Tuesday, March 31, 2020

“Keep Your Job, Ken!” Part 4: Funding

by Professor Kenneth Hanson, Florida State University

This “Keep Your Job, Ken!” blog series post is on grants and funding. I will start with the disclaimer that I have by no means figured out how to best secure funding. We have been relatively successful (but also rejected a lot) so I can’t complain too much, but we also pale in comparison to others. Looking at the funding landscape leads me to believe that good ideas and well thought out plans are not enough, and that even weak and unoriginal research gets funding sometimes. Having now been on both sides of the submission and review process, I can confidently say it is a combination of timing, reputation, luck, name brand recognition (both institution and PI), the randomness of reviewers, as well as the number and quality of the proposals you submit.  Since it is the only thing that we can control, I will limit my advice to the last variable. Much of what I share may be obvious or redundant but hopefully there are some useful tidbits.

1) Do your homework. There are many resources available that provide detailed and program specific advice that is better than anything I’ll provide here. One that I found useful was the NSF (and presumably the NIH) versions of The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook. Even if you don’t follow their writing prompts or formatting advice, they do a good job helping the reader view proposal writing through the lens of a reviewer. It really opened my eyes to the differences between writing a paper and writing a proposal. Also, take advantage of any grant writing workshops provided by your university. Many will be generalized across several disciplines, but some advice is universal. Alternatively, there are several discipline-specific workshops that not only give advice, but also offer peer and/or expert review of your proposal drafts. I have not attended the latter but heard many great things from those that have. Unfortunately, these will likely come with a fee and travel costs (check if your grants office offers support for these types of events). Finally, ask colleagues for their advice but do keep in mind, a senior colleague with a lot of name-brand recognition and history with a funding agency will have a very different lens than someone starting from scratch. The same is true with any proposal you may have helped your very successful graduate and postdoc advisor write. They have the luxury of having >100 publications of preliminary results, a reputation, and a history that you don’t.

2) Read the call for proposals carefully and follow the instructions. The call for proposals will give you two very important pieces of information. The first is whether your proposed research fits the given program. There is a lot of flexibility in how you shape and sell an idea but your odds of getting funded improve if it ‘fits’. On the other hand, there are solicitations where no matter how good your idea is or how well the proposal is written, you have zero chances of being funded because your work is simply not what they are looking for.

The second is the practical aspects of formatting and submitting the proposal. This includes fonts, sizes, line spacings, supplementary documents, budget rules/restrictions, and other details. Some programs, like the ACS-PRF, even have key words or topics that if included will ensure your proposal is declined without review. Given how competitive funding is, reviewers and program officers are looking for any excuse to reject a proposal. That means, even if you have the greatest proposal ever written, it may still be rejected on a technicality. And rightfully so. Most of the rules are there to standardize the submission and review process to make it as fair as possible. So follow the rules. One strategy I employ is that, during the first read-through of the solicitation, I make a new document for every component they request (i.e. biosketch, references, facilities, relevance statement, etc.). If there are any specific requirements I copy and paste all of them into their respective documents. Then I can go back and start working on them one by one.

3) Talk to the program officers before writing the full proposal. If, after reading the solicitation, you still have questions about whether your proposal fits don’t be afraid to contact the program officer and ask. Even if the program does not require a preproposal it’s worthwhile to include a 1-page summary (aka white paper) of your proposed research in your initial email. Also, the language that was recommended to me was not to ask directly if this proposal ‘fits’ but to more generally inquire if your interests align and if they are willing to discuss more. Most program officers I have interacted with are happy to do a quick follow up phone call. During that conversation it is far more important to listen than to talk. With every proposal, what you want to say is far less important than what they want to hear. As in, a majority of what they tell you will be indirect advice on how the topic might align or maybe tangential areas of interest to them. If you read between the lines, they are usually making subtle suggestions on how you can better align with their interests. That is not to suggest that your work completely change or flat out lie, but instead that you’ll better position your proposal if you shape your narrative and research goals to the program of interest.

The other important information you may be able to learn from this conversation is the review format. For the DOE, they generally send proposals out to ad hoc reviewers that are in or have been in the program. Alternatively, some of the Department of Defense proposals are entirely reviewed by the program officers and national lab members.  The NIH does rotating reviewer panels. The NSF can vary depending on the program and proposal, sometimes it goes out to expert/requested reviewers, other times it is entirely panel based. Regardless of the format, knowing the audience helps tailor your proposal accordingly. If it is going to experts, you can assume a certain amount of background knowledge and incorporate more technical details. If it is a general audience then you have to give greater context, emphasize impact, and not assume they know the experiments. Anytime I have asked a program officer they have openly shared the format and rough numbers of panel members/reviewers, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.

4) Diversify your applications. As mentioned above, there is a certain amount of luck in the granting process. As such, you should try to roll the dice as much as possible. Submit different proposals and/or the same proposal to several different agencies. It increases the odds that your work will align with their goals and you get the ‘right’ set of reviewers to green-light funding. With that said, I will give two qualifying statements. The first is to still always put your best foot forward. Don’t half-ass proposals just to get more of them out. You only get one chance to leave a first impression with the program officers/reviewers and they will remember if you submit garbage. The second is that you do not want to ‘double-dip’ funds. Most agencies have very specific rules that a project can only be funded by one agency at a time. Unless they explicitly say so, that does not mean you cannot submit to more than one agency at a time. It instead means that if both recommend funding, only one can be accepted. Accepting both can be illegal and come at a hefty cost.

5) Don’t ignore the small grants. We are all shooting for that major federal award but there are also numerous small awards that are university, state, or region specific. The dollar amount is lower, but they can really add up and are perfect for getting projects off the ground. There are also several equipment grants that have relatively high success rates and provide long-term impact by helping to build your instrumental capabilities. Also, encourage your stronger students to apply for graduate fellowships. In terms of saving, the NSF-GRFP is worth >$100,000 or ~1/4th of a full NSF award. These types of awards are typically not going to get you tenure but they can help move your research forward and are usually worth the effort of applying.

6) When writing your supplementary documents, do it right the first time.  For the NSF, for example, a Biosketch, Data Management Plan, Facilities overview, and Equipment and Other Resources are required in addition to your Project Description and Project Summary. Aside from minor updates and agency revisions, these documents will largely stay the same from year to year.  As such, it is worth spending the extra time making a quality document the first time. Follow the advice of grant writing workbooks and seminars (see point 1). Get several examples from colleagues and/or the internet and emulate the best parts of all of them. But make sure to stay within the agency’s requirements (see point 2). While great supplementary documents won’t necessarily get you the grant, any poor or missing content can definitely be held against you.

7) Don’t take rejection personally. After pouring your heart and soul into a proposal and having months of optimism about them getting funded, you’ll inevitably receive a rejection letter. Sometimes reviewers have found a gaping hole in the science. But more often than not it will be rejected based on the reviewers’ subjective world view. They might just not be very excited about your area of research, they might like another proposal more, they may be having a bad day, and/or something else out of your control. For example, in my second rejection for the NSF-CAREER a ‘Good’ rating came from a reviewer that said, “Solar energy conversion is largely a solved problem.” While I, and most solar cell researchers would fundamentally disagree, there is nothing I can do but take my lumps and move on. Most comments are more subtle than this but in some ways can be more infuriating. Regardless, unless a program allows you to reply to reviewers, and most don’t, no amount of anger or negotiation is going to get the proposal funded. Thankfully, from my experience, the length of the anger cycle decreases with every rejection I receive. It turns out that growing a thick skin is both a byproduct and requirement for this job.

8) Follow up after the rejection. My general strategy is to read the reviewer and panel comments, be mad/frustrated for a couple days, and then read through them again a week later. Then I try to set up a phone call with the program officer and get their thoughts on the reviews and review process. Sometimes they will reveal information not included in the reviews and/or provide advice for a resubmission. Listen to the feedback from both the reviewers and the program officers and do your best to again read between the lines. Take the scientific comments and critiques seriously, take or leave the subjective comments, and then revise the proposal according. That combined with your additional preliminary results should help make your proposal stronger for the next submission. With all of that said, during the next round you will likely get an entirely different set of reviewers with a completely different set of biases and opinions. Nonetheless, the only thing you can do is submit the best proposal that you can. 

9) Work on a “general audience” elevator pitch. You never know when you are going to come across someone that could prove a stepping stone towards funding. As such, it is worth having a quick 30 second spiel about what problem needs to be solved, why it is important, and what unique thing are you doing to solve it. This 30 second presentation will most certainly not result in someone handing you a check. However, they may happen to know someone you should talk too or share your pitch with a program officer who may then in turn ask you for a white paper. These are long shot opportunities but worth developing a 30 second pitch for nonetheless.


  1. I got a curious question: my postdoc advisor has invited me to apply for a funding together. now i am keenly aware that i need to differentiate from him, but it is a good amount of money. i also have other research work that is on-going and not related to him. what is the forum's opinion on if i should apply this funding together with my advisor?

    1. This is one PI's opinion, but money is money. It (should) look good to your current position to be productive, and having those extramural funds should make it easier to get other things done (i.e., get work done toward your next grant). A reviewer might discount it a bit, but if it doesn't take up a ton of time to write and you are successful, another reviewer should see that as evidence of productivity and balance that out.

    2. Its going to depend on the expectations and traditions in the department. For some, any money counts. For others, pre-tenure you have to clearly demonstrate independent creativity and sustainability. I would ask a few senior colleague how they think your department would interpret the award.

      As an example, I was part of a big, multi-PI DOE-EFRC grant. In my fourth year review it was largely interpreted as me being a tourist on the award that lends spectroscopic support to others on the grant. At that point it was only interpreted as a side note for tenure and they still wanted to see another, major independent federal grant. It wasn't until I was able to publish my own independent and creative project (Chem. Commun. 2018, 54, 7507) with the funds that I was clearly able to delineate my contribution. I ended up getting another grant so it they didn't even need to revisit that discussion. Had I not, I am not sure how it would have gone.

      Presumably you and your former PI likely have similar skill sets so differentiating your contribution may be more difficult. Also, keep in mind for some agencies like the NSF, there is some degree of distributing the wealth. As a result, if you are a borderline fundable proposal, your colaborative funding may make it more difficult to get your independent grant funded.

    3. Thank you both for your inputs!


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20