Saturday, October 15, 2016

What grad students need to know about submitting a grant proposal

Our lab just submitted two Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs). Each time I've been involved in similar such submissions - including when I first submitted a grant to NASA as a grad student in the late 1990s - I find that graduate students encounter a number of misunderstandings. These can cause obstacles to submitting the grants that could be lessened or avoided if they knew about this in advance.

I hope I will remember to show this post to my future students, and I hope others can find it useful too.

1. The Institution (e.g. The University) officially submits many grants, NOT the individual student. I think this is the root cause of most of the misunderstandings. While some student grants are submitted by an individual (especially local departmental grants or grants to scientific societies) - most are submitted by the institution. So, here at UCSB, The University Office of Research submits a DDIG, as with any full proposal to NSF or NIH. Since the grants that students submit early in their careers are smaller grants to smaller agencies, the students might think that all proposals are submitted by individuals, but they are not.

The fact that the institution submits grants has several important downstream effects.

2. Your practical deadline will be earlier than the final proposal deadline.  Since The University has to make sure that the proposal does not break any rules, staff need to read your proposal and approve it before it is submitted. At UCSB, our Office of Research (OR) requests us to give them the full proposal 1 week before the deadline. NOTE: They still allow some changes to the proposal after their screening, as long as they don't affect things that OR is looking to approve. So, you can fix typos, change hypotheses, rewrite a section. As long as you do not do things like: Add a new experiment that now requires IACUC (animal welfare) approval, add a new experiment on human subjects, add a new experiment that requires SCUBA, or other activities that are regulated by the institution. The OR will also check the grant for compliance, and may give feedback about things that don't comply.

3. There are other forms and signatures needed, besides those required by the grant.  Again because The Institution submits the grant, they want assurances about the activities proposed in the grant. The forms at UCSB ask whether we propose to use human or vertebrate subjects, whether we will use SCUBA, whether we will use recombinant/genetically engineered organisms, whether we are up to date on chemical safety plans, and other things. Note that these activities of course do not prevent us from submitting a grant. Instead, they will trigger other actions that we need to take - like completing an IACUC or SCUBA plan.

4. You need to contact your grant administrator early. Institutions vary in how they handle grants. But I believe that usually, a department will have a grant administrator or team. My lab submits grants through UCSB's Marine Science Institute (MSI). My lab is assigned a grant administrator in MSI. She acts as a liaison with the UCSB Office of Research, and helps us get everything done that we need to do. In MSI, the grant administrator uploads files to Fastlane, and will create a formal budget (in a spreadsheet) based on the budget that we sketch. The budget can be complicated because there are a lot of rules (that change yearly) about overhead, salaries, and benefits. Overhead is a "tax" that the university charges on grants, that is used for institutional infrastructure that allows the research to be done.

Based on the above considerations, I recommend the following timeline:

About 1-2 months in advance:
A.  Read the call for proposals to get an idea of whether your idea fits with the call. If you are unsure, call the program officer. You should also make a note of all the forms you will need to do, maybe make a To-Do list. This might include things like: A Data Management Plan, Your advisor's Biosketch (a specifically formatted CV), Collaborator Letters, Evidence of Permits,  Evidence of your Advance to Candidacy, etc, etc

About 1 month in advance of deadline:
B. Contact your departmental grant administrator. Tell him or her that you will submit a grant in one month, and ask what the first steps are for you. For me, I usually provide the following:

  1. The Title of the Grant Proposal
  2. The projected start date of the proposed work
  3. The duration of the proposed work
  4. A sketch of the budget
It seems counterintuitive and difficult to know what the budget and title will be so early. But these are the things the grant admin needs first. This is why I now focus on the big idea and the budgetary pieces first. What salary do I need to complete the work? What equipment? What supplies and services like sequencing services? (I usually estimate a yearly budget for supplies, and then fit details to that later)

C. For NSF, get your fastlane ID, or for other agencies, make sure you have any accounts that you need.

D. Write the actual the proposal. If you can complete a draft with several weeks to spare, you can get comments from colleagues. In our lab, I try to go back and forth on drafts with the student, making incremental improvements. I estimate I go through 5-10 drafts with each student. Often it is easier to focus on one section at a time. 

I won't go into writing strategies here, this is about the administrative hurdles.

About 2 weeks before the deadline

E. Complete all forms and administrative paperwork. Check with your departmental grants administrator to make sure all is done. Re-read the call for propoposals carefully to make sure you have everything done.

F. Finalize the proposal, incorporating comments from colleagues.

About 1 week before the deadline.

G. Have your grant administrator contact the Office of Research to review your full proposal.

Just before the deadline

H. Make any final changes to your proposal. Some may be indicated by OR.
I. When you are ready, tell your grant administrator they can submit the grant. Remember, the Institution applies for the grant, so they submit it too. Grants administrators like to submit a day early to avoid any unforeseen difficulties, like server traffic, or who-knows-what. Your grant administrator probably works 9-5 or maybe 9-12 that day for an appointment. Make sure to communicate about exactly when they will ask OR to submit the grant.

And remember, "A grant is never done, the deadline just arrives."

After the deadline
J. If you go back and re-read your proposal, you will find mistakes and typos. There is nothing you can do about it now. I know it's hard, but the best you can do is try to forget you ever submitted the proposal, until you get the email from the organization.

This is based on my experience, mainly at UCSB. Specifics will vary from institute to institute. Specifics may also change from year to year. If I forgot some things, please add a comment and let everyone know!

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