Friday, February 13, 2009

Grant Utopia

In a perfect world:

I would have a grant in place during grad student recruiting season, and this grant would fund an excellent student from the very beginning of their grad program. Having a grant in advance allows me to recruit international students whose English speaking abilities might not be sufficient for them to be teaching assistants in their first year.

This grant would allow the student to get started with a research project, but it would have sufficient flexibility to allow the student to take the proposed research in new directions.

The student and I would together write a new proposal for new research based on the exciting results and ideas that emerge from the initial research.

This new grant would be funded the very first time it is submitted, and it would start just as the original grant expires.

The grant might not provide an RA for every semester, but it would provide an RA for most semesters and every summer. The student would also be a TA for a semester or three when their schedule permits, as it is important that students who want a faculty career get experience teaching and learn how to balance teaching and research.

The new grant would carry the student through to the completion of their degree.

The research will be awesome and the student will get the job of their dreams.

In a still-great but not-perfect world, some of the above might not occur, but everything mostly works out. I may have the proposal pending (rather than definitely funded) during grad recruiting season, but the grant is awarded in time for it to benefit a student early in their grad studies. Or, I may not have the relevant grant in hand for the first year of a student's grad program, but we write the proposal during the first year and it funds the student for the rest of their grad studies.

Grant utopia is very rare. I can only think of one of my Ph.D. students for whom things worked out more or less as described in the ideal case. In that case, things worked out because I was fortunate with funding and because the student was extraordinary (and efficient).

In some cases, I get a grant, but I don't have a student who is working on that exact project, either because a student starts working on the project and fails, or because my students have other projects they want to work on instead. In the latter case, I may pay a student some or all of an RA to do work related to the grant, but I only like to do this if the student is interested in the work and will benefit from it in some way related to their education or career goals.

In other cases, a student works on a project with funding cobbled together from various sources, and just as they are finishing the major part of their research, we finally get a grant for their research.

In still other cases, students take a long, long time with their research and they outlast a grant.

Unless a grant is in hand or is funded on the first submission, getting the student/grant timing to work out can be tricky. If a proposal is not funded on the first submission, the resubmission must wait a year from the first submission. And it takes a while to hear about the fate of a proposal. And some programs have subterranean success rates.

Imagine a case in which a student starts grad school, and the advisor writes a grant proposal during the student's first year. Let's say that the proposal deadline is sometime in the middle or near the end of the academic year, and the proposal's fate is not known for 4-6 months after the deadline. Now assume that the proposal is not funded the first time. It is resubmitted at the next possible deadline. Add in the waiting time to hear about the proposal. Add in some stress related to submitting a proposal to a program with a very low success rate.

If the proposal is funded on the second submission, the student might start to be supported on the grant in their 3rd year of grad school. Depending on the program, that might be considered early, intermediate, or late relative to when the student is expected to complete their degree.

Some advisors might be reluctant to start students on a project that is not already funded, given the great uncertainties about obtaining funding for a particular project and given the long time that might be involved in acquiring the funding. Is it fair to start a student on a project that might not be funded during that student's graduate program?

On the other hand, it's nice to be able to put the name of an actual student in a grant proposal and explain how their Ph.D. research fits into the overall research scheme of the project.

After years of research on the matter, I have concluded that it's worth making some effort to try to have grants and students correlate, but it's not worth trying for grant utopia. When it happens, it's mostly by luck, or, at least, it has been for me. Instead, my approach is to try to write awesome proposals about interesting things, submit proposals to a variety of programs, and encourage students to get some of their own funding/fellowships. I try to get make the funding situation work out as best I can for my students and postdocs, but sometimes there is a mismatch in timing and research activities.

Severe mismatches are difficult to deal with, but not in comparison to not getting a grant at all.


greigite said...

In graduate school my advisor and I co-wrote three separate proposals relating to my thesis research, none of which was funded. I had an external fellowship that paid tuition + stipend for three years, but had to scramble to find $$ to actually do the research. Fortunately my work was relatively inexpensive as it involved a local field site. I was able to get $$ in small grants from my institution. I figure I probably paid for my thesis with about $40K of funds from proposals I wrote myself. That experience has been extremely valuable to me, and I think helps me professionally compared to people who never had to understand where the money for their research came from. Plus it resulted in five first authored publications, one in a CNS journal, which pretty much convinced me that science by committee is way too conservative.

Charles said...

Thanks for this post; this is something that's really mysterious to me. I'd love to hear more about how to handle student/grant mismatches:

1. If you start a student on a cool project, but the grant doesn't come through, what can you do?

2. How does "cobbling funding together" work? Do you need to come up with some justification to the funding agency for how the student fits the grant?

3. If you end up with a studentless grant, and it doesn't fit on your other students' research agendas, what can you do then?

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,

I'm curious about your thoughts on graduate students who are unable to speak English. I've been thinking about this because I've just entered a doctoral program and I've been shocked to find a large number of my classmates are fundamentally incapable of communicating in English. I don't mean their English is poor - I mean they can't maintain even the most basic conversation, let alone communicate scientifically.

Shouldn't some ability to communicate be a prerequisite for being part of a scientific community? Do students who can barely speak English learn by the time they graduate? it seems like English requirements should be stricter, or some sort of intensive language instruction offered before students start their programs in earnest.

Thanks for all your insightful posts.

John said...

Describes my view accurately. The only addition I would add is that having the fall-back of several more personable faculty with similar specialties in the department should be an important criteria in picking a grad program.

It is hard to predict when funding stalls, a prof will bolt for another job, or personalities clash. Plus then there is a larger community of compatriots for professional and personal support.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous at 2/13/2009 01:58:00 AM

"I've been shocked to find a large number of my classmates are fundamentally incapable of communicating in English."

So far I haven't seen anyone from a foreign country who can communicate efficiently right after coming to US.
People who score very well in English tests are in trouble anyway because they had very little practice with native American speakers.

The bitter truth is that most of the world studies British version of English which is very different in pronunciation, has different idioms, everyday vocabulary and even spelling sometimes. That's on the top of a tricky grammar, totally illogical spelling, a truckload of phrasal verbs and others...well...features of English itself.

Communication is a two-way street.
It takes some practice so even start to understand americans espesialy if they are chewing gum while talking to you.

But people do catch up fast.

Anonymous said...

I am anon 11:05 from yesterday. Thanks so much for this post. It is extremely helpful. Also helpful to hear the insight from your commenters from yesterday and today.

Anonymous said...

In many medical school/biology graduate programs (where TA's are not the standard), the department head co-signs saying that the department will support the student if the faculty cannot. Of course, that means the department wants to be pretty sure that the faculty member will be able to support the student before signing off. So, people usually don't accept students without a few years of funding lined up. Students who do "rotations" during their first year get paid by the program/department during that first year. Departments also smooth things over with training grants.

So, the details might vary in different programs.

NJ said...

Re: anonymous - as a Brit in the USA, I have trouble communicating with Americans too!

Anonymous said...

since you're writing about grants, I tohught I would share this (slightly off topic) thing I found on the NSF CAREER grant site (

one of the FAQs:
I am in a shared appointment with my husband. Both of us are in a tenure track line and I have the title Assistant Professor. Am I eligible?
Yes, if you meet the other eligibility requirements.

something about the implication of using husband instead of spouse bothered me. Thought you'd be interested.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Good point re. the importance of teaching experience. So many of the top graduate students at LargeU were recruited by putting them on (very well-paid) prestigious training grants or fellowships. While these opportunities allow them focus solely on their research, those that decided to pursue teaching jobs were SOL. Teaching experience is sooo important, but at many (all?) of the top programs, it seems to be looked down upon as a punishment for grad students.

mentaer said...

in a better world you wouldn't need to pay tuition fees...

Anonymous said...

Hmm,why would you prefer a grad student that doesn't speak English as a native language?

And to (I think) agree with [Mentaer]:

Graduate education (at least in biomedical sciences) is accurately labeled "less than completely worthless". This is because not only do trainees not pay for the privilege of their education, they must be bribed (tuition and stipend) to do graduate training with us.

--Anton the Professor

quasarpulse said...

@ Anonymous 05:31
Is economic value the only possible value in an education?

It is true that far fewer students would go to grad school in the sciences if it were not for the school's support, since unlike med school and law school applicants, future scientists cannot be even remotely confident of ever making enough money to pay back the loans that would be required.

Yet you can hardly view tuition payments and $15000 stipends as "bribes," given that graduates of the caliber that are admitted to grad school have many available opportunities not involving spending another six years living on the poverty line. Clearly they see some value in the process - just not the economic value that might allow them to consider going into vast amounts of debt. The value is personal, social, intangible, but it is clearly there.

Alex said...

Actually, from an economic point of view, the students accepting the $15k (or whatever) stipends are paying: They're paying an opportunity cost. If they were not in grad school, they would almost certainly be making more money. The income that they're forgoing is the price they pay.

Now, there's a good reason to pay that price--they believe (however accurately or inaccurately) that graduate study will help them make more money in the future, but the income that they forgo is a cost that they pay. Don't believe me? Compare their living conditions with those of their college classmates who didn't go to grad school. Sure, a recently college grad in the sciences might not be rolling in cash right after college, but odds are that a college grad can still make more than a graduate student stipend.