Grant Newbie: a PI guide based on my first PI experience, with advice

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgSo the readers have spoken: one more vote for hearing about my PI experience than the weird convo with the deans.

However, I was working on the draft, and then some more work stuff got dumped on me, then SW had her popular deconstruction of one of Greg Laden's posts and I didn't want to interrupt the flow. But it seems to have petered off, and I'm trying to dig out of my work stuff (next post will be RBOC) and so I'm finally getting back to this.

Here you are, then, and caveat emptor or whatever the bloggy-equivalent is:

Even though I'm co-PI on a big grant (>$3M when all is said and done) and even though my research program is one of the main reasons it got funded (according to the reviewers), my department promotion and tenure committee told me I should try to get some more funding with me as PI, even if the amount was more "modest."

I had thought about writing a CAREER proposal, but on the advice of good colleagues who pointed out it would be better to stagger that funding over ADVANCE in order to pick up the students funded when ADVANCE ran out, and even though we were strongly advised at that meeting in Washington I went to last week to submit strong CAREER proposals, I have changed my mind. Besides, I've already got 4 big projects going in ADVANCE, and I may be tapped out of space and time to develop strong ideas for a bit.

Instead, my husband and I cooked up a funding idea while we were walking home from work. We started of thinking about a way to integrate sustainability into the big mondo first-year course that I help teach. Okay, honestly, I think I was probably complaining about how we don't do a very comprehensive job teaching our students about sustainability, and I was probably also complaining about how I want students to have a more authentic engineering design experience than they do.

So we came up with this idea. We sat on it for a day or two, chatting about it with each other as it came up. And then we started sharing this idea with others, and thinking about whether we could make it fit this upcoming proposal deadline that we saw coming down the pike. People seemed interested; interested enough at least to come to a meeting.

During a conference-room convo with most of these folks in the room, we broached the topic of who should PI. Our more senior colleague said he didn't need to; it doesn't matter to my husband's current job; and I said I would like to try. All very amicable - I think talking about this explicitly was a GoodThing.

Then we had a couple more meetings. My husband and I sent out a rash of emails - to the program manager (who never got back to me, oh well), to the pre-award office (full of clever elves who prepare your budgets for proposals), to our development people, to the sustainability coordinator on campus, and we set up meetings without really knowing what we would tell these folks. We figured the rate-limiting step was getting on their calendars, and by the time the meeting came we would have figured out what to tell them.

We did some pre-writing and doodling of ideas for a few days (probably a few days too long) and started to realize that our great idea was actually 2 great ideas, and that the first needed to happen before the second could. In fact, the second idea was a better fit for a funding opportunity coming down the road still -- not only to the program, but we'd have time to meet with a bunch more other stakeholders who could help out the idea through agreeing to serve as advisors, through promising access to their students (pending IRB approval), through letters of support, and so on.

Okay. So now we have 2 ideas, one which we have to write up asap 'cause time is ticking, and one which we can write up by May.

As the PI, I came to see as my responsibilities:

  • to coordinate the conversations of the group and make sure there were clear action items for each person involved
  • to keep an eye on the macrostructure of the idea and what sections and subsections we needed to talk about and then write
  • to do all the stuff related to Fastlane (more on this below)
  • to be the person who is responsible for making the final call (with input from everyone) so we didn't keep getting bogged down in circular discussions
  • to be responsible for making sure everything got done, reviewed, and submitted by the deadline.

I had no experience doing any of this, so a few tips that were helpful to me:

  • Download and print out the call for proposals. Annotate the key ideas related to your idea/project, and look for what is required to include for the proposal.
  • Download the Grant Preparation Guide, and read it with a pencil in your hand to annotate the things that are important to your idea/intended funding source.
  • I started a Google Doc that I shared with the other folks interested in participating, and I included a brief outline (of the "introduction" "background" "methods" variety). We each started contributing chunks of text related to big ideas we thought should go in the final proposal.
  • Addendum to list above: PI is responsible for checking in with co-authors that they are, in fact, adding chunks of text. And then deciding what to do if they are not. And probably writing it themselves.

But to be truly honest, I didn't really start writing the narrative in Word until the week before it was due. I had had a few email iterations with the pre-award budget person, facilitated by my husband actually meeting with her and sketching out our idea. We had those chunks in the Google Doc. My husband had a few pages of expanded notes. But we still were way far away from a proposal. And time was ticking.

It was actually good doing the bulk of the writing in tandem, and it was helped by the fact that we lived in the same house. I would write out some stuff, some prose that seemed okay, some yellow-highlighted places where I felt we needed to develop a particular idea (therefore not spending time being stuck for very long), and then my husband would take over for a while, adding new sections, and suggesting ideas for the yellow-highlighted bits. While he did that, I would write the extra documents that Fastlane required, like the budget justification (more below). Then we would swap again. I hazard to say that it was... fun. :-)

Once we had a complete draft more or less mapped out (with a few yellow-highlighted bits still), we sent a copy to our co-conspirators, with specific queries mapped out to specific individuals as well as a general "please send edits and comments back by [a specific time in the very-not-too-distant-future]" plea. Then we followed up on starting Fastlane for real.

So if you haven't used Fastlane before -- the first thing you need to do is get a Fastlane ID. We talked to our sponsored program office to do this -- and on the first grant I was included on, I hadn't done this yet, so n00bs, do it now even if you aren't planning to submit anything for a while. It was straightforward -- they just sent me a number and temporary password and I went to the website and changed the password. Voila.

The next thing you do is "create a blank proposal." Fastlane gives you a set of categories for all the kinds of documents it expects back from you. This means you've generated a "temporary proposal" that has a "temporary proposal number" attached to it. You have to get Fastlane to generate a pin number for this proposal so that your sponsored programs people can help you with the budget -- send them both the proposal number and the pin. By the end of the proposal, you also have to "allow SRO access" so that your "Sponsored Research Office" can submit the proposal for you when everything is ready.

Okay. So now the Fastlane superstructure can help you structure the proposal. Here are the items:

  • Cover sheet. This summarizes key information for the grant -- PI, institution(s) where the research is going to be conducted, what program you're responding to with your application, which unit is going to consider your application, and then some "other stuff" -- your project title (make it catchy and descriptive to catch keyword searches!), your budget (which will be calculated automatically from the appropriate Fastlane file) and duration, your requested start date (which I think should be at least 6 months from when you submit your proposal), your Co-PIs, and a bunch of eligibility stuff including a question about whether your research will use Human Subjects and if so please include a IRB number. I confess I submitted my proposal with a drafted IRB but it wasn't submitted yet, so I listed my IRB # as "pending" (the only word the box would accept). Whew. So now you have a cover sheet. :-)
  • The Table of Contents. Generated automatically when you upload files into the other Fastlane categories.
  • References cited. I uploaded the pages at the end of my proposal here because that's where Endnote puts them. I printed the ref pages to pdf and uploaded them here; it still ends up at the end of your proposal so my page numbers weren't goofed up.
  • Budgets (including justification): so the budget is what your business office/sponsored programs person can help you with. GET THEM INVOLVED EARLY so they know you're going to submit a proposal, and can budget (as it were) the right amount of time for your proposal budget given all the other proposals they also have to submit at the same time. The budget justification is a narrative explanation for all the main budget categories on your proposal budget. Why do you need this computer, that package, this amount of time, that set of resources? I got a list of categories from my sponsored programs person. Note that when you're preparing your budget, your institution will swipe the top 52% (or similar) off the top before you get a dime, for "overhead"
  • Facilities, equipment, and other: this is where I almost got stuck. We weren't asking for money for equipment, so I didn't think I had to fill this out. WRONG. This is to give NSF a sense of the university infrastructure that you have to support you. Do you have a good library? Space to do your research? Access to locking file cabinets for those confidential files you're going to mention in your IRB application? Space to interview people? Internet access (!) and phone service (!!)? I think that's what is supposed to go in here. My husband whipped up something at the last minute because I was in class... scary. :-S Share other ideas in the comments if you have thoughts about what I should have included in here.
  • Project summary: 1 page stand-alone description of your entire project. For NSF you need to explicitly mention both the intellectual merit and the broader impact of your project. Like, with a header, bolded, and everything. BE EXPLICIT.
  • Project description. This is the meat of your proposal, can only be 15 pages (with margin and font size restrictions, cleversticks), and for our proposal we didn't have any explicit headings that we were supposed to follow. I've been given advice that the first page should get across all the important information in case your reviewers don't read any further (or only skim). By the end of the first page, the reader should have a sense of what you want to do (specifics, attainable, and not dependent on other steps if possible), why it is important, why your team is the best team to do it, and how you're just chomping at the bit to get at this project all you need is the money, please. Once you get past that first page, you can be a little more detailed and expansive. But not much. 'Cause you only have 15 pages. Total.
  • Biographical Sketches. For each of the PI/Co-PIs, you need a 2-page summary of their career and research. The structure is outlined in the Grant Proposal Guide, but generally you need these categories: 1) professional preparation; 2) appointments; 3) publications, where a) 5 publications closely related to the grant topic, and b) are 5 "other" publications. You want to include in these peer-reviewed papers that show you have some expertise in the area you're proposing to do this research in. Your b) can also do work for you -- use them to demonstrate content knowledge, methods knowledge, or your collaborators who might be well known in this area. Some folks who are on lots of grants have different "kinds" of sketches - one for, say, a particular content area, and one for a type of methodology. The list goes on; 4) Synergistic activities (I actually don't really understand what goes in here. Look in the GPG.) 5) Collaborators and other affiliations - can show your breadth, but I think this is so the program officer can try to avoid putting close collaborators on the panel to review your proposal. People who have reviewed proposals, am I right? a) Collaborators (I put people from both graduate school and my short-so-far faculty career), b) Graduate advisors, and c) Thesis advisor - I am such a n00b, I thought at first this was my thesis advisor, but no, it is the names of people for whom you have been their thesis advisor. Oops. And then they ask you to include the total number of Graduate and Postdoctoral Students you've Directed - that should have been a give-away.
  • Current and pending support: there is a template you can fill out that includes all the info you need to include here. Essentially, this is a list of the federal grants you are or have been on, and any federal grant proposals you've submitted and are hoping to hear from. Note: include the information for the proposal for which you are submitting this C&P listing!
  • Supplementary docs: this is the place to put all the other stuff that you think would help you make your case about the worthiness of your proposal or your research team. I think that sometimes they don't allow supplementary documentation, as anything critical to understanding the project and your ability to do it should be in the project description. For us, we submitted the NSF bios and letters of support from people we'd asked to be advisors or consultants. Hope that was the right thing to do.

There are some other forms under the proposal preparation heading in Fastlane, but these are the main things to worry about. I think. I hope.

A couple of budget pointers. Not all your costs have the same amount of overhead taken out. So if you have a budget set up one way, and need to move some amounts around to do what you think you need to do, it may cost more (or less) depending on what pot you're moving it from, and to. Remember to budget in some money to attend the NSF PI meeting -- which I had no idea about, apparently there's some annual meeting that PIs on different grants are invited to, and it's a chance to hear about what other people are doing, hear about administrative or reporting changes, meet with other PIs and program managers etc., and you need to budget in some money to go.

One other note: lots of times people put in some kind of educational workshop or experience for their broader impact statement. First, you need to plan to do some assessment of the effectiveness of that intervention -- what are your goals for that intervention, and how will you know if you met them? Did you in fact meet them in those ways? etc... -- and second, educational researchers can help you BUT NOT IF YOU ASK THEM TO DO YOUR ASSESSMENT/EVALUATION AT THE LAST MINUTE. Faculty who do educational research have their own research agendas, and are not simply out there to assess people's projects for pay. However, they may be helpful for designing a good research strategy around the intervention, or be able to consult or indeed do the intervention assessment if that is what floats their boats AS LONG AS you give them enough time to participate, and treat them as valued colleagues and not just helper monkeys who are jumping into the breech of your broader impact statement.

Overall, the whole process was kind of stressful, okay, really stressful (especially that last day or so when everything had to be pulled together whether we had any ideas about it or not) but I have to say - it was also really satisfying. :-) It was intense and concentrated creativity, with lots of potential for doing cool, interesting, important things, and doing them with smart and creative people. Of course, I'm not sure what I'll do if our project gets funded, but that's another problem for another day. ;-)


More like this

Wow. I am exhausted just reading that. (And possibly more intimidated than I was before.) You are totally forgiven for your on-blog vanishing act. (But we sure have missed you.)

5) Collaborators and other affiliations - can show your breadth, but I think this is so the program officer can try to avoid putting close collaborators on the panel to review your proposal. People who have reviewed proposals, am I right?

Yep. Though the people on the panels also are supposed to recuse themselves if they feel they're too close to any of the proposals they're reviewing. (They just get to go take a walk in the lovely Doubletree Inn for a while. Or go eat all the cookies in the snack room.)

And for synergistic activities - those are things besides your research and teaching. (For a grant dealing with women in engineering, this blog could potentially be a synergistic activity.)

Thanks Alice! It's always helpful to hear how other people go through this process. I haven't used FastLane yet (only enjoyed the thrills of but will go get myself an ID asap.

One thing I wanted to point out for those of us who don't do Education as a primary thing - if you are writing a basic science grant, NSF requires/expects an educational component. I have read from other writers, heard from applicants and discussed with muckety mucks that they take this quite seriously so put some thought into it and include in your summary. Don't just tack on, 'Oh, and we'll employ some undergrads to carry field equipment'. Anyone who has more experience on this point can correct me if I'm wrong...

By neurowoman (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink