Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘federal grants’

Do what it takes

2015-06-23 12.31.18This blog post was inspired by a recent conversation I had with two pre-tenure WomenOfScience. We grabbed a beer after a late night movie night to see the feminist action film, “Mad Max Fury Road.” Don’t believe me that a Mad Max movie is feminist? Check out these articles (guardian, jezebel) and this funny tumblr site (hey girl). My take on Mad Max: the movie was a tad violent and quite hilarious. Every other sentence or wry look screamed, “This apocalypse was caused by men!”

OK, so afterwards, we were discussing tenure, getting tenure, and crappy mentoring. See, these women are scared. There were 4 people who didn’t get tenure last year – an all-time high record for their university. Their departments are trying to figure out how to mentor them, but they keep giving them platitudes like, “write grants and get them,” or “have more papers,” which are not helpful. Other mentors say things to them like, “don’t be so stressed out,” and “why are you worried?” which are somewhat demeaning and ridiculous. I was worried. We are all worried. If you aren’t worried, you might be fooling yourself. As I have gotten further away from tenure, I can see that I am losing perspective myself. That makes me less and less helpful to people as an advice blogger on this topic. But, as we were talking, I realized that there were some concrete things I could add. I am going to try to summarize them for you, and please, others add more information and send questions and suggestions.

1. Write grants that are fundable. So, you got this job because you had a great, new idea and everyone thinks it is amazing and super smart. That is great. You have sent a few young investigator award applications out and perhaps 1 or 2 federal grants on this idea, and maybe it isn’t playing as well as it did when you could describe it in person. OK, there are two things that you need to do here:

A. You need to write grants on things that are less flashy, but solid and doable. When I first got to my job, I wanted to work on a really cool thing, but I couldn’t get funded for it. When I would talk about it, people thought it was cool and exciting, but I couldn’t articulate it well on paper. Further, I didn’t really have a lot of background in this thing, and I didn’t really have track record. So, instead, I sent out proposals on incremental stuff that was doable and, frankly, easier experiments. I got enough preliminary data on the doable work to show I could do what I proposed. I proposed 3 objectives. I got a theory collaborator. These things I got funded to do at first were not what I wanted to do with my career, but they built a foundation for what I wanted to do later. I could build a story that they were related and they got me money, papers, and (let’s face it) tenure. Maybe this is why I was so obsessed with tenure = freedom (post).

B. You need to practice writing about the big thing you are interested in doing and get preliminary data on it. As I said above, the really cool thing I wanted to do was not getting funding. What to do? I scammed it. Once I got a grant from the National Science Foundation, I made sure to write for supplemental funding for undergraduates almost every summer (they are called REU supplements). I used these funds and my undergrads to work on the projects that were a bit more risky. Undergraduates can work on high-risk projects because they don’t need to get a paper to graduate like a grad student does. Using this method, I got two papers on the really cool stuff. Those two papers fueled my applications for really cool stuff and I ended up getting two grants to work on it, just as I came up for tenure. Also, I never stopped thinking and refining my writing and speaking about really cool stuff. It helped that really cool stuff also gained traction in a particular subfield and became popular. I am not exactly known as a big shot in really cool stuff, but with our new grants, we are now working to get papers out and we are starting to get noticed.

2. Write grants to everywhere. The current funding situation is unprecedented. The older you are, the more out of touch you are with what you have to do to get funded because our older colleagues got tenure in a time of 30% funding rates. Now, our older colleagues are venerable and established, so they don’t have as high a bar to prove that they are fundable and doing good work as a new person might be. Despite my grousing about being a mid-career faculty, in my opinion, I have found it easier to get funding now that I have tenure and an established track record of many publications behind me. Even when I was applying to young investigator awards, I was told that I didn’t have enough of anything. I actually had one reviewer say that it (paraphrasing here) remained to be seen if I could even start a research program… well, duh! I was applying for a new investigator award. It did remain to be seen, but if I don’t get funding I won’t have a shot to prove myself. As I was saying, the current funding situation is abysmal. If you want funding, you need to apply to everywhere. If you think your stuff is best at NIH, write NIH AND NSF anyway. Here are my reasons why:

A. Writing is a skill that needs practice. Some people are really good writers. I envy them. I am not. You have read my blog, so you know that my writing is very colloquial. Some people like it, but it is not sophisticated. I have to practice and practice and practice. I wrote ~10 grants per year to get that practice.

B. You will get critique and feedback necessary to hone your message. If you are having trouble selling your message to the science community who are serving on panels, the practice (above) and feedback you will get from writing a bunch of grants are essential. Don’t forget to always look for the truth in a review (see this post on criticism) – even if you do not agree with their assessment or feel they didn’t really “get” your research. If they didn’t get it, that is YOUR FAULT. You only have one shot in a grant to get your point across and make the reviewers excited. Once again, that takes practice and listening to critique.

C. You might get funded at NSF. If you apply for funding from the NSF, here are some things that could happen: 1. You don’t get funded, and you get some feedback. -OR- 2. You do get funded.  Seems like a win-win to me. Here is why I like NSF: 1. You always get feedback as long as you are compliant. 2. Teaching is a bonus, and many of us do teach (and like it – gasp!). 3. There are many programs, and program officers will shift around your grant, if they think it will help. Sometimes this can hurt you, but you will get more critiques. 4. In the panels I have served on, the people have been fair and reasonable. I don’t get the impression they care about your status as much as NIH appears to (again, my opinion). But, they will likely not be right in your field, so you have to sell it to a broad scientifically-literate audience and write a grant that is clear.

3. Be a f*cking squeaky wheel. If you have been teaching for 3 years and have taught 6 different classes, you need to speak up. If you chair shrugs and says, “that is how it it – tough shit,” you take it up the ladder. My university has a wonderful awesome woman in the Dean’s office who is concerned with young faculty issues. Does yours? If you want tenure, you should know. You should know that person in person. I have had previous posts about jumping the chain of command (post). Your chair and senior people in your department should want you to get tenure. Simple rules within a department can really help, such as making sure that you get to teach the same class 3-4 times in a row before coming up for tenure (see below). Or to make sure that you are getting the resources you need in your lab space and office. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Why should you squeak? If there are issues that can be addressed, and you are hoping someone will notice, they won’t. This is your career. This is your life and livelihood. Do not leave it up to someone else. If someone accuses you of being pushy, aggressive, or of jumping the line, you will have to make a choice: do you prefer to be (A) liked -OR- (B) tenured ? Besides, if you couch your arguments in terms of seeking advice, help, and assistance (i.e. you are asking for help and assistance) most people are quite receptive. If you already asked for help from your chair and they are unhelpful, time to go OVER THEIR HEADS.

4. Teaching the same class multiple times. This follows from above. When you are pre-tenure, you need to make sure that you get to teach the same course multiple times and not jump around too much. I have had several posts about how you can make incremental changes to your teaching to be more effective and get better evaluations (here, here, herehere). But, you cannot implement changes if you do not get to teach the course again.

In some departments, like mine, you have to demonstrate teaching excellence at all levels. This can often be done with two different classes – one at the sophomore level (lower level) and one at the senior/grad level (upper level). So, even if you are only teaching 1 class per semester, you can still make sure you demonstrate your teaching ability at “all levels.” Demonstration of excellent teaching at all levels DOES NOT mean demonstration of excellent teaching in ALL courses. Many departments make you teach a huge lecture section before you get tenure (mine didn’t, thank goodness). All the more reason to get to teach it multiple times to get better at it.

5. Writing papers. OK, this is a no-brainer. We all know we need to get papers published to get tenure. Yet, some people still submit packets with 2 papers when going up for tenure. Let me tell you, two is most often not enough papers in most fields. ***There are exceptions, such as someone who is working with a mouse model and had to raise mice from pups and watch them die, which could take 2-3 years to do one experiment. If that is you, you better squeak and make it very, very clear in your tenure packet that this is standard in your field (see these posts about your tenure packet: research, teaching, service) and make sure your allies are in place (tenure tips). Yet, two papers of your own independent work is a lot to do in, let’s face it, 2-3 years. Because the first 2-3 years on the job is spent getting a lab space, lab equipment, training people, and just figuring this job out (see this prior post on how to organize your time efficiently when you start your job). OK, so what should you do?

A. You need to build your body of work. I don’t think that most places expect you to actually make a huge impact on your field before tenure. Let’s face it, only very few of our colleagues at BigPrivateUs can even do that with amazing resources and students. So, let’s not shoot for Science and Nature papers. Let’s shoot for good papers in reputable journals that are known for good, reproducible work prior to tenure. This goes along with point 1, A above. If you are writing and getting funded grants on attainable science, you should also be able to make a few papers on that science. It can be foundational, as I said, so that you can build to the really cool stuff you want to do, but it needs to be there. I think more schools are happy with 4-5 solid papers than 1 Nature paper. Besides, how will you get that Nature paper? It is an unobtainable goal for most people (more power to you, if it is within your grasp).

B. Collaborate. Sometimes when people are pre-tenure, they are told explicitly or implicitly, not to collaborate. I felt this pressure, too, and it made it so that I could not work with some of my best friends in science who were all also going through tenure. But, collaborating and lending a figure of original data to someone else’s paper can help build your body of work. Several of my papers pre-tenure were articles where my lab contributed a single figure to someone else’s paper. In my packet, I openly discussed these and made it clear exactly what my contribution was to each paper. Of course these do not count as much as articles where I am last author, but it demonstrates expertise and reputation. It also shows that good data came from my lab and we were being productive and collegial, even while we were getting our other papers out the door.

C. Get your opinion and work out there in any form. Part of building your reputation and your body of work is getting your ideas out there. When I was pre-tenure, I was asked to write a couple methods chapter and a few review articles. I did not turn many down. In each of these, I tried to be pedagogical and interesting and inspiring when I discussed my views on science or the methods being implemented. Although I agree that these publications are not as important as reviewed journal articles where I am the senior author, they do add to my reputation and body of work. They are an important part of building that body of work. And if you are having trouble getting those corresponding author papers out because of experimental issues, you will at least have something to show for your time and effort that can go on your CV.

OK, this post got pretty long. I hope you find it helpful. Post or comment, and please let me know if there are things missed or other topics you want to see posted. Writing a long one like this is good to tie in the many previous posts that you might not have noticed or seen before. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Networking at Grant Panels

WomanNetworkNetworking is so very important!! I cannot stress this enough. This is true at all levels. At early levels (student), it helps you to establish connections and can even get you a job (see this post). Pretenure, it is essential to get the word out that you exist and are doing things that people should pay attention to. You gotta go to conferences (old post) and network on campus (recent post). When you are senior, lack of travel and often result in lack of recognition, and getting back out there can be essential to re-starting after a long absence due to childcare or other issue (see this awesome post).

When you are a professor, another important place to network is on grant panels. Serving on grant panels is so important for so many reasons:

  1. You get to read grants. Good grants, crap grants, many in between grants. When I read grants, I not only try to evaluate the science, but I also use the time to think about how best to write grants. Of course, you have to get rid of the grants afterward, but you can think and even write down what was good about the writing, the style, the format. All these things matter to writing a great grant that gets funded.
  2. You get to meet other scientists. On grant panels, you spend an intimate 1-4 days with a group of scientists talking about science that can be funded, using your expertise, learning new things you never knew before, and basically interacting. You are also together at meals where you spend time talking about your family, your pets, your house, and all the other lifestyle stuff. Scientists have similar lifestyles no matter if you are from California, Texas, or Michigan. This is the networking. This is the close kind of network that you often only find at very small meetings. Grant panels are the smallest of meetings.
  3. You get to meet program officers. In addition to working with other scientists who may or may not be in your field, you also get to work with the program officers who will presumably have the opportunity to fund your research. You can figure out what types of science they like to find and how they like to interact with scientists. Different program officers like to hear more about motivation or technical stuff or diversity impacts. Plus, if you are already at a funding agency, you might be able to visit other program officers while you are there.

What is a grant panel like? I have a lot more experience serving on NSF panels and foundation proposal review panels, so that is what I will describe. If you have information about NIH, DOD, DOE, or other, please comment here! At NSF you have to come prepared and be early. Most program officers want you to have all your evaluations uploaded over a day early, so they can prioritize the discussion list. Be prepared – it takes over an hour to review a single proposal and write a review, so make sure you start early enough.

At the panel. The program officer will start with a little background or information you need for the panel. Good ones will describe implicit bias and how it is important to be aware of biases, so that you can avoid them.

Reviewing. The panel will begin to review each grant. Some panels prioritize the grants so that the obvious ones (all highly rated or all low rated) are discussed first and taken care of. Sometimes the bottom ones are completely triaged – not discussed at all. Most program officers will try to keep you on track by giving you only 12-15 minutes to discuss the proposal. One person will be the “lead” discussant and describe the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. The second and possibly third reviewers will describe and additional and not previously described issues. Typically, a third or fourth assigned reviewer will serve as the scribe who will record what is said at the panel to give some inside information about what was said in the room and write up the panel summary that also goes to the proposers.

Serving as a virtual panelist. In a recent panel, I served as a virtual panelist. In this, I used my computer camera to interact with the panel. Frankly, I didn’t like it. It was harder to interact and network with others. I felt like it was also more difficult to be convincing. Most of the other virtual panelists had cameras, but not everyone, so I couldn’t use facial cues to help me be more convincing. Also, I realize that I typically use these meetings for networking – specifically with the women scientists on the panel. I am not sure if I will be a virtual panelist again.

Anything else I missed? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Writing a Grant

Power of WordsWe had a nice post previously from Robin about the importance of grant writing. This post had some very good suggestions, and you can find it here. This post is more on the mechanics of writing  grant. Most importantly, you are staring at a blank screen, and you need to get some stuff out because the deadline in maybe a month away. Where do you start? What do you write? What needs to be in there and be included?

Apparently, there is big money to be made in answering these questions, because I get science spam at least once a day trying to sell me books, seminars, and webinars to address these questions. I actually do have one of these books – my university gave them out to us all at some point. I have to say that it was fairly useful because it listed all the parts of the grant that needs to be included. Obviously, if you don’t include a particular part of the grant, it is far less likely to get funded. But, so many people have these books now that the particular style described in these books has become a bit of a joke during review panels. Even so, it is better to follow one of those books and their format than to have no idea and do entirely the wrong thing.

When starting to write a grant, the first step is two fold: (1) read the call for proposals. Many calls, especially special calls, have specific required sections. ALSO, simultaneously (2) get some example proposals.  The last post on requesting proposals from others is a good guide on how to do this. It is best to get examples from the exact agency, division, and panel where you are going to submit.  Use these together to check come up with an outline for the components of the proposal.

Outline. Yes, outline. I know, it is boring and old fashioned to outline, and I am not suggesting anything too detailed. I am suggestions coming up with the headers for different sections of your proposal. To get you started, I am pasting in an outline I use (you can probably tell this is for proposals to the National Science Foundation):


1. SIGNIFICANCE: Why is this important? You need to have the why before the what.

2. HYPOTHESIS: Not all divisions expect hypothesis-driven research. Get an example to see it this section is typical.



4.1 Experimental Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our experimental approach and present preliminary results.

Experiment Type 1:

Experiment Type 2:

Experiment Type 3:

4.2 Simulation Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our simulations/analytical approach and present preliminary results.


Objective 1: State it here.

Rationale:  Why do we want to study this? Why is this objective important? Everyone needs a reminder.

Proposed Experiments for Objective 1: No methods. That is all described above. This is just the “what” experiments – not the “how” experiments.

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 1: You must have something about controls and alternatives. They will look for it!

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 1: This is where you drive it home why these experiments and results are important. Again.

Objective 2:


Proposed Experiments for Objective 2:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 2: 

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 2:

Objective 3: This is the objective that can be a little more out there with less preliminary data.


Proposed Experiments for Objective 3:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 3:


6.1 Interdisciplinarity.

6.2 Collaboration Work Plan. I will do this. Collaborator will do that. I like to include a ven diagram figure that cartoons the roles of each person.

6.3 Timeline. You must have a timeline. I like to make a chart. Funding agencies requests it.


8. BROADER IMPACTS: Here is where I put grad student training, undergraduate student training, and any other outreach plans.

9. RESULTS FROM PRIOR SUPPORT: This has a specific format. Make sure you use it. If you don’t have prior support, you can remove this section.

10. SUMMARY. Reiterate the significance again.

Another secret to getting a grant done is to take advantage of the time you have. There will always be a time when you have time to work on the proposal, but not the drive to write. If that happens, use the time to work on the myriad of other things that need to be apart of the grant such as the Budget, Budget Justification, Your Biosketch (you the correct format!), your Current and Pending, your Facilities and Resources, your Postdoc Mentoring Plan, and other documents. These documents are pretty boiler plate with tweaks, so they don’t require a ton of thought, but you still need to do them. Or, just get your proposal started on the online submission system and input all the data.

So, this is my method. And, as far as grant writing goes, I have done a lot of it – almost a dozen per year. I might even be good at it. I am batting 1000 on my last 4 proposals. What do you do to actually write a proposal? Post or comment here. Click +Follow to get email updates when I write new posts.

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