Stephan Segler has found a unique way to combine his scientific training, working style, and yearning to travel the world. A former chemist, he works as a grant proposal writer, helping startups win funding to bring their innovations to market readiness. He works remotely, which gives him the freedom to set up his home office wherever he wants.
Professional grant writing is not something that Segler had in mind when he was training as a scientist. “I basically fell into it,” he says. While finishing his Ph.D. in organic electronics and polymer chemistry at Bremen University in Germany, he was looking widely for career options. Grant writing “stuck … because it checked a lot of boxes,” Segler adds. “I liked writing, which I discovered especially during writing my thesis; … it was really fun.” But—perhaps more importantly—grant writing gave Segler the freedom that he craved. “I had just spent 9 years studying chemistry in the same place, and so I really wanted to travel.”
Segler, who gained an additional qualification as a certified project manager during his Ph.D., had also long nurtured an interest in business strategy and innovation management. Upon graduating in 2016, he worked for a large grant writing firm as a subcontractor. Feeling ready to spread his wings, he set off fully on his own roughly a year later.
Segler spoke with Science Careers about what his day-to-day job is like and how he has carved a niche that fits his life and working style. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What main tasks does your job involve?
A: Most of my work involves crafting a proposal—so, doing research and speaking with the clients, producing illustrations, and writing and designing the proposal. The remainder—about 10%—of my working time goes to seeking new clients.
Q: Do you work on long-term projects, or is your work rather fast paced?
A: If the grant writing is fast paced, it’s a bad sign, because it means that you probably don’t have enough time to do everything. The way I like to work is having as few clients as possible—never more than five at once. Altogether, you should take at least 1 to 2 months to write a good proposal.
Q: How do you combine work and travel?
A: Most of the time, I can do everything from my computer, so I can just travel and take my work with me. Over the past 12 months, I went to Greece, Ukraine, Germany, and Italy. My rule is that I try to stay in a single place for 1 or 2 months at a time because then it’s easier to get into a routine. When you work remotely, you also need to make sure that you have everything you need to do your work, like a good internet connection. Over that amount of time you can basically feel at home, but you’re also feeling like you’re traveling.
Q: Where are you working from now? Has COVID-19 affected you?
A: I am currently working from southern Italy, in a city that has not been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are some restrictions regarding flights and other modes of transport, but I believe this will be a reality in all of Europe for the upcoming months. Luckily, due to the nature of my work, I am not negatively affected by the quarantine and am working as I did before.
Q: So what does your workday typically look like?
A: In the morning, I always dedicate the first 4 hours to writing and editing. I try not to write any email or have any contact during that time to keep my writing as pure as possible. I take a short break afterward and usually go out for exercise. Then, everything else is very dynamic. Usually, I spend the afternoon replying to emails, contacting a client to discuss a section, connecting on LinkedIn to find new clients, scheduling Skype calls, doing some website work, and preparing graphics.
Q: What skills are needed to be a professional grant writer?
A: Above all, you should like writing and creating strong narratives. Making graphs and conceptual images is also important. Having a broad interest and knowledge base is helpful so that you can immediately connect with a new customer. You should be capable and flexible enough to jump from a cryptocurrency to a health technology project, for example. Funding agencies have a habit of changing the template for grant applications, so you should be able to adapt to frequent changes and have a strong attention to detail. Other than that, you need to have good marketing skills and figure out what strategies work for you. Then, if you choose the freelance route, you also need to be able to work on your own. This requires discipline and a solid organization because, in the end, there are a lot of people who are depending on you and you must be able to set and meet deadlines.
Q: How do you interact with clients?
A: We begin the project with a very long Skype call, in which I get to know the product more closely and ask for all the material I need to put together the proposal, including prototype pictures and the CVs of all the people working on the product. After that, I’m basically working on my own. Obviously, contact is important, but I keep it as minimal as possible so that I can focus on the writing. I really dislike it when people try to micromanage me or look over my shoulder. My favorite clients are the ones that just put all the information into my head and let me do my job.
Q: Do you interact with anyone else?
A: I’m at a stage where I am established enough that I could basically grow a team. But I prefer working on my own. I’ve known other professional grant writers for years, and every once in a while we check in, but it’s more on the social level.
Q: How did you transition into this job?
A: When I was finishing my Ph.D., I didn’t even know that this type of job existed. I saw an ad for freelancers to work for a large grant proposal writing company, and I decided to give it a go after I graduated. During my time as a subcontractor for that company, I basically learned how to write a proposal and realized that grant writing is something I could definitely see myself doing in the future. After 1 year, I realized I could do this on my own and decided to move away from the large company. But setting out on my own wasn’t easy. When I was a subcontractor, I was mainly just writing. When I went solo, I had to understand how to move from having an initial client connection to signing a consulting contract to starting the work all the way through to submitting the grant. That’s a whole different skillset, and it takes time to learn.
Q: Are there any elements of your training that you miss from academia?
A: Lab work is kind of a fun thing, and I do miss it a little bit sometimes. What I don’t miss, though, is all the fumes from the solvents. Also, when you are doing lab work, it always feels like you are trying to roll the boulder up the hill. When you are writing, you can get a lot done in a single day.
Q: Any advice for early-career scientists interested in this type of work?
A: I’d recommend emailing consulting companies that are doing grant writing to ask whether you can work for them as a subcontractor. Obviously, you can directly ask for a job, but what a lot of them do is hire freelancers and then make a job offer to the people who are good. During this probation period, you learn from them. And then you can just continue to work for them or go solo when you feel comfortable doing it on your own.
More broadly, if you want to be self-employed or if you want to do something that is a little bit out of the box, use the Ph.D. time as preparation time. Most Ph.D. scientists are not going to find a job in academia, and finding another career often comes down to the transferable skills you have in hand on the day of your graduation. Throughout my Ph.D., I tried to expand my skills to other areas through reading books and taking courses. This has helped me carve a niche for myself that aligns not only with my skills, but also with what I want and who I am.