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 grants.gov or else no one would play, and those forced to play would end up shooting their computers.
11 years ago