working meal that day so you do not have to worry about finding time to spend your generous per diem for food  (it may not seem generous at first but just try to find time to spend it all!)  Limited sleep on Monday night. 

Tuesday, you are a bit sleep deprived but proud of yourself as you show up on time, with your work completed, to your first panel meeting.  If you have a good panel (which is discussion for another blog) they will also show up on time with work in hand.  However, when I say your work is completed that is very misleading…you have only just begun!  You have to panel, come to a consensus, make corrections, give comments to chairperson, make corrections, send comments to control room, make corrections (and this may take two or three trips to get it right) and so on.  You may be seeing grant number one on day five…before it gets finalized.  But back to panel discussion and consensus…this varies with different reviews but 10 points is a good rule of thumb.  No one wants to have one reviewer score perfect points while another scores 39 out of a 100.  Grant applicants get really testy about that and usually call their congressman.  The point here is to discuss what you found that another reviewer did not or what they found that you missed.  The system works well if everyone is flexible (when they are not….ahhhggg).  Usually by about 5pm you are finished with paneling and maybe even a few corrections.  Done for the day?  Not!  Now you must prepare three more for the next day because everything has to be in to the control room by Thursday so corrections can be finalized on Friday.  Oh, did I mention Tuesday is the day the Department usually decides to throw a little mandated “mixer” to socialize.  The good news is that there is usually tidbits of food.  Lucky you… you made extra money today because you did not spend your per diem.  Very limited sleep on Tuesday.

Wednesday is a repeat of Tuesday except that you are five pounds lighter (no food) and really needing rest.  Also about this time, the niceness wears off of your panel (not to mention that your own ragged sleep-deprived rage comes into play) and you tend to have some major battles over consensus.  The slackers are usually shouting the loudest in order to make everyone think they really did read the application even though we all know they were drooling on their pillow.  In desperation you do spend a little of your per diem on whatever food products are the closest (usually a vending machine).  If you are extremely resourceful, tough, and on time, you might be fortunate to make it to the daily “snack time”, provided by the department and ranging from cracker jacks to ice cream….and lots of cookies that disappear fast.  Three more applications due.  Limited or no sleep on Wednesday.

Thursday defies description.  In an ideal world you only have one more application.  About 6 pm is when you finally throw caution to the wind and eat a real meal at a restaurant.  You actually venture out of the hotel and are amazed to see that you are in Washington DC!   Fresh air is everywhere.  I mean, what can they do?  Fire you?  Well yes, I have seen this happen but only to those who have cratered.  They escort them out of the hotel whimpering and crying out for medication as you are coming back in after making a hefty dent in the day’s per diem.  Usually at this point you have at least three frantic voice mails from your chairperson who has heard the ugly rumors and is afraid  that it is you they have sent packing.  He/she has at least 30 corrections for you that have to be done immediately.  No sleep on Thursday.

Friday…by this time you are either a weeper or a boaster.  You are weeping because it does not look like you will ever finish and leave the hotel; or you are boasting that you are finished and just waiting for everything to be finalized.  If you are a boaster, you are among the rare few who have a few minutes to get packed and go sightseeing.  Bad news is that you are too tired and generally find a chair in the lobby (or bar) and fall asleep.  Make sure you ask someone to wake you up in time to get to the airport.

There you have it…five fun filled vacation days in the Nation’s capital paid for by the government!

So why do I do it?  Actually, I love it.  It is a mental and physical challenge and I have learned more about grant writing than anyone could ever teach me.  I have met new friends from all over the nation and look forward to seeing them.  And at the end I know I have been responsible for helping many deserving programs.   It is quite a rush!

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Peer Review Time Commitment

There are at least three different types of reviews and each one takes a significant amount of time.  Most departments pay at least $100 per application and you generally review about ten applications.  However, there have been reviews where I am sure that I did not make minimum wage due to long hours.

The first type of review is onsite.  All the work is done during five days in Washington DC. The time commitment for this review is intense (see blog, “A Week in the Life of an Onsite Reviewer”).   The second type of review is done at home and you generally have about two weeks to work at home and then a week for panel conference calls and corrections.  This review can be problematic if the telephone system is not functioning well or if a panel member has a barking dog (not to mention the missing panelist who might have gone to Jamaica for a vacation).  This is also a bit dicey because people tend to be more rude over the phone than they are face-to-face and the discussions can get heated.  The third (my favorite) type of review is a hybrid where you do the work at home and go to Washington DC for 2-5 days for paneling.     

In any case, be prepared to make a substantial time commitment to the grant review process.  This is a very serious commitment.  When you leave the review, make sure you have been fair to each and every applicant.  Your scores and comments can literally make or break programs.

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How to be a Good Peer Reviewer

First of all you need to keep in mind that funded grant writers do not care what you say in your review.  While it is important to carefully justify your score for all applications, the ones that are funded have their money.  They are not likely to complain. It is only the grant writers who were not funded that will ask for your comments…and  they can and will do just that.  They will carefully analyze what each reviewer has written and sometimes they call their lawyer or congressman to complain.  That is why it is extremely important that you follow a few simple guidelines. 

First of all, it is imperative that you demonstrate that you are competent to review and score grants that might be awarding millions of dollars. 

Use complete sentences with proper grammar and spelling. 

Address each selection criteria and justify your score.  Scores and comments must be consistent.  Each point deduction must be clearly justified. 

Be tactful and do not write personal comments.  Make sure your comments are free of personal biases. 

As a grant writer, I have fumed for days after reading reviewer’s comments that were poorly written, made no sense or demonstrated sheer laziness.  Grants are not easy to write.  They take hours of dedication and each one is extremely important to the applicant.  Your score can literally mean life or death for each carefully planned project.  While it is important to find the best programs to fund, it is also important to help applicants understand how to strengthen their proposal when they reapply.

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How a Peer Reviewer is Selected

Typically this is how government agencies select a peer review panel:

A minimum of three peer reviewers, which comprise a panel, are assigned to review each application. Each panel will usually review between ten and fifteen applications, depending on the allowed length of the application. Peer reviewers are selected from a department database (you need to go to each department’s webpage and find how to apply…many of these are listed in my other blogs).  Reviewers will be chosen from the database of highly qualified professionals with expertise related to the topic.  You need to update your application at least once a year.  Also it might be helpful to call the department after applying and ask if you are in their database.

To help achieve a reasonable balance on a panel, the following factors may be considered:

  • Each member of the panel will have expertise in the subject area under review or expertise in a related field.
  • When possible and appropriated, the panel will comprise researchers, practitioners, and academicians
  • When appropriate, panel members will be drawn from as wide a geographic area as is practical and will represent both urban and rural perspectives.
  • Special attention will be paid to ensuring various backgrounds and experience with regard to race, ethnicity, and gender.
  • When appropriate, the panel will be composed of a diverse group of experts from the public and private sectors.

Each peer reviewer scores each application and the three scores are averaged to produce the applicant’s final score.

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Grant Writing 101 – Why Grant Writers Should Do Peer Reviews & How to Become a Peer Reviewer

I wrote grants for several years before I did a peer review.  That was pure ignorance on my part.  It only took one review for me to realize that I had hit the jackpot.  I can truthfully say that I have learned something from every application that I have read.  Unfortunately, some of it was what not to do.  However, the good ones were pure inspiration, “WHY didn’t I think of that!”  All in all, a review is like a really good grant writing workshop.  You attend an orientation where the funding department tells you exactly what they are looking for in order to hand out their millions; you get to look at other grant writer’s applications; and finally you get to discuss the merits of the application with other experts. And on top of that you are staying in a five star hotel with travel paid for, a healthy per diem and you are getting paid!  I also like the fact that I have made many good friends and great business contacts at reviews.  However, I do not want to mislead you, reviewing is very intense and while you are usually in Washington DC, you will not be doing much sightseeing unless you stay over extra days at your own expense.

A peer review generally consists of three panelists and a chairperson.  Each reviewer reads and scores independently and then the panel meets and discusses each application.  This is the point from which I learn from the other reviewers’ unique perspectives.  Of course, you cannot review for a program where you have submitted an application.  The thing to do is to review for the program that you are interested in a year before you submit.  Planning is a long process and if you are even thinking about developing a program, you really should look at what is being funded (and what is not). 

There are three common types of reviews.  One is onsite, usually in DC for a week, and all the work is done at that time (very intense and not much sleep).  The next type is done at home and you usually have about two weeks to post everything on the department’s website and have conference calls with your panel.  The third type is a hybrid and my favorite – you do the work at home, post it to the website and then spend a few days in DC to conference with your panel.   

In order to get started as a reviewer, you have to apply to the funding department.  Once your application is accepted, you are put in their database and when they have a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) they send out an availability inquiry for reviewers.  You respond as to your availability and then reviewers are selected.  This is a slow process until you have some experience.  After that the pace picks up – this August was crazy as experienced reviewers were in high demand, choosing between two or three reviews each week.  Recently I have heard rumors that the administration wants funders to bring in new blood and not use the same reviewers every year.  If that is true it would be a good time to start as a reviewer as far as getting a job but not so good if they leave all of the experience at home.  Three rookies would drive the chairperson to drink (I have seen it happen).

There are many different types of government grants and many departments who need reviewers.  I have a list of places to apply that I would share with you if you would leave your name and email at fracturedprism.com   I actually network with many reviewers and we share news of reviews.  Once you have landed a review, check back at fracturedprism.com as I am working on tips for being a good peer reviewer.

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