Wednesday, June 22, 2011

n proposals

In yesterday's post, there were some comments about how many proposals an individual faculty writes or "should" write in a year. Of course, there is no one answer to how many proposals one "should" write, even within a particular field.

We should each write and submit as many proposals as we can reasonably manage with our other responsibilities, taking into account also
  • funding rate, which is no doubt quite low,
  • amount of typical grants,
  • needs of the research group (e.g., number of advisees and others to support),
  • types and sizes of collaborations involved in research,
  • career stage (tenured?),
  • time-management skills and proposal-writing ability/style of the PI,
  • number of other important responsibilities in the weeks before a proposal deadline,
  • health/family situations, and
  • expectations of the job/institution (including whether you have to raise some of your salary), and
  • number of awesome ideas for transformative research.
Did I leave out any major ones?

There is no point in stating, as one commenter did, that if you write n proposals (say, n = 3), you are shirking your other responsibilities, such as advising students and writing papers. Many of us routinely submit > 3 proposals in a year and manage to get other things done as well. We are neither superhuman or super-irresponsible; this is just the way things work for some people, in some fields, on this very planet.

If, however, you totally shut down a month before a proposal deadline and do nothing else but work on that proposal, and you do that 3-4 times/year, then OK, you can say that you cannot write 3 or more proposals in a year and still get other important things done. But other people can.

If any one proposal has a not-great chance of being funded, and if not being funded is not a good option, then you have to find ways to write lots of (excellent) proposals and do everything else.

In the past academic year, I submitted 4 proposals, 3 as PI; 3 were funded, 2 with me as PI. I got other things done as well. I didn't expect to get so many of these proposals funded, and since I have some existing grants as well, I am taking a break from proposal-writing. It won't be a long break, however, because soon it will be time to try to get support for new projects and people.

As I rummaged in the FSP archives, vaguely recalling an earlier post on a similar topic, I was interested to read that in 2008, I stated that

I have been PI on 3 ± 1 grants (+ others as co-PI) at a time..for most of the 21st century..

This is still reasonably true. I may have reached a mid-career steady state.

But enough about me. If your job involves proposal-writing, how many proposals do you write in a typical year?

In coming up with a number, I suggest combining proposals submitted as PI and co-PI but not count those involving only having a minor role as subcontractor or senior personnel unless you had a major role in all phases of proposal-writing. I realize that some co-PIs (or even PIs) don't play much of a role in proposal-writing as well, so just use your discretion in coming up with the number. You can count both external and internal proposals, but count the latter only if they require significant effort. I am trying to get a sense for how many substantial proposals FSP readers typically write (not just put their name on) in a year.

How many proposals do you write in a typical year?
more than 7Bold free polls
In the comments, it would be interesting if you provided additional data; e.g. specify n proposals, your field, and job title or description. What is your personal funding success rate?

And, if anyone still has time despite needing to get back to writing proposals, it would also be interesting to know if you feel you are writing as many proposals as you can or should. Would you write more proposals if you had the time?


John Vidale said...

I can't answer how many proposals I write. Between grad students writing their own that I have to sign for, multi-PI and multi-institution ones, all scales of ones for a seismic network operation, and some foundation stuff, one could count a lot. But then the writing load is widely shared.

The success rate is high because in the majority of cases, the plan is negotiated with funding sources, then the proposal is written. I don't remember one being turned down in the last few years, although the 5-institution, 4-year, $3M effort to study a volcano going to NSF the next week can't have better than a 50-50 chance.

We did strike out with a donor who ended up giving $1M each to both other institutions he was talking with. And have so far failed to convince some legislators that we should build an earthquake early warning system in our region.

I'd prefer to write fewer proposals and work less hard, but have a hard time saying no. There are way too many proposals in the scientific world.

Anonymous said...

I've been writing about 2 proposals a year, and they do suck up all my writing time. Since none of the last 10 proposals have been funded, I'm considering giving it up as a total waste of time, and go back to just doing research instead of writing about wanting to do research. I won't be able to support grad students, which is the only downside I see.

Anonymous said...

I am in satellite based astrophysics, where most funding comes either with winning time on a satellite or where you are only apply to submit a proposal for funding once you've obtained time on a satellite. I typically submit 2-3 proposals per satellite deadline, and in my field there are 4 relevant satellites, so make this 10 observing proposals for which I did significant work. Typical overbooking is a factor 1:6 or so. I usually get about 4 proposals accepted, which leads to two further funding proposals.

In addition there are also proposals that don't require you to have observing time, and I write about 4 of these per year.

Anonymous said...

1 or 2 big proposals per yr plus 1 or 2 smaller ones. I have no active grants right now and should be submitting more proposals per year. It is hard to find time with 2 children under 3 yrs old.

Science Professor Mum said...

Field: physical (environmental) sciences
Career stage: new full professor
Country: UK (so my salary is funded year round)
Proposals per year: ~2 (none as PI recently due to maternity leave periods, up to 4 in one year when there was targetted funding for my sub-field)
Success rate: ~70%
Funding source: National research council (i.e. all from one place) + a little from EU and Met Office.

This is a question that gets discussed frequently in our department both at my own staff development review and by my mentees and junior faculty. I haven't yet established a clear and consistent answer. What is obvious is that junior faculty feel more internal and external pressure to get their first grant proposal funded to demonstrate they can do this job. More senior faculty have more pressure to write proposals to keep people employed....

Most of the proposals I'm involved with are big multi-institution consortia. These big consortia are a pain to write (I have the latest one due tomorrow so really shouldn't be reading blogs :-)) and I sometimes wish I had the brilliant idea that would make it do-able to go it alone - I've done this only once before and it was great.

What really interested me was your assessment of how many projects you are PI on at once... and how similar it is to mine. I usually have PDRAs working on 3 or 4 different projects, + one or so PhD students maybe doing something else. This is just about the limit of what I can handle - I had 7 different projects at one time and that was completely mad....

Anonymous said...

Anyone else bothered by colleagues who bemoan their lack of funding success yet refuse to submit more than one proposal each year because the possibility for success is so low? One gets funding by writing proposals. Yes, rejection is hard to take, but you need to submit proposals to get grant awards.

Anonymous said...

FSP, Hands down, you are superior to most that read this blog, with a 75% funding rate for last year. Is this all from NSF or some DoD/DOE funding? (I assume NIH is out of the question for the physical sciences).

I was the one who started this conversation since I paralleled my dept. head to the walmart problem. And I was trying to make the point that I was good by having a 1/3 (33% funding rate) while taking care of an infant! I figure as long as I'm above 10% rate, I'm doing well.

I have received 4 funded external proposals (3 PI, 1 co-PI) in the past 5 years. And the sad thing is I wrote the whole grant for where I was co-PI (don't collaborate well with others?)

With near 2 million in funding over the past 5 years, I think I will get tenure next year. I met the checkmarks for 12 journal papers, PhD student graduated, etc (as our university cares more about quantity and "checkmarks" than quality).

But I am out of the league of 75% funding rate, for sure.

mOOm said...

I write about one a year, I'm an associate professor in economics in Australia now, previously in the US. There really don't seem to be that many realistic and good opportunities to submit proposals to. I think 2 would be the most I reasonably could do. I'm not sure what my career success rate has been and the recent track record is one success followed by writing a proposal and then being disqualified from submitting and then writing another one currently under review in the last 3 years.

Anonymous said...

I answered 6-7 proposals (it's been ramping up slowly over the past 6 yrs in this position; I'm projecting 8 or 9 this year). Assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at a medical school. I'm expected to pay at least 50% of my salary/fringe from grants, plus salary/fringe of my techs and postdocs and their lab supplies. Grad students are rare at my institution. I have had 9 of 28 proposals funded which sounds not bad, especially since a few as yet unfunded are still in review. But, many of the funded were pilot or new investigator grants for which I have diminishing eligibility. I am now mostly applying for federal and bigger foundation grants where the paylines range from 4-8%, and I don't consider myself much more highly qualified or lucky than the typical applicant, so I would say I am writing as many proposals as I can, but not as many as I should, and maybe not enough to keep my research program afloat for long.

chemcat said...

I'm a very recent associate prof in chemistry and biochemistry. My group has about 10 people, half students half postdocs. Funding sources are NSF, DOE, and NIH for a shared grant.
I answered 4-5, which is what it has been this last year. Actually it's going down since I have more stable grants now (3 major ones), I used to write more. Plus I had a baby in the fall- BTW I'm very proud of getting a big NSF one sent out 2 months after the baby's arrival!
I do have a harder time with papers, part because of procrastination, part because before my funds stabilized I didn't get good people in lab, part because with one of the big center grants I moved into a new area one year ago.
Success rate is about 1 a year, but it's really hard to say (for example one of the ones that didn't get funded last year was a 100 M proposal-- a DOE hub-- but we did make it to the final step).

John V, I'm sooo jealous! Never had one where I knew going in that the funding agency was interested- sigh!

John Vidale said...

I'm sooo jealous! Never had one where I knew going in that the funding agency was interested- sigh!

In geoscience, there are some programs in the USGS and NSF that have particular geographical foci, often to match existing instrumentation plans, and the agencies have some role to make sure the priorities are well-known, the opportunities are used, and the community is not fragmented.

Also, some non-research proposals would be more accurately called contracts, effectively sole-source proposals. If one is willing to run regional facilities, the basic funding is less at risk every cycle.

Partly, my last few general proposals have been lucky.

Katemonster said...

I have been a co-PI on a funded NSF MRI and have written one (rejected) NSF proposal. I've realized that there's no point in writing another until I publish something, so that's where my focus is this summer. The downside of working at a SLAC and prepping a new course almost every semester is that I really only have time to write during winter and summer breaks. The upside is that I can continue doing research with students whether I get a grant or not.

Anonymous said...

As an associate prof at an R1 university, I'm writing about 2 major proposals annually (~ $100k+) with maybe a 50% success rate. When I was in a different position where I was expected to raise about 2/3 or my salary, I put in 3 - 4 proposals annually, depending on my funding situation, and I participated in more collaborative proposals as a co-I.

In response to Anon 08:24 -- FSP does not have a steady-state funding rate of 75%, if she is submitting 4 proposals annually. That would mean her number of funded proposals would be steadily increasing, and she said that she is in a steady state of 3 at any given time. So last year was a good year for her. If her mean award is for 3 years, then she only needs to get one new grant per year to maintain the steady state, and if she submits 4 annually, then her mean success rate is 25% to make these particular numbers work out.

Anonymous said...

I answered 2-3 a year, but these are Canadian proposals, which are a whole lot simpler than those from NSF. Our last succesful grant application was all of two pages for research proposal + one page budget proposal + CV's of co-PIs.

Anonymous said...

Associate Professor, Life Sciences/Physical Sciences boundary, expected to generate 70% of my salary/fringe and all of my technicians' and students'. I write 4-6 proposals/year, depending on where I am in a funding cycle, mostly to NSF and DOD agencies. My "hit rate" varies from 35 to 50%. I typically have 5-6 active projects at a time as that's what it takes to keep myself fully funded, though it takes many fewer to keep me fully busy. My research group is small (currently 1 tech, 1.5 students, and a postdoc) because of the escalation to grant writing growing it much more would necessitate. My part of each grant averages $150k/year, excluding equipment. Supporting people is expensive! I publish an average of 2-3 first author papers a year plus 3-4 other papers and have received mentoring awards locally and research awards nationally, so I must be doing something right.

Female Science Professor said...

There's no point in focusing on a proposal success rate for any one year, as that % is meaningless (as a commenter noted). And I did just have a really good year, but not every year is like that.

EliRabett said...

"The success rate is high because in the majority of cases, the plan is negotiated with funding sources, then the proposal is written."


Very typical of DOD and to an extent DOE. Not typical of most parts of NSF and certainly not NIH.

But of course you have to either have built a record or have a rabbi to do this.

EliRabett said...

Let Eli sum this up. Most people except the biomed folks are writing 2-4 with at least one of the ones >2 being a small part of a larger grant or a real small one for supporting students or a student. Eli calls spinach.

And being a co-I is a hell of a lot less writing than being a PI, which is why center proposals are such a time sink for PIs.

And, on the third hand, if you don't have a lot of administrative backup, putting the pieces together takes a lot of time too (bios/current and pending, facilities etc. they all have to be put into common format, etc).

Now biomed IS a mess because the faculty have to raise a substantial part of their salary (and oh yes, the fringes and overhead that go with it), so people are writing 6-8 or whatever and trying to twist their lab interests to fit into those square slots. The same is true today about space and parts of earth science where there are lots of research faculty and they are slicing themselves thinner than salami (o.o2 FTE has been seen for example). The music is stopping and lots of folk are left without chairs.

Why you ask? See point 3 in the post.

GMP said...

Associate prof, physical science field. Funding available from NSF, DOE, and a few DOD agencies. Also some industry sponsors intermittently.

My group size is around 8 people (gone down to 6 or up to 10 people at times), of which 1-2 postdocs; on single-PI grants I usually can have 2 people funded, and 1 per grant on the others. In order to cover summer salary and have my group supported I always have no less than 3-4 active grants of which 2-3 as PI (typically single-PI) and the rest collaborative or center (these may or may not include any summer support). 1-2 people may temporarily have a TA-ship or a fellowship of some sort, especially when the group is on the large side.

Typically I write 2-3 grants as PI per year and another 3-5 as co-PI. Several of my grants are coming to an end this year or next, so since September I wrote 6 grant proposals, 1 was funded, 1 very likely (fingers crossed), 2 declined, and 2 are still pending. There is a consortium white paper solicitation this summer that hopefully results in a full proposal invite, which would make it 7 total September to September.

I agree with Eli that with DOD agencies you don't really write a grant until you get the green light from your program manager (that is true to some extent with DOE, but really depends on the manager). So the DOD funding rates are quite high after you have managed to find a program manager whose programmatic interests are well-aligned with yours. The NSF (and I presume NIH) is a completely different ballgame.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with today's post but I thought you should see this. Funny stuff about students at the last minute worrying about their grades.

Anonymous said...

Well, by putting things in terms of "success rate", I wanted to bring the focus away from quantity.

Not all proposals are created equal. While, I might aim to submit 8 proposals per year, I would say that 2 of them are "best effort", while others I'm co-PI or the proposal was half-hearted or small industry proposal (or whatever). Oh and I occasionally ask for supplements to existing proposals? Does that even count as a "full proposal"?

I think it should be a rule that if you're doing better than 15% success rate (the average?) and get a new grant every one or two years, keep doing what you're doing. If you're less than that, I would consider trying to focus on the "goal" and increase quality and writing less.

Anonymous said...

Asst research professor, soft money. I voted 1 proposal per year, but then I'm just getting started with a group and haven't been able to recruit grad students or postdocs that need supporting just yet. Sources available are NIH, NSF, and some foundation money. I have been pretty darn successful, getting every fellowship/grant I've submitted on the first round, except NIH R01, which I got on resubmission. And until I can start spending that down I will be focused on paper writing rather than grant writing.
Another year in, though, I'll be looking for funding continuity, so will probably submit something next year, foundation or NSF (less$$ but enough to keep afloat should NIH money dry up).

Anonymous said...

early career PI in physical sciences. (asst. prof.)

I've written 7 so far this year including a competitive renewal and have plans to submit at least 4-5 more in the upcoming months (i.e. by the end of September).

The ones I've submitted all ready break down as:
2 as solo PI
2 preproposals CO-PI (both of which included internal white papers prior to the preprops)
1 as lead PI on 5 PI collaborative grant
2 as CO-PI

I just submitted a 4-5 page white paper yesterday, too (co/lead PI 4? total collaborators), and I really hope that I get to submit a full proposal.

I also intend to help students write fellowships, etc.

The nature of my work is very collaborative and I enjoy that aspect of it. I also enjoy coming up with interesting/useful/cool/fun science. I expect that as my lab takes off more and more time will be devoted to writing papers, renewals , etc.(*fingers crossed* on grants that are out!).

MathTT said...

Asst. Prof. in math. I have a hard time answering this, because I have lots of types and scales of proposals, and I don't consider all of them true "proposals."

Over the time I've been an asst. prof, I've submitted about 3 per year true research proposals with me as PI. I just got my first win (hooray), which means I'll take the rest of this year off of proposal writing and start again this time next year.

But I also do a lot of work that's not research: I'm Co-PI (and the primary author on the proposal, but that's a long story) on a very large (20x the size of standard research grants in my field) proposal for large-scale work in graduate and K-12 education. I also submit about one grant per year, more in line with a standard research grant size, but strictly for outreach work with teachers.

I also submit lots of small grants for special events... family math nights, "be a scientist tonight" events at local schools, and so on. These are very small ($5K or so) and just cover the cost of the event, basically. There's no covering my time, and no kick-back to MyU for anything. Sometimes I can pay some undergrads or grad students for their time. These events do give nice PR for MyU and my department, but I don't really count this as "grant writing".

Anonymous said...

I'm a new asst prof in a physical science. I've written 3 grant proposals, 2 fellowship applications, and 2 refereed LoIs this year, with another four grants to write this summer. Only 2/4 are single-Pi, so this might be doable. I am also 3rd-trimester pregnant, so I might just explode and be done with it.

My fervent hope is that I get better at this, so it doesn't take me so log to write each grant, and they start getting funded soon.

Anonymous said...

4 grant proposals (2/year)
biomedicine; Assistant Professor
50% success rate (NIH)

Anonymous said...

Humanities here. I voted 2-3 because I write twice that many small foundation grants and generally one big proposal a year. The small ones are almost always funded; the big ones I'm lucky to get 1 in 4, though I wrote two last year and one was funded. I do generally write the proposals solo, sometimes with some input from others who have an interest.