Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Perfect Number of Grants

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..


Alex said...

Perhaps I will start buying lottery tickets, or perhaps I will try to sell more FSP T-shirts..

I once juggled for an hour in a well-trafficked area, with a hat put out for donations. I beat minimum wage. So if this whole science thing doesn't work for me, I have a backup plan!

Maybe I could sell t-shirts while I juggle....

plam said...

It seemed pretty common for untenured professors at the Institute to have about 8 students, without much co-advising going on, in the early part of the 21st century.

After tenure, the number of students tended to drop. I think my advisor has 2 or 3 students now.

Anonymous said...

How about t-shirts that say "My cat is my co-PI?"

EliRabett said...

The issue is not so much the total number of grants, but the number of dollars and the number of people they support.

mudphudder said...

If you are able to advise on average 8 graduate students per year, that is great. At some point (if not already), you may also start to collect junior faculty as a part of your lab who can help to fund and mentor your students. I've noticed that having some more established members in the lab, such as junior faculty, is a common tool for expanding one's research program.