How to Help New Hires Get Research Money

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

August 14, 2013

Say you're a tourist in a large foreign city trying to figure out how to use the bus system. You know where you are and where you want to go, but figuring out how to get there is daunting. Is this the bus I want? How do I ask in the local language? What is the fare? Do I need exact change or a ticket?

Negotiating the grant-application process can seem a lot like that.

In recent conversations, both new faculty members and recently tenured ones told me that the three things they need to succeed in grant writing are time, staff support, and clear information about the entire process. As a university grant officer and occasional Chronicle columnist, I've offered advice to newcomers to the profession before. This month I offer the following suggestions to academic administrators, to help them do a better job of helping new faculty members become successful in the grant process.

Even the best-trained new faculty members have much to learn about grant preparation. Occasionally I hear senior professors grumble that newcomers should have learned grant writing in graduate school, and that their institution should not hire anyone who doesn't already know the drill. However, the experience of preparing and submitting a grant proposal in graduate school does not prepare new faculty members to submit one at an institution with its own application process. In addition, some faculty members did their graduate training in other countries and are unfamiliar with the programs and procedures of U.S. grant agencies.

When success in writing grants is an essential part of a new faculty member's responsibilities, then academic administrators, such as provosts, deans, and department chairs, can ease the way by reducing the newcomer's teaching load during the first few years. Course preparations are time-consuming, even exhausting, and easing that burden with a reduced course load is a godsend, according to several new faculty members with whom I spoke.

It allows them to put their energy into the scientific work underpinning the grant proposal. And it allows them to learn the ropes of proposal submission—ropes that can seem like a Gordian knot. A typical federal grant application involves a raft of forms requiring institution- and project-specific information, and figuring it all out takes time. New faculty members do not have boilerplate text they can reuse from a previous grant. They are writing everything from scratch.

Academic administrators can also help by assigning a grant coordinator or other staff member to assist new faculty members with the nonscientific aspects of preparing a grant proposal. The coordinator can help the rookie with tasks such as writing a data-management plan, identifying scientific facilities and equipment, and collecting letters of support. That sort of support allows the faculty member to concentrate on the science that will win the grant, rather than on the administrative components that simply allow it to pass through the agency's submission portal without being rejected for missing information. One faculty member I spoke with described such assistance as a "lifesaver."

Giving new faculty members travel money to attend regional grant workshops offered by federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, is invaluable. Those meetings give faculty a chance to discuss their research ideas with federal program officers and figure out which program is most likely to support their work. That kind of relationship-building is important to faculty development and cannot be replaced with workshops presented by university staff members. (Campus grant workshops serve another purpose, which I will discuss below.) Opportunities for new faculty members to travel to Washington to meet with program officers allow them to gain a more sophisticated understanding of federal funds and how their work fits into agency priorities.

The research -dministration office on your campus has a role to play, too, by providing concise, clear information on grant submission. Begin at the beginning. Think about the level of detail you would need from someone who is trying to explain the game of cricket to you, and aim for that. Don't assume anything. In the information you provide, try—and I know it's hard—to avoid as many acronyms as possible. In particular, don't assume that people will know something just because it's on your Web site. They won't.

Timing is important. Grant-seeking is just one of the tasks facing new faculty members, who are teaching courses, serving on committees, and stalking the ever-elusive parking space. New hires are bombarded by information in the whirl of receptions, orientations, and other events provided for them in late summer and early fall. That is true at my own institution, I have learned, somewhat to my chagrin. Newcomers aren't retaining nearly as much from our new-faculty reception as I have hoped. If you have an orientation for new employees, schedule it for after the start-of-the-semester frenzy has died down.

What do grant writers really want? The ones I spoke with told me that a checklist or timeline for preparing a grant application is at the top of the list. It should outline each step in the submission process: Create account with the university's proposal-submission software? Check. Obtain human-subjects approval? Check. Have budget reviewed by the university's office of sponsored projects? Check.

New faculty members also want to know who does what on the campus. They are often unclear about the responsibilities of staff members in the grants office, even though those duties are described on the campus Web site. Remember, unlike the typical research administrator, the mind of a faculty member is not divided into pre-award, post-award, and compliance. It's all grant paperwork to them.

Surprisingly, faculty members say they find it useful to receive basic information on available grant opportunities. Despite the mass of information on the Web, and e-mail alerts from grant agencies and fund databases, faculty member still like having someone watch out for opportunities in their areas of interest. The need, however, varies by discipline. While a biomedical scientist may aim for the NIH's standard deadline cycle and rely on a grant from the same institute year after year, a faculty member in education may look to private foundations and a variety of federal agencies. Multidisciplinary opportunities, too, are easy for faculty to overlook.

If your institution subscribes to a grant database, be sure to publicize it repeatedly. If you don't, people won't know it exists. If it allows them to sign up for e-mail alerts about relevant grants, help them to sign up.

Of course, faculty also want and need practical advice on writing a proposal. Universities can provide grant-writing workshops, presented by research-administration staff, an experienced faculty member, or a consultant. Writing a grant proposal is different from writing a scientific article, and very different from writing a dissertation. New hires need to understand the fundamentals—such as the importance of following the agency's instructions—to the letter. Copies of proposals that won grant support are helpful, so that people can see what a successful application looks like in terms of detail and organization. Examples of postdoctoral mentoring plans, data-management plans, and other required grant components are also useful.

Reach out to new faculty members throughout their first year, contacting them personally when feasible. Like the rest of us, they are buried in e-mail, and they will not spend a lot of time looking for information on your Web site. Keeping in touch could be the difference between their bursting out of the starting blocks on a clear path to success and tripping over the first hurdle.

Karen M. Markin is director of the University of Rhode Island's Office of Research Development.