Monday, May 05, 2014

Things I didn't know before becoming a professor: #2 How to Write a Grant

To get tenure in computer science, you have to secure external funding.

I don't know how important this is in other disciplines.  I'm sure there are administrations that will say that external funding is only one of a number of criteria that determine tenure decisions.  I'm sure they're right.   But without funding, you're at a severe disadvantage. You can't work with grad students (as easily -- some programs provide student funding through other means).  Travel to conferences -- where you present your work and solidify relationships with important people in the field (who may end up writing letters in support of your promotion) -- is expensive.  And then there's the brass tacks.  Depending on institution and some uninteresting details, the administration receives somewhere in the ballpark of 1/3 to 1/2 of the funds that you secure.  

Before becoming a professor, I hadn't written a grant proposal. I had read a couple of successful proposals that I had worked under as a student, but I hadn't been a part of the preparation of any.

A little bit of context before I share what little I've learned about writing grants.
I've been pretty successful in securing funding over the last five years.
I don't expect this trend to continue forever.
I recently received an NSF CAREER award.
But my previous two proposals were not funded.
I'm hardly an expert, but I've gotten better since starting.

Here are a few things I didn't know

How many funding opportunities there are? 
I knew about NSF and NIH. I knew about DARPA because I worked on a grant as a student.  I didn't know how many programs NSF has (there's no way I know about all of them).  I didn't know about the other DoD agencies that fund basic research.  I still don't know about all of the foundations and industrial grants and awards that are available.   I'm sure I'm still missing some, but each of IBM, Google, Microsoft offer programs to support faculty.  On top of that, there are institutional awards -- CUNY has a handful of them, and if we do, I'm sure everyone else does.  This doesn't mean that it's easy to find funding.  But by keeping an open eye, asking around, and being lucky enough to be asked to join grant writing efforts, I've been surprised by how many opportunities are available (in this field).

How to tell the difference between a good proposal and a not-good-enough proposal
Friends and colleagues will offer to share successful grants with you.  Take them up on it.  But learning from only positive examples is challenging.  It can be challenging to figure out how to translate structure and presentation cues from one grant to another.  Also, it's not always clear what made these examples impress the reviewers.   If you're so bold, ask these people to share the reviews along with the grant.  I haven't tried this, and I'd have to trust a person quite a bit to share my highlighted flaws with them, but give it a shot.

Still better is getting to look at unsuccessful proposals and their associated reviews.  Everyone you know has one or two of these kicking around.  Funding rates are pretty low, say 20% or so, so most people will have a stack of failures for each success they have.  But again, it takes moxie to ask someone for this, and a lot of trust to offer it.  (I don't know if this happens ever, but I'd love to hear if other junior faculty were able to read unfunded proposals as they started writing themselves.)

The best way to see a lot of examples of grants, both positive and negative, and their reviews is to get on a grant reviewing panel.  NSF Program Managers like to include junior faculty in their panels.  Call one who funds work like yours, and have a conversation.  I was invited to one in Spring 2010.  It was an opportunity to closely read about 5-6 proposals, and more casually review another 12 or so.  Seeing all the ways a basically good idea could not get funded was eye-opening.  Generally, the quality is high, so the differentiation between successful and unsuccessful proposals can be the depth of their weaknesses rather than the height of their strengths.

That writing a grant is writing science fiction
It's believable, near-future science fiction, but still in the genre.   You're describing something that doesn't exist, but will in the next few years.

This perspective has made the process of grant a lot more entertaining.

Science writing has a narrative arc.  The introduction and motivation of your work should be exciting.  The feeling I want to leave a reader with is somewhere between, "Of course that's what will happen", and "Wouldn't it be cool if that's what the world was like."  Balancing these two extremes is the difference between the Scylla and Charybdis of incrementality ("boring") and overreaching ("i don't believe you can do this").

How to keep it together after getting a grant rejected
It's only natural to be offended, embarrassed, insulted, frustrated, and sad when a proposal that you spent months of your life on is not funded.   The panel was clearly full of idiots who didn't understand your genius.  There was some mistake, if only they had read more closely they would understand how important this work is.

Here's what rejection has taught me:

Take a deep breath.

Most proposals aren't funded.

The folks who review your grants are almost universally qualified to do so.

If a proposal is funded, you are not a genius.  If a proposal is not funded, you are not an idiot.

The sooner you get over it, the better. Remember, it's the work that's being reviewed, those crammed 15 pages of science fiction, not your identity.

And there's a silver lining: almost always they will include a stack of written reviews. These reviews are a gold mine.  Treat them as a genuinely helpful consolation prize.  If you don't understand what they're saying, you can probably talk to a program manager about them.

When revising a proposal, I take all of the reviews, and cut out everything positive that they had to say.  It's too easy to be comforted by that.  What I really need to know is what didn't work.  That's what needs work.

How to find writing advice
I still don't have a lot of confidence in my grant writing.  But there are a lot of people who do, who will share their advice with you.  Almost all institutions have grant writing workshops.  NSF hosts workshops.  There are posts like this, and this, and this, written by people who are truly qualified about the process to really steer you right.  Writing with a group of people helps.  Collaborative proposals come with their own logistical challenges, but it can be helpful for getting feedback on the writing.

Some graduate students write applications for fellowships, internships and other sources of funding.  This is great practice, but this is different from the grant process.  Maybe the best way for students to get exposure and experience at grant writing is through their advisor's proposals.  I think some professors work with their students on their proposals.  If the student is a strong enough writer, and far along in their dissertation, I could see this making a lot of sense for both the professor and student.

No comments: