A colleague recently asked me to participate in a proposal. I'm happy to do so, even though I know that I was his second choice. This colleague originally asked an assistant professor who ended up declining because he didn't feel he could manage working on two proposals within a few months of each other. I respect the assistant professor's decision, as I suspect that there are some complicated things going on in his life right now. He made his decision based on what he felt he could and could not handle in the near future in terms of proposal-writing, and he may well have made the right decision.
Or not. He made his decision without talking to his official faculty mentor. That's fine, but it raises the general question: How do you decide what you can and should take on in terms of proposals and projects early in your career? How do you balance what you want to do vs. what you should do vs. what you can realistically do?
This episode brought back memories of my early decisions about how many proposals to submit as an assistant professor. My first NSF grant, lo these many years ago, was a modest one that helped me get my research program started but that wasn't enough to build a research group and tackle some of the big ideas I wanted to pursue.
My second grant allowed me to do some of this, and that was great, but when the grant was awarded, the relevant program officer (PO) told me not to submit any more proposals for most of the duration of my grant and that I should do a good job with this one grant and not be 'too ambitious' early on.
At the time, I was very annoyed by that. The PO seemed to think that the best way for me get started was by proving myself one project at a time, but I felt I should and could do more. If it had been the general practice to give a young investigator one big grant for the first 4-5 years, even if it was a CAREER award, that would have been fine, but that wasn't the situation at the time.
It's not as if I wanted to write 17 proposals, or even 4 or 5. And I wasn't planning on hurling vast numbers of proposals at NSF in the hopes that one or more would be funded. I had some very specific ideas about what research I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, and how I was going to do it.
I was impatient. I didn't want to wait 4 years to submit another proposal, and I wanted to advise more than 1-2 grad students at a time. So I ignored the well-meaning program director's advice, submitted proposals to other programs, sought other sources of funding, developed collaborations, and built my research program.
I have no regrets about that, even though I can now appreciate that I wasn't being patronized by the program officer, I was being mentored.
But I still wonder: do we have to be so cautious? The practical short answer is yes, in part because funding for basic science research is limited and not everyone is going to get as many grants as they would like. For the sake of discussion, though, I'm going to ignore funding budget constraints. In this discussion, the only issue is how to advise early career faculty about what the optimal number of proposals/projects is, and whether early career faculty should be advised to go slow and not be 'too ambitious'.
I can see how it would be bad advice to say to an early career person: Sure, go ahead, write 3 or 5 grant proposals this year and take on 8 grad students, sink or swim, good luck. And it is perhaps rare for a mentor (a program officer or a faculty colleague) to know enough about their mentee to gauge how much of a research program they can reasonably manage and sustain in the first few years of their career.
Perhaps it is therefore better to err on the side of caution and advise a gradual building of a research program. Along with preparing classes for the first time and figuring out how much service work to take on, not to mention having a life outside of work, we can keep plenty busy even with one research project and a couple of graduate students.
Even so, if a young colleague wanted to try to do more, I would not discourage them unless I had specific reason -- based on their record, not on a one-size-fits-all philosophy -- to counsel caution.
It would be nice if there were an equation that would calculate the Perfect Proposal Number for us, based on all the relevant variables involving work and life. Lacking such an equation, perhaps the best thing that assistant professors like my young colleague can do is to talk with their mentors and discuss the issue. The mentor might not give the best advice, and maybe the advice will be (and should be) ignored, but perhaps the discussion itself can put the issue into better focus for all concerned.
10 months ago