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December 03, 2014

Grants and fundraising (Advice to young scholars, part 4 of 4)

These notes are an adapted summary of the the 4th of 4 professional development panels for young scholars, as part of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) Mathematics Research Community (MRC) on Network Science, held in June 2014. Their focus was on mathematics, computer science, and networks, but many of the comments generalize to other fields. [1,2]

Panel 4. Grants and Fundraising

Opening remarks: In general, only around 10% of grant proposals are successful. But, roughly 60% of submitted proposals are crap. Your competition for getting funded is the non-crappy 40%. Therefore, work hard to polish your proposals, and take as much time as you would a serious or flagship paper. Get feedback from colleagues on your proposals before submitting, and try as hard as possible to get that feedback at least one month before the deadline. (Many institutions have these "mock panels" available, and they are incredibly useful, especially for early career scientists.) Practice makes the master, so consider writing a grant proposal as a postdoc. Having some success as a postdoc will also make you look more attractive as a faculty candidate. Know when the annual deadlines are for the regular grant competitions, and plan ahead. Try to avoid the last-minute crush of writing proposals in two weeks or less.

  • What should be in a proposal?
    Really exciting research. But, try to propose to do more than just really exciting research. Consider organizing workshops, creating new classes, creating notes, giving public lectures, hosting undergraduates, working with underrepresented groups, running a podcast series, and even teaching in a local high school.

  • What kinds of proposals should an early-career person write?
    In your first few years as faculty, apply to all the early-career fellowships and competitions that you can comfortably manage. That includes the Sloan, McDonnell, Packard, etc., along with the NSF CAREER award, and the various "early investigator" competitions at the DoD and other places. Figure out what people do in your field and do that too. These awards are sometimes for sizable amounts of funding, but even if they are not, they are often very prestigious.

  • How many grants do I need?
    This depends on the size of your preferred research group. Many faculty try to keep 2-3 active grants at once, and write approximately 1-2 new proposals per year. As a rough calculation, a "normal sized" grant from many parts of NSF will support 1 graduate student for its duration (plus modest summer salary, travel, and computing equipment).

  • Can I propose work that I have already partially completed?
    Yes. This is common, and often even recommended. "Preliminary results" make a proposal sound less risky, and basically the reviewers are looking for proposals that are exciting, will advance the state-of-the-art, well written, and exceedingly likely to succeed. If you've already worked out many of the details of the work itself, it is much easier to write a compelling proposal.

  • Proposals are often required to be understandable by a broad audience but also include technical details, so how do you balance these requirements?
    An advanced undergraduate should be able to understand your proposal with some training. Most panels have some experts who can judge the technical details. A good strategy for learning how to balance technical material versus accessibility is to read other people's proposals, especially successful ones, even outside your field. The first pages of any proposal should be more broadly understandable, while the final pages may be decodable by experts only.

  • Can you reuse the same material for multiple grants?
    It's best not to double dip. If a grant is rejected, you can usually resubmit it, often to the same agency (although sometimes not more than once). Because you have some feedback and you have already written the first proposal, it's often less work to revise and resubmit a rejected proposal. (But, the goal posts may move with the resubmission because the review panel may be composed of different people with different opinions, e.g., at NSF.) Small amounts of overlap are usually okay, but if you don't have anything new to propose, don't submit a proposal.

Pro tips:

  • Calls For Proposals (CFPs) are often difficult to decode, so don't hesitate to ask for help to translate, either from your colleagues or from the cognizant program officer. Usually, the specific words and pitch of a program have been shaped by other researchers' interests, and knowing what those words really mean can help in deciding if your ideas are a good match for the program.
  • Proposals are reviewed differently depending on the agency. NSF proposals are reviewed by ad hoc committees of practicing scientists (drawn essentially at random from a particular broad domain). NIH proposals are reviewed by study panels whose membership is fairly stable over time. DoD proposals are reviewed internally, but sometimes with input from outside individuals (who may or may not be academics).
  • Don't write the budget yourself. Use the resources of your department. You will eventually learn many things about budgeting, but your time is better spent writing about the science. That being said, you will need to think about budgets a lot because they are what pay for the research to get done (and universities and funding agencies really love to treat them like immutable, sacred documents). Familiarize yourself with the actual expenses associated with your kind of research, and with the projects that you currently and aim to do in the future.
  • For NSF, don't budget for funding to support undergraduates during the summer; instead, assume that you will apply for (and receive) an REU Supplement to your award to cover them. The funding rate for these is well above 50%.
  • NSF (and some other agencies) have byzantine rules about the structure, format, and set of documents included in a proposal. They now routinely reject without review proposals that don't follow these rules to the letter. Don't be one of those people.
  • Ending up with leftover money is not good. Write an accurate budget and spend it. Many agencies (e.g., NSF and NIH) will allow you to do a 1-year "no cost extension" to spend the remaining money.
  • Program officers at NSF are typically professors, on leave for 2-3 years, so speak to them at conferences. Program officers at DoD agencies and private foundations are typically professionals (not academics). NSF program officers exert fairly little influence over the review and scoring process of proposals. DoD and foundation program officers exert enormous influence over their process.


[1] Panelists were Mason Porter (Oxford), David Kempe (Southern California), and me (the MRC organizers), along with an ad hoc assortment of individuals from the MRC itself, as per their expertise. The notes were compiled by MRC participants, and I then edited and expanded upon them for clarity and completeness, and to remove identifying information. Notes made public with permission.

[2] Here is a complete copy of the notes for all four panels (PDF).

posted December 3, 2014 03:46 AM in Simply Academic | permalink