What are you teaching your trainees about grants submission?

To all you mentors… what are you teaching your people about grant submission?

I realize that by the time most of your people submit their first big grant, they are off your payroll and out of your lab. But while they were in your lab, what were you teaching them about grant submission and the whole process? A few questions:

1. Did you talk to your trainees at all what happens when you are preparing the grant – you know about all the non-meat-of-the-proposal stuff that goes in there, and about how grants administration – especially pre-award grants administration- is done at your institution?

I had no idea whatsoever about this as a student, although since I wrote/submitted myself as a postdoc I did quickly pick what all that extra paperwork is and who-does-what support type stuff. We have superb pre-awards administration- but not all institutions are like that. As I understand it there are some hinterlands where PIs are left mostly to their own devices for pre-award administration (i.e. they get to fill out all the complex forms in triplicate, do budgets etc etc.). That must be a big bummer- I know we are very luck to have such great support.

2. Were you talking to your trainees about the structure of the NIH and what happens to a grant (i.e. where it goes) after your research administration people hit send?

I admit that I was totally clueless about this as a graduate student. I vaguely remember certain times of the year when my cherished graduate advisor was running around with stress coming out of his/her pores just prior to a granting deadline. But I confess that I had no idea of specifically where grants go and how they get there other than that they fell into this big black hole called NIH. During my postdoc I became much more savvy to this, because I was writing some myself, and my advisor was very good about helping me through the process. He/she didn’t write me a handbook- but the advice was pretty darn good.

3. Did you talk to your trainees about what institutes and study sections that you submit your grants to and why? If you have experience with more than one study section and they have subtle (or gigantic) differences what were those leanings, and did you pass those along to your trainees?

I don’t think I really got this kind of mentoring until I was junior faculty. I wonder how commonly grad advisors and postdoc advisors are providing this kind of information to their trainees. From my side I’ve been really lucky to have close mentors that talk to me about this stuff- I’ve made a few missteps here requesting or de-requesting particular study sections, just because I was inexperienced in the process, I didn’t know the right questions to ask of my mentors or of the scientific review administrator (SRA) or program officer (PO) (that link is for NCCAM but applies pretty much to program officers in general), perhaps I didn’t even understand the distinction between the SRA and PO, and I didn’t quite know who looks at what in the process to making the determination of which study section is most appropriate for a particular grant.

4. Did you give your trainees any idea how long the whole federal grants process takes from writing to submission, from submission to review, from review to summary statements, from those time points to council (and what the heck is that?!) and then ultimately to funding or re-submission?

I imagine that many people don’t come up against this until they are in their first faculty position- and generally have no idea how long things take and how many things you can and should overlap to hike up your chances. I was lucky, I had written and submitted grants during my postdoc, I had good mentorship, and I knew the approximate (and very lengthy) timing of things.

OK- grad students and postdocs, those of you that have visions of an academic position sometime in your future, get out there and start talking to your advisors about this stuff. Sure, you can and should get the basics first by doing google searches and poking around on the Office of Extramural Research website (OER)– but the more subtle stuff you will either have to learn by bitter experience or you’ll have to just ask and ask and ask until you find the mentor who will lay that information out for you, step by step. And believe me, there is LOTS of this little subtle stuff that is really important.


23 thoughts on “What are you teaching your trainees about grants submission?

  1. I’m talking to my folks about this a lot, since that was how I got trained in during my postdoc. I try to be really transparent about what’s going on, what we’re submitting, how it’s getting reviewed, etc. I think I could be more explicit though, and I am going to make them all FIND opportunities and apply for fellowships themselves through the pre-awards office during this coming year. They’re already working on it. Hopefully I can help them all learn the business of this!

  2. DM and CPP – well, since the two of you are teaching this on the internet… I’m assuming you do this well in person too. BUT – I know that there are plenty of PIs that teach their trainees absolutely nothing about this.

  3. I tell them everything, but this is largely a waste of time, since 90% of the trainees will never need to write an academic grant.

  4. Nobody tells me anything. Even when I ask explicitly, sometimes I get answers but sometimes I get the “I’m so sick of grants I don’t want to talk about it” eyeroll.

    That’s why I hang out here.

  5. I keep them in the know and tell them about all such things. My post-doc advisor keep me in the know, and I think it helped me hit the ground running, churning out grant submissions.

  6. I learned a fair amount about grantwriting and the old system of scoring from my graduate adviser while assisting with a competing renewal. Until I submitted a fellowship proposal in grad school, I had no idea the amount of internal (university) paperwork and review that went on. I daresay I know more about grant writing and review process than many grad students and postdocs, largely because I had opportunities that many don’t–like attending a two-day training grant summit at the NIH during which a program officer discussed some of these issues, or chatting with a program officer (not in my area of interest) at a conference social event. There is still a lot of the nuts and bolts that I don’t have a clue about, particularly regarding budgets.

  7. Grad students should be submitting NSF DDIGs or other federal fellowships that go through the website hells such as fastlane and grants.gov. I had a crash course in formatting the DDIG proposal from the phone helpline, and was completely stunned at the administrative riggamorole needed to clear my proposal. Don’t wait til the last minute. I’ve also had personal contact with program officers which helped me figure out how to develop my proposals based on what is considered fundable. Reach out to people you know who’ve submitted to the programs before and if possible, ask for their proposals. It helps tremendously to see what funded proposals look like and how they attack their project, and it’s also helpful to see unfunded proposals, especially ones that were recommended for funding but went below the payout.

    If funded, you’ll also need to submit summaries, literature lists, and outcomes when you get the cash deposited and on the last day of the funding period. I don’t know of many mentors who train their students about grants. I was constantly applying for money as a student and racked up a bunch of grants that allowed me to travel for my research and go to meetings with my undegrads. Writing the grants helped me be a better writer when it came time for the papers because I already had alot of the text (intro and methods) written that I could build on for papers.

  8. UK-based and non-medical, so no NIH.

    I encourage all my trainees to start with small things like internal univesity funding applications, taking the lead on that from year one. Once they are moving into their third year, I generally aim to get them fully involved in the whole process for at least one grant, and try to target that to their planned career path so that it’s to a body they might genuinely want to deal with one day. I am also pretty open with the group about what’s going on with all the applications underway at any one time (though sometimes, like this week when I had two rejects in one week, I feel like it makes me look like a crap advisor who can’t get money and therefore shouldn;t be listened to!).

  9. whimple- While that may be true (90% of your trainees don’t ever write their own grant), a passing knowledge of how the grants process works is useful in many contexts- not just the writing and submitting of one’s own grants. Educating the public/friends and relatives on where there tax $$ go, comes to mind. But there are many, many more ways that I can think of this as a benefit. The other day I had an undergraduate who works in my group ask me, when we were out at the stock room purchasing supplies, where the money for all of this comes from ?!!! A teachable moment if there ever was one.

  10. forget being told about it, in my department grad students have to obtain funding for their PhD research. I have written, submitted, resubmitted, dealt with all forms of univeristy accounting and grant offices. As a grad student. Nothing beats experience.

  11. student- I’ve visited a couple of places that had students write a pre-doc grant as their preliminary exam (I think those are ?F32s?, but I can’t remember offhand)- then, if good enough they actually submit them.

  12. While that may be true (90% of your trainees don’t ever write their own grant), a passing knowledge of how the grants process works is useful in many contexts- not just the writing and submitting of one’s own grants.

    Well, that’s why I continue to do it. However, there would be far more benefit to students in learning how to write an industry-standard CV than how to write a grant. My complaint with the emphasis on student grant-writing is that it promulgates the fiction that students are destined for an academic career, when we know that for nearly all of them this is not the case.

  13. Whimple- I also think students should learn to write all kinds of CVs for jobs that might interest them. But I have to call B.S. on that contention that some emphasis on student grant writing ‘promulgates the fiction that students are destined for an academic career, ‘ We have to stop seeing graduate school as an education that only produces tenure track academic faculty, I quite agree- but I still think it is important to teach graduate students those basic skills, (choosing an important problem, formation of a hypothesis, experiments designed to test the hypothesis, organization of preliminary data to support the hypothesis, salesmanship and broader impact)- regardless of what their career path will be. Neither you nor I would want students in our own labs who couldn’t become competent at these tasks. That, I argue, is not the same as grooming everyone in grad school for an academic career.

  14. We’ll just have to agree to disagree then. I’d much prefer the students spend their time generating data and writing papers that will actually be published.

  15. Thank you for raising this important topic. I would like to offer an alternative view: I don’t think graduate students should spend a lot of time learning about the details of preparing funding applications to NSF, NIH, etc., unless their goal is to become academic faculty in the United States. Since becoming an assistant professor several years ago, I’ve written dozens of funding applications, and I can tell you that a big chunk of the work involves developing budgets, filling out forms in the proper way, decoding the funding agency’s rules, networking with funding agency officials and fellow PIs, and many other tasks that have more to do with politics and administration than actual scientific research. Students should certainly learn how to develop a project, but learning how to raise money is something they should learn to do only when it’s certain that this information will be useful for their future career.

  16. APWWGA- Thanks for your comment- and just to be clear I am not suggesting that you make your students fill out a bunch of forms. That seems silly and was not the point that I intended for this post at all. For grant applications written by students I think it is fine and good training to make them do one in some format (many schools use the prelim for this)- because laying out ideas in this format is foreign for them (see my comment to whimple below, and that’s really all the detail I intended).

    My point in this post is that many people get no mentoring about grant writing/assembly/process to where it goes, and how you can direct how it goes- AT ALL, until they are assistant profs submitting their first grant. Now, I don’t know about you but my goal, is to get a grant funded while submitting as few as possible. I do not want to spend all of my time grant writing. I want to spend most of my time looking at data, writing papers and mentoring people. Simple mistakes on the submission (i.e. like not knowing that in vivo work is the primary focus of a study section or the reviewers on a given study section, or not understanding that you have to write multiple things these days to get a single one funded, use whatever example you want)- can cost you a year in time on a given application. We can discuss all you want about what stage of training is the appropriate stage for relaying all this information- sure. I personally think that learning this on the first grant as an assistant professor can cost you time.

  17. I personally think that learning this on the first grant as an assistant professor can cost you time.

    Yes, but the alternative in training these students for something they probably won’t need is costing you productivity, multiplied by every student you train. In my opinion, the appropriate stage of training is from your postdoctoral mentor on your K99/R00 application.

  18. Ugh, now I get another reason to beat myself up. Problem here is that I dont see many PIs (at least not me) planning far enough in advance to bring in trainees during the process, and face it when Im not writing a grant, I do not want to be going through the experience for training purposes. Personally, I actively encourage my trainees to write their own proposals and help from that standpoint. Experience, as mentioned above, is no better source of knowledge.

  19. I really want to argue for the importance of teaching students grantwriting. Grant writing is actually incredibly useful if you’re going to go into non-profit or public sector/government work, which is a really viable path for a lot of people these days. I’m not a professor and never intended to be even when I was pursuing the PhD (I left my PhD program because even though I went into it with this attitude they didn’t really respect that). I currently work at a nonprofit affiliated with my university and have worked at several different nonprofits (more traditional nonprofits, and then museums, universities, and libraries) of varying sizes over the course of my career, and am currently launching my own under a fiscal agency umbrella. I know how to get both private foundation and public dollars, and have reviewed private grants regranted from public dollars, and the only reason I understand the labyrinthine government grants system is that MY ADVISOR IS TEACHING ME as a masters student. I actually get paid a larger percentage of my assistantship to write grants than to work on science education work at this stage. Granted, we sit about 90% on grant dollars, which means I’m well worth it; that might be a luxury for a faculty member who makes less of their money that way and needs more publications. I still need to grow and learn so much more before I’m dead on. But I’m so grateful for what I’ve learned.

  20. whimple, You act as though drdrA were asking for some all encompassing and in depth training that was going to suck up a solid six months of time. it doesn’t have to be this. just a little bit at a time. spread out over a 6 yr grad career or 3-5 yr postdoc, you can jam a lot of grantsmithing knowledge into the trainees head with little sacrifice of data generation or paper writing…

  21. bikemonkey, that’s exactly how I do it: a little bit at a time, as I go through the grantwriting process myself. However, I have also seen the solid six months of time suck up system in use: we have an entire class students take in their second year devoted to “grant writing”.

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