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Between a rock and a soft (money) place May 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I’ve been cogitating on another comment that showed up on a proposal review.  The general complaint was that we were funding too many staff and not enough students.

I could see this…except for the fact that all but one of the people involved is on soft money.  This proposal was already being trimmed left and right to make it fit into budget constraints, and our choice was to fund 1 or 2 months for each of these five staff (including myself), all of whom are in different disciplines and contributed to the development of the project concept and writing of the proposal…or I can fund another grad student for a year.  Of course, if I had no facilities costs to worry about…

I suspect this is a drawback of doing interdisciplinary research: you need expertise in a variety of fields, and so it may look like a situation of “too many managers, not enough peons.”  On future proposals of this nature, I’ll have to make the point that each of those people is essential and none can be replaced by a grad student.

It’s also leaving me wondering if there is something that explicitly needs to be said about funding arrangements.  For most professors in engineering or science, I imagine they have 9 mos of salary paid, so they often only take a couple weeks to a couple months of summer salary under their grants.  Also, most of them have teaching duties and therefore need to have grad students to do most of the work.  I imagine the reviewers may assume that people applying for funds are probably working under a similar arrangement where they have a base salary and anything coming from the proposal is ‘extra’.

But what about people who are in a situation like I am?  I’m in a soft-money position and I have no teaching obligations (unless I choose to).  Given the choice, I’d rather have a couple months more salary than hire more grad students (assuming there are any available, which is not always true).  If I only get one month salary from a winning proposal and my funding rate is 10% (and I don’t know if it is yet as I’ve only written about half a dozen proposals), then I have to write about 120 proposals to fund myself for a year.  Even if I was physically capable of doing that (I’d like to meet someone who is), I doubt the proposals would be of the quality that would get funded, anyway.

Admittedly, different funding agencies will have different expectations…but not radically so.  Maybe my readers are more knowledgeable about I am on these points. If so, I’d appreciate it if someone would enlighten me.

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Comments»

1. M - May 20, 2013

I am in a similar situation. I am also very new to the game, so can’t say I have a lot of additional wisdom.

However, I want to put a more optimistic spin on the numbers.

1. Let’s assume you put yourself in the budget for 1/3 (33%) of your salary/time rather than 10%. How many major grants/projects are you intending to juggle at a time? I would assume no more than 3/4 big ones, which would translate to 25-33% of your time/salary. I assume the 10% would apply better to someone peripherally involved in a project (and therefore not having to contribute too much to the proposal writing – maybe a short section or a proofread). Anyway – so 33%.

2. Let’s assume that you’re applying for 3-year grants (yes, there are also 1- and 2-year grants, but there are also 4-year grants and no-cost extensions…).

3. Finally, let’s assume a 25% funding rate. This is higher than the average (10-20% through most agencies), but I’m factoring in (a) the fact that I only submit well-written proposal, which definitely puts me into the top 50-60% of submissions to begin with (I usually get declined based on complaints of less-than-stellar impact of the proposed work or minor quibbles with some part of the science – never based on the science or proposal); and (b) the possibility of getting renewals or invited proposals once “in the system” with some of the programs or program managers.

With these assumptions, if you write 4 good proposals, odds are that one will get funded, so that will cover 1/3 of your salary. However, if it’s a 3-year proposal, then once you get into a cycle of having 3-4 ongoing grants, you only need on average 1 funded per year to maintain your salary.

Writing 4 proposal per year is a lot more manageable than 120. (Granted, these are major proposals, so still easier said than done). Throw in a couple of white papers or roles in larger collaborative projects, and you could hopefully manage to stay afloat.

I’m only hoping I can make the above system work out for me 🙂

This doesn’t address the complaint about funding too many staff vs students (one of my solutions is to always hire lots of part-time undergrads – I assume this looks good), but hopefully helps to pain a less bleak outlook on the future.

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2. Klara - May 21, 2013

First off – I only recently graduated so I do not have experience with this but wanted to share my thoughts anyway… Hope you don’t mind!

I do agree with previous commenter: if you want to get insane really fast, stick with that number of 120 proposals a year… If you want to stay sane, you should develop a bit cheerier view.

Second, I cannot see the point of getting funding for grad students, when your own salary isn’t secure yet. Who’s to supervise them, should you be unable to find more money for you?! Not a situation you’d want to put any grad student in IMO. So yes, I would stick with getting my own funds first before applying for funds for students…

Finally, I was wondering whether there is a way to clearly point this out in your applications? Those reviewers that assume staff salary should be covered by your institution or other sources, may actually take a different stance once aware of this problem.

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