Yesterday I mentioned somewhat at random the numbers 3 or 5 grant proposals and 8 grad students. I picked these numbers without giving them a lot of thought, but with the intention of describing a moderate-to-large research group size in my field, but not an extraordinarily large one.
I was trying to be somewhat moderate and balanced in my discussion of what to advise an early career science professor, but at the same time admitting that I have never been moderate or balanced myself. I think the advising philosophy of "You should be just like me" is probably not a good one in general, at least in this case, even if the overall concept of getting as many grants as you can sounds like a good thing for an early career science professor to do.
I have been PI on 3 ± 1 grants (+ others as co-PI) at a time and have advised 8 ± 2 students/year for most of the 21st century, but I have only managed this by extensive and varied collaboration and co-advising. It would be difficult (and maybe impossible) for me to maintain these numbers over time as a single investigator and sole advisor.
There are various ways that those desiring a large-ish research program or group can build one, even when proposal funding rates are << 20%.
- If you have something (a lab, some unusual expertise, brilliant cats) that other colleagues want or need, you may get asked to be a PI on collaborative proposals with colleagues at other institutions or a co-PI on proposals by your immediate colleagues. Unless I think a project is really boring, stupid, or insane in a not-good way, I typically say yes to invitations to collaborate. I also say no if I feel that my participation would harm the project owing to my already having quite a lot of funding; this has only happened once though, and I was kind of using it as an excuse to say no to a friend.
- If you have brilliant ideas but require collaboration with others to do a project, you can ask other colleagues to be a collaborative PI or a co-PI with you, and they will of course say yes.
- If you are at least somewhat multi-inter-cis-transdisciplinary, you can apply to more than one funding agency and/or to more than one program within a funding agency.
- Your university may have small grants for various species of professor or various types of research; these are well worth acquiring if possible because this is a way to get funding for the all-important preliminary data needed to get a big proposal funded.
I also stretch grad student funding by having students do a mix of RA and TA, with stipends supplemented by whatever fellowships are available from the department, university, or professional societies.
I have worked hard to build my research program, but I have also been very fortunate and I am always aware that someday I might have fewer (or no) grants. If that ever happens, I hope that I at least have some warning and can keep my students supported until they graduate. Then I suppose I will re-'group' at a smaller scale and work with whatever funding I can muster, perhaps by exploring other means of acquiring research funds. Perhaps I will start buying lottery tickets, or perhaps I will try to sell more FSP T-shirts..
5 months ago