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When and How Did You First Learn to Write a Funding Proposal?

  1. Nov 10, 2015 #1

    ZapperZ

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    So one of the chapters that I had wanted to expand upon in my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay is one part of being a practicing physicist or university faculty member where you write funding proposal to get money to not only support your research work, but also support your students. However, I don't think that I have the straight-forward path at learning how to write such a thing, since I started out at a US National Lab in a program that had already an earmarked funding each year (i.e. we didn't have to seek out funding each time to keep our program running), before moving into a University setting. Along the way, I kinda learned about getting research funding by being a part of a research project.

    But now, after I've written several funding proposals for both DOE and NSF, and learned more about the system, I feel that this should have been as aspect of my PhD and Postdoc years, where I should have learned about how one goes about writing a funding proposal, etc. It is why I bring my graduate student along whenever we have a meeting about the faculty members to discuss our next funding proposals. I believe he should see this process first hand and learn more about it (besides the fact that a couple of the proposals will actually fund his research work).

    Since we have many physicists and university faculty members on here, let me ask you this question: How and when did you learn how to funding proposals?

    I'd like to learn a bit more on this, especially from those who got into a tenure-track career. Did you have someone at the university acting as a "mentor" to help you with your first proposal? Or did you simply become a co-PI of your first proposal and learned how to do it from that? Or was it via some other ways?

    Do tell!

    Zz.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 10, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    I learned "on the street". When a postdoc, I made a few proposals for small amounts of money, and got one. So I was starting to get feedback before sending real proposals out. The most important lesson was to learn from proposals that didn't go through. As painful as it is, you need to carefully review why it went wrong. Did they misunderstand it? Did they understand perfectly and hate it?
     
  4. Nov 10, 2015 #3

    ZapperZ

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    That's interesting, because when I first started out writing my own proposal as the PI, I was given an example of a proposal that was funded! :)

    The worse part, for me, was following the exact and precise requirement to submit the entire package. For a first-timer, knowing all the proper formatting, the number of page, what can and cannot go into your biosketch, etc.. was extremely tedious. Without the assistance of the people from the external funding office at my institution, my proposal first proposal would have been rejected outright due to technicalities.

    Zz.
     
  5. Nov 10, 2015 #4

    Choppy

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    I'll be watching this thread with interest. For what it's worth I can thrown in my learn-as-you-go experience.

    As a graduate student I was constantly encouraged to apply for external scholarships. The point was to get us used to the process of writing proposals (and perhaps developing a thick skin for rejection), as well as to bring in funding for the department. I think the other advantage was also that there certainly seems to be a snowball effect. In a lot of grant proposals, one dimension that get assessed is prior project leadership. If you've been successful with smaller stuff before, you're more likely to be awarded larger stuff later. A colleague sums this up as "He who has, gets."

    As a PhD student I was also given the opportunity to sit in on a "new investigators" workshop put on by the NIH. That was eye-opening because about twenty of us had the opportunity to get together with some of the leading investigators in our field and they explained how the grant review process worked. Unfortunately I was a little young at the time to really appreciate everything they told us, but it was a valuable experience.

    I worked as a post-doc for a couple of years after my PhD, before a residency in medical physics. There, I had a part in working on applications with the PI that I worked with. I think in an ideal world the post-doc will be intimately involved with this process and perhaps even assume a leadership role in it, but from a practical point of view the point of most post-doctoral work isn't to lean how to compete with your PI for funding.

    From there, for me it's really been a trial and error process. One thing my university does though is that it hosts a lot of workshops on how to prepare for the big grants. These would be critical to attend for a post-doc and even more critical to attend for an applicant. (Unfortunately I'm often physically removed from campus and can only attend the ones that are video-conferenced.) They even have "test your concept" workshops where potential applicants are offered the opportunity to "pitch" their ideas to a board of people who have served on grant committees.

    Another piece of advice that I've gotten is to volunteer when possible to serve on these committees. Seeing the process from the other side can really help you to know what ideas get the attention and which ones get the "good idea but we can only fund so many projects" stamp.
     
  6. Nov 11, 2015 #5
    I've only ever helped edit and fine tune proposals. I find it very interesting because it lets me in on some of the professors less public ambitions. I've had to do lengthy apps for an NSF funding program and another UG research funding program but never a full on multi-year grant proposal.

    Hoping that the group I work with in grad school will let me get experience in proposal writing.
     
  7. Nov 11, 2015 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    I've been writing proposals for a while, to lots of places: NSF, NASA, NIH, DoD, Dept. of Education. I've also been an ad-hoc reviewer for a few national organizations.

    I agree, the typical initiation is to be given an example proposal to use as a template. I've also been to a few 'grantwriting seminars' put on by my institution(s), which tend to cover the mechanics of submitting a proposal: how to identify an appropriate call for proposals, identify the appropriate directorate/program/study section, how to fill out the 'boilerplate' sections (budget, facilities, biosketch, etc). Also, there are a lot of online hints/tips/guidelines that are generally good.

    Learning to write a proposal is an ongoing process- above all, the science has to be excellent, but the communication of the science also has to be excellent- developing and refining your writing skills are essential. The importance of being able to communicate a paragraph's worth of information in a sentence or two cannot be understated.

    When submitting as a PI, I typically spend 60-100 hours on a 15 page proposal, more if I need to generate a lot of the 'boilerplate' stuff. During that time period, I try and get as much feedback from my colleagues as possible- not easy because people don't like to critique material they don't fully understand- but there's 5-8 of us that get together and read each others summary statement and specific aims, to try and help that person communicate their idea as clearly as possible.

    Basically, we all learn how to write a proposal by writing proposals- I submit between 2-4 per year. I have to- the success rate for federal research grants hovers between 10-20%. Excellent proposals are not funded all the time, and the differential between and excellent 'funded' proposal and and excellent 'not funded' proposal is painfully negligible. This is also hard on reviewers, who have to assign scores knowing that a proposal in the top 25% is not likely to get funded.

    I agree that this stage should be taught as part of the doctoral process; some biology departments have, for a qualifier exam, the student submit an original NIH R01-style proposal on a topic unrelated to their own research. Being the advisor for a few bio students, I can tell you this is an incredibly difficult exam.
     
  8. Nov 16, 2015 #7

    Ben Niehoff

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    I recently wrote an application for a Junior Research Fellowship at a UK institution that was more or less like a mini grant proposal (JRF applications vary widely in what sort of materials they expect: some are just like regular job applications, some want a 20,000-word writing sample, and this one was a bit like a funding application).

    I'm not sure yet what I've learned from the experience, because I don't know yet where I am in the competition. These things are extremely competitive, so I'm essentially expecting to fail. But maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised, who knows.

    Some of my friends this year wrote applications for Marie Curie fellowships, which are very much like grant proposals.
     
  9. Nov 16, 2015 #8

    atyy

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    Whereas physicists take qualifying exams based on more or less standard material, at some biology graduate schools the written part of the qualifying exam is to write a research proposal. (I see Andy Resnick said this too above.)
    https://biology.mit.edu/graduate/requirements
    https://medschool.vanderbilt.edu/cdb/qualifying-exam
    http://mbidp.mbi.ucla.edu/oral-qualifying-exam-topic-approval-preparation-and-presentation

    The NIH in the US has examples of successful grant applications.
    http://www.niaid.nih.gov/researchfunding/grant/pages/appsamples.aspx
     
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2015
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