Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Grant Canyon

In an ongoing but intermittent effort to rid my office of filing cabinets that I have not opened for 9 ± 1 years, I have been making random forays into the filing cabinet drawers and tossing the contents into the recycle bin. A bonfire would be more fun, but for various reasons is not a good idea.

Most of the filing cabinets contain old papers and proposals, but there are also some academic skeletons in the drawers. For example, I excavated memos and other documents related to various personnel crises over the years. After mulling for a picosecond about whether to keep them or toss them, I tossed them, in some cases shredding the documents.

In one file I found documents related to a troubled graduate student. This brought back such memories.. which made me shudder, so I definitely threw these documents out. This student's situation was complicated by his longstanding (pre-graduate school) psychological and other problems, but glancing over these documents reminded me of the chasm that can exist between advisor and student points of view even in normal situations.

In one long and rather nasty letter, the unhappy student detailed all of the ways in which I had been unfair to him. Many of his complaints stemmed from his lack of knowledge of how grants work.

For example, this student wrote about how unfair it was that I didn't tell him about his future funding until March, even though he had asked me in January. The uncertainty was painful for him and it was cruel of me to make him wait. Yes, it is painful to wait to hear about a pending grant proposal, but I couldn't give him news until NSF gave me news. I know that I had explained to him why I had no information for him in January, but for some reason he didn't believe me.

He had been supported on a previous grant, but had started grad school mid-grant and I suppose he had assumed the grant would last forever (despite being told the end date) or that the next one would be in place long before the other one ran out. I had other students to support as well, and so a new proposal for the continuation of his research was submitted during (but not before) the last year of 'his' grant, causing him some stress.

In another instance he wrote about how I limited the amount he could spend on research activities. Yes, that accusation is quite true. NSF limits me to my budget as well.

And he wrote about how insensitive I was in dealing with an episode in which he informed me, a day before we were all to leave for a conference, that he wasn't going and hadn't done anything to prepare his talk. He wanted to withdraw his presentation, but I refused to let him do that and instead I put together the talk and gave it myself, thereby humiliating him.

All of this is also true. I did not let him cancel his talk that was to be part of a conference session that I was convening. I somehow couldn't imagine standing at the podium and announcing that a presentation with my name on it was canceled, with my NSF program officers likely sitting in the audience. I explained this to him at the time, but to no avail.

The list went on. In every case in which he felt I was being erratic, unfair, evil, controlling, passive-aggressive, vague, deceitful, and insensitive, I felt there was a reasonable explanation, in most cases related to routine grant management issues, proposal/grant deadlines, or the realities of managing a research program that involves more than one person.

This incident was particularly horrifying because the student was so deeply disturbed (and receiving psychiatric care, fortunately) and I was an inexperienced assistant professor who, because I needed to show that I could successfully advise a Ph.D. student, tried too hard and too long to pull this highly dysfunctional student along in his Ph.D. research.

Even so, over the years I have found that even moderately well informed and apparently sane graduate students have trouble understanding some basic issues involving grants and research. These issues include:

- Grants have start and end dates. They do not go on forever. This might be confusing in part because PIs can get no-cost extensions for a year (or two), so grants may have a longer life than their original start and end dates might suggest.

- Grants have budgets. They do not contain an infinite amount of money. Even when some students are told exactly how much is available for a certain activity, they seem to think that somehow there will be more and/or they are surprised and upset when the money runs out.

- The total $ amount of a grant is not equivalent to the amount the PI has available for the research. A substantial amount of the money in a grant goes to the university, not to the PI.

- Grant funds for grad students may be much more than just salary. Some institutions also require that the PI pay tuition and benefits. Grad students may not be highly paid, but they may be a significant component of a grant budget.

- Proposal budgets for most proposals can't be too high. PIs develop a sense for what the funding agency/program would consider to be reasonable vs. too high. For this reason, PIs have to do some delicate balancing between grad stipends (+ related costs) and research activity expenses.

- Students supported on a grant may start their graduate studies before or during a particular grant's lifetime. It may not seem fair to the student, but this timing relative to a grant's lifetime may affect the advisor's stress level about doing the research on a particular time scale, and that stress level may be transmitted to the student.

- The time between proposal submission and notification of the proposal's fate may be long.

- Some university accounting systems are so bizarre and complicated that it can be difficult for a PI to know exactly how much money is left in a grant. For example, it can be difficult to determine what is encumbered and what is not, and whether all outstanding invoices have been paid. There have been times when the actual amount remaining in one of my grants has been off by tens of thousands of $$ from what the accounting tables indicated. This is particularly stressful near the end of a grant. Budget stress level may fluctuate depending on when PIs look at accounting statements. A graduate student might perceive this as erratic behavior in an advisor.

- In some cases, departments/institutions make new policies that cost PIs money in existing grants even if this money was not originally budgeted. For example, my department occasionally mandates that graduate students receive raises that are effective immediately, even for existing grants. I supported the raises, but the money has to come from somewhere in finite budgets. This means less money for research activities.

Most of us could do a much better job of explaining the proposal/grant system to our students, but I think that it is inevitable that when issues of money, time, and stress are involved, as they are during a typical graduate program in Science, there are going to be difficult situations. I also think that grant management is one of those things that you have to experience yourself before you can really understand what is involved.

Maybe some computer science person will create a video game - SimGrant. Advisors can give it to students and postdocs to play and see how they do with the various decisions involved in writing transformative proposals, keeping various members of a research group funded, and dealing with kafkaesque accounting situations. I think this would be great, but the only problem is that the game couldn't use a proposal submission system like or else no one would play, and those forced to play would end up shooting their computers.


Astronomum said...

SimGrant sounds like a great idea. As a postdoc (3+ years out of grad school now) grants still really confuse me and I wish I had had more instruction in this area. I probably made some insensitive comments about grants as a graduate student - but as I had nothing to base my ideas on it's not too surprising. What is surprising to me is how teaching and learning about this incredibly important part of scientific life can be neglected. Is it some wish to "shield" students from the nastiness of real research life.... it's not helpful. I'm glad you're at least doing something to work on it.

Fia said...

This is a very nice post, and I wish I'd have such a PI like you are. When I started graduate school, I had no clue about the research budget I could use (my salary was fixed and the start and end date was made very clear in my contract). I guess I should have simply asked, but instead I applied (successfully) for small supporting grants for material. I learned how to apply for grants by doing this, but it would be more helpful to have a rough idea about what the budget is, how much of it I could spend for what ect. Our PI is sort of secretive about it (although I didn't specifically ask) and therefore I never knew wether the budget was full, whether she was applying for new ect. which did not help me making decisions for what to buy, when to travel ect.

Heather said...

Believe me that there are even more tortuous grant submission platforms than but I hear you loud and clear on explaining grants realities to grad students.

In my grad program long ago at Berkeley (life sciences), the qualifying exam consisted in writing and defending two NIH-format grant applications. One on the future Ph.D. research, one on a completely different topic in a different life science field. I think there was a budget section, but am not sure. Anyhow, it was certainly formative, and in many ways even more stressful than the actual thesis. Good preparation for the future, though.

Anonymous said...

When I was a grad student, I figured out most of this stuff on my own. Many of my classmates did not, however, and probably still have limited awareness as postdocs. Would it hurt to sit students down and explain this to them when you start paying them and they start spending your money for research?

Janice said...

SimGrant! What a great idea!

Anonymous said...

this is one (of many) reasons why grad students should be involved in grant writing. in my field, student research is mostly supported by grants written by students with the advisor as co PI (e.g., NSF DDIG). No grant = no research. And in the end, we have a clue how to write a grant when we leave.

Thomas Joseph said...

There are times I look back on my graduate career and I feel sorry for my advisor. Of course, I never wrote them any scathing letters. I didn't want to put anything in writing. Then again, neither did they. ;)

Anon said...

As a first-year grad student, I think it would help a lot if professors were more open about how their funding works, what the deadlines and restrictions of the grant are. My current advisor is very close-mouthed about it, except to occasionally yell at us about spending too much. I also had to struggle to get my own account to order basic supplies, as my advisor has some aversion to answering questions about ordering, even when asked directly. Thanks for clearing up some of the workings of grants, it really helps.

Unknown said...

What a timely post - I am a graduate student and am scrambling to put together a grant due in a few days. The suggestions about making graduate students write grants is interesting. Some other students in my lab think that our PI shouldn't make his students write, because "that's really his job" and "what else does he do otherwise". I was more than happy to do this because it gives me a chance to learn grant-writing before the stakes are really high for me. However, some graduate students probably think that their jobs do not include grant writing.

I would also love to read the budget and learn more about how budgets are calculated. However my PI is always happy to let us read grants as long as he takes out the pages involving budgeting. Budgets list salary information that I guess is either too sensitive or that he is not willing to share. I wonder if other PIs feel the same way?

Anonymous said...

Nice post! Getting back to you for a second, I appreciate your candor in dealing with this individual and in laying out why it was a mistake to pull a dysfunctional or otherwise uncommitted person along for such a long time. I am watching this happen now in a collaborator's group, and when I was in grad school I was one of the "other students" who had to deal with the unstable student on a daily basis. As new faculty I do not yet have my first graduate student, but my eyes are open for when I do...

Anonymous said...

The $ situation is even more crazy at National Labs, where every year we end up on Continuing Resolution and don't know what our budget is going to be...we'll see if this improves now that the same party is in the white house and congress.

Anonymous said...

I did my PhD at a European institution with a very different grant situation. Imagine my shock when, after helping write the first draft of the grant proposal and seeing the total request for funds to cover my costs as a PDF, I got my first paycheque and thought "Wait a minute, this can't be right, I thought I was making 160k a year!". University overhead, lab costs and so on also came out of that ... so much for my life of luxury!

Yvette Dickinson said...

I think it's interesting what Sgizh said... I am a graduate student from overseas studying here in the US and I have been very surprised at the amount of grumbling I have heard from alot of graduate students here. Most are along the lines of...why can't she/he do XYZ for me..."what else does he do otherwise" (using Sgizh's words).

I have always been of the opinion that advisers have their own research to do (and get grants for), as well as teaching undergraduates, advising other graduates and various admin tasks. While they should be able to make time to help me when I politely ask with lots of advance notice... it is not their job to hold my hand through every step of graduate studies. I am very grateful for the hard work they put in to get a grant which will support me for a while. As graduate students we have to be willing to work hard and help in anyway I can to ensure that funding does continue... even if that means writing our own proposals under the guidance of our advisers.

It is nerve racking for everyone waiting to hear if funding will come through and we have to trust that my advisers will let me know as soon as she/he knows. We all need to remember that advisers aren't out to get you... or make your life miserable. If I do well... it makes them look good too!

The bottom line is graduate students have to be responsible for their own work... with the guidance of advisers.

John Vidale said...

Excellent post - your book is getting well-thumbed on the table outside my office.

You might emphasize more that approval of grants from some agencies is less than 20%, so the waiting for the grants to come in can be harrowing indeed.

I've had many of my students assemble proposals for me - learning both the finances and the mechanics of dealing with fastlane qne, as well as what mix of ideas and accomplishments should be presented.

Anonymous said...

SimGrant is a great idea! That Violet game is pretty popular (in that game you're a grad student finishing a dissertation, and you have to fight off distraction after distraction), so I think SimGrant could work!

I'm in the humanities, and I just finished my first ever grant application. I could not believe how hard it was. I downloaded the instructions, figuring I'd read them over in an hour or so. When I saw they were 240 pages long, my jaw just dropped. I don't know how people in the sciences have time to do anything other than get grants!

chemcat said...

interesting article, somewhat related to the issue-- in terms of budget instability at least.
I just found out that the state agency that funds part of my work, including 1 mo of my own salary and two students over the summer, is taking back all the grants. Sigh... how am I supposed to function with this instability? What am I going to tell the students, to get partial employment at McD?

chemcat said...

Ooops. I was referring to an op-ed by Steve Quake on today's NYC.
Link at:

Laura E. Mariani said...

Great post. My graduate program requires all second-year students to take a grant-writing class and produce an NRSA. They have about a 60% success rate at getting these student grants funded, so it must be a pretty good class (although I hear the workload is considerable). I hope after taking this class myself I'll have a better idea of how the funding process works -- this was one of the reasons why I chose to attend this program over others.

Doctor Pion said...

New grad students probably should go through some sort of orientation, with periodic updates about such mysteries as annual reports, proposal cycles, and indirect cost recovery as they gain experience and get more deeply involved in the research program.

I learned about some of those things over a glass or two of beer as the senior faculty complained about where 40-something % of "their" money was going, and others by writing my part of a report or proposal.

But I didn't learn some of it until I was actually writing one. I was stunned when I learned that they budgeted in even thousands.

Anonymous said...

As a grad (M.A.) student in a arts and letter field of studies, I can assure you that asking for money (travel subsidy, grants, et cetera) is a convoluted, lengthy and arcane process.

Oddly enough, when I do inquire to my professor as to the minutiae (that is, in more depth than 'what do I need to fill and sign, and when will I get the money?'), my professors seem very much puzzled. They do not expect students to want to know these things (and tire quickly of my questioning, but they do answer).

Still, I think that they are pleased that I care about these things and make plans in advance. It somehow shows that I am serious about making a career out of this, I guess...

Anonymous said...

As a current postdoc, I feel that grants are something young scientists should be "eased" into. I don't see the point of getting new graduate students involved, they typically know next to nothing about how the system works. However, by the end of grad school, they know quite a bit of "the trees" from experience, and are in a better position to start learning about "the forest", right?

Also, I'd be interested in hearing some more senior researchers' opinions on the value of having had experience applying for (competitive) fellowships when applying for grants. In a fellowship application, much as in a grant proposal, you have to lay out (sometimes at length) what the scientific issues are and how you hope to contribute to solving them within the specified time frame. You also know that you're competing against a lot of other smart people and it's serious business. On the other hand, in a fellowship app you're (in my experience) only trying to win funds for your own salary, and that's set in advance, so fellowship apps lack the "money" issues that are present in grants (i. e. "how much do I ask for?"). In your experiences, what are the relative difficulties of the "science" and "money" issues of grant apps?

Ms.PhD said...

I think your student would have benefited from more communication, and given a similar situation now you probably would have handled much of it differently than you did as an assistant professor. I would be furious with a student who did not prepare a presentation and wanted to escape at the last minute, but I also tend to nag and push and cajole my students to prepare things ahead of time, until they gain the confidence and experience to do it themselves.

I can also understand your fury at the "we discussed this but you forgot so don't accuse me later of not having told you" effect. I have that a lot with my PIs, where I tell them things, but they forget, and then write their own version of revisionist history where I am lazy/irresponsible/disrespectful. It's a dangerous thing no matter which way it goes. The only thing I've learned from all this is that most people don't remember most of what you say to them. If you want someone to get a concept, you have to say it at least 3 times. Sounds like you told this student once, and he had some cognitive dissonance so it didn't get processed.

But I'm glad you're not dealing with any dysfunctional students right now. I have a collaborator student who is in need of a lot more nagging/pushing/cajoling than I have time for right now, and the thought of dealing with his issues just makes me tired. But his PIs are doing nothing and I'm a co-author on his papers, so I guess I will have to summon the strength somehow to make him finish the work, whether I get the credit for making it happen... or not.