Grants on CVs: Trust but Verify

Brian Taylor

October 30, 2013

The job candidate lists millions of dollars' worth of research awards on his CV. The search committee is duly impressed and marvels at his grant-writing success.

But has anyone on the committee dug just a little deeper, checking on what role the candidate actually played on those grants? The candidate may have received just a small portion of the money and played a minor role in writing and carrying out the grant. He may even have been a graduate student, receiving only a small portion of a larger award that went to a research center.

We're told from an early age that due diligence is important when making any major life decisions. Experts recommend that you get a vehicle history when buying a used car and learn the credit history of a potential spouse. Likewise, I recommend that search committees look carefully at the grants listed by job candidates on their CV's.

A CV is, of course, a place to make yourself shine. We all want to showcase our accomplishments. The temptation is great to list the full dollar amount of a grant and leave out the details—like the fact that our work constituted only a portion of that grant. There is no bright line between job-search puffery and deception. I sometimes check federal databases for the grants that applicants list on their CVs. I have never seen a complete fabrication, but I have seen omissions that search-committee members would do well to note.

In my experience, candidates are quite accurate about the grant number and other identifying information they list on their CV's. What is less clear is the candidate's specific responsibility in the project and the amount of money he or she actually received. Part of the problem is that there is no uniform way to report grants on a CV. But a lack of detailed information allows the search committee to make its own assumptions, and to see what it wants to see.

If you include misleading grant information on your CV, there is a good chance you won't be caught. People tend to give candidates the benefit of the doubt. No one wants to entertain the idea that a candidate could be fudging the truth (more than usual) on his or her CV. As a result, some search committees don't check out the grants listed on the CV of a prospective hire because they simply don't expect the claims to be false. People in the human-resources office probably don't check the grant information either; they consider that to be the search committee's job, and they have scores of applications to process anyway.

A senior faculty member who has served on many searches said that committee members don't usually verify grants listed on every candidate's CV, but do notice discrepancies, such as a postdoctoral fellow who claims on his CV to have received an independent research grant from the National Institutes of Health. When search committees do verify grants, it tends to be at the point at which they are ready to make a job offer to a prospective faculty member. A senior administrator said that, at that point, the committee wants to be sure that the hire does, in fact, have the grants he or she plans to transfer to the new institution.

I'm not suggesting that search committees should approach the grant section of every CV with suspicion. I am suggesting that committee members should check the accuracy of a candidate's grant list before he or she is interviewed. They should critically analyze that section to get a clear picture of what the candidate has accomplished.

Major federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, maintain publicly available, searchable databases of their awards that allow you to verify a candidate's grants. Search committees can appoint someone to check the grant listings—not as a "gotcha," merely as a way to prepare for an interview with the candidate.

But proceed with caution. Just because a list of grants doesn't pop up when you enter a person's name doesn't mean you have uncovered fraud. Check for expired as well as active awards. The database default may be active awards. A senior faculty member who has been conducting research for years probably has a number of expired grants. Depending on how senior the person is, some awards may even be too old to appear in some agency databases.

Also, databases provide limited information on personnel involved with grants. You may just get the name of the principal investigator and perhaps a co-investigator. But people can have significant responsibilities in a project without being identified in the database. So once you know more about the grant, you can ask during the interview how the candidate contributed to the project.

On large institutional grants or those involving several campuses, ask the candidate what tasks he or she performed in preparing the proposal and managing the project. Sometimes a program will require that the president or provost be named principal investigator on a project, but the top official will have little or no hands-on involvement with either activity. You probably want to know that before hiring an administrator who you hope will get you that multimillion-dollar collaborative project.

Have someone knowledgeable about the agency that awarded the grants take a look at them. For example, a P01 grant from the NIH is a large award for a major project. If an assistant professor lists one, you should ascertain the extent of his or her involvement in the work.

If you are impressed by the CV of a senior administrator who lists many active grants, ask what percentage of his or her day is spent on each to get a better picture of just how much time the person spends in the lab as opposed to at a desk. A busy administrator probably has a lot of help conducting the research on those projects. That may be fine with the search committee, or it may help the committee realize that the candidate is not a superhero.

The best approach is to ask—not interrogate—a candidate about the research grants and what his or her function was.

After checking a variety of university documents on tenure and promotion, I came across a format that hits on all the key information committees need to know about grants listed on candidates' CV's. The elements are:

  • Effective dates of the grant;
  • Faculty member's role in the project;
  • Percentage of time the applicant contributed to the project;
  • Name of the principal investigator if it is someone other than the applicant;
  • Type of award—whether it was a contract, grant, collaborative project, or something else;
  • Name of the grant-making agency;
  • Whether the grant was peer reviewed; and
  • Direct costs for the grant period, and for the applicant's portion of the grant, if applicable. (The direct costs tell you how much money went to the work of the project rather than to overhead to pay for lights and heat.)

That is admittedly a lot of information for candidates to provide on their CV's. But it will give a good picture of their experience with grants. And search committees will be able to select with confidence a candidate who has the qualifications for the job.

Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island's research office.