Summertime… And the Funding’s Not Easy

I am bracing for a summer of proposal writing, paper writing, and conference travel. Proposals that are going out in the fall are important, as are the papers that will enable me to write a competitive renewal for another agency about a year from now. I am very excited, but also twice as anxious.

I spent an extraordinary amount of time in the past few months either on panels or reviewing proposals. I think I might have OD-ed on critiquing other people’s would-be projects, because I am facing feelings of overwhelming dread and despair at the thought of all the effort I am going to put in and out of which very little,  if anything, will likely come.  There, I am saying it: I am not a very confident proposal writer, which is a bad thing to be when the ability to write strong, persuasive proposals makes or breaks your career. This is where suffering from Dunning-Kruger  instead of the impostor syndrome would come in handy.

During my panel excursions, I came across several people who are very well funded. Most of them turn out (unsurprisingly) to be very good and persuasive proposal writers. Even when they don’t get funded, when their ideas are only halfway formed, they still write compellingly and are generally ranked near the top if not at the tippity-top of any proposal roster. I really don’t think I am that persuasive, at least not routinely.

Most proposals I have reviewed are incremental.  People are doing their thing and want to continue doing their thing; who can blame them? There were a few PIs who wanted to do something out of the norm, but they were usually slammed as “too speculative” and “not enough preliminary data.” On the other end are the proposals that have so much preliminary data that “they have already done the work” or “it is not clear where the novelty lies.” I am becoming convinced that it is, in fact, fundamentally impossible to have the right amount of preliminary data.

All this bullshit has to do with ridiculously low paylines. On the last panel I attended the funding rate was about 10%. We reviewed about 30 proposals and will fund 3. A vast majority of proposals are by serious people who do good work and who wrote good proposals that, if funded, would result in good and important science. And a vast majority of them won’t get funded and will have to wait another year before they are allowed to try again.

So what are the criteria that do get you funded by NSF panels? Honestly, it is largely a crapshoot and that’s what’s so demoralizing. You need to put forth a really strong proposal, but everyone else does it, too. Then you have to be lucky and well-placed on a panel. If you are reviewed by a panel where people are not experts in your field, sure, they can gloss over some technical minutiae where the experts would kill your ideas, but you still won’t get funded because no one will champion you. The faith of your proposal is decided in the first 15-20 min of panel review, when the manager goes around the room and asks each panelist which proposal they consider to be the strongest and most worthy of funding. Basically, everyone gets to suggest their favorite and the funded ones are nearly always from among that list. If you are no one’s favorite, you are pretty much toast, most of the time. The only scenario in which you might rise to the top is if people tear down each other’s favorites to shreds, and then you come out as the underdog against whom nobody has anything really damning (this happens relatively rarely, in my experience).

I am anxious just thinking about the upcoming proposal writing. I have 2-3 topics on which I want to write. Are they earth-shattering? Probably not, but then again, nothing is. Are they non-incremental enough and science-boner-inducing enough to get funded? Perhaps; it depends on the panel and how good of a job I end up doing with the writing. I have been mulling over the ideas in the back of my mind for months, now is the time to start writing what NIH folks would call “specific aims” and NSF folks (at least on my side of the NSF pond)  call themes or topics or thrusts (more of a DoD lingo) or (rarely) aims; sometimes people call them tasks or goals or objectives. (We can argue whether all these terms are synonymous with one another, but we won’t.) Bottom line is — if you can articulate 3-5 main lines of study, each worth 2-3 papers, those are your proposal information quanta. Partition your narrative any finer, and you risk being told that you are presenting “a laundry list of topics” or that you are “going on a fishing expedition” or that “the proposal lacks focus” (all panel favorites).

You may have noticed that at no point do I say what I actually really want to do. I don’t say these are the topics I am burning with desire to explore. There are things I would love to do, but I either can’t get the money to do them (now or ever, here in the US at least) or I am too much of a novice in certain fields to be able to write a competitive proposal on the topics that excite me. The need to write proposals, coupled with the perpetual lack of time to learn new things really well, ends up resulting in (at least me) not being as mobile between subfields as I would like. I know, I know, that’s the system and it’s not going away, but I can at least indulge myself with a little exasperated whine-and-rant combo before it’s time to roll up my sleeves again and get crackin’. Those proposals aren’t gonna write themselves.


  1. The funding situation is so depressing. SOOO depressing. So MUCH work and so little chance of success. I agree completely that it is a crap shoot. There are many excellent proposals, so which should get funded? it comes down to which ones the panel members like – based on their interests, bias, etc.

  2. You know what? I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I keep finding interesting questions that actually matter for what people are doing in my field, and I want to keep doing that. I’m no longer interested in trying to transform the world. I just want to work on intellectually significant questions that matter for people doing important work in my field.

    Fortunately, I do theory with undergrads, so my money needs are low. I’m trying to hitch my cart to a collaborator who is better at the funding game, and get subawards from their grants. If this works, I can keep doing what I’m doing, do it with interesting people, and get just enough money to get by. I won’t argue with that.

    I have no idea if this will work, but it seems to be worth trying.

  3. I imagine the dire situation is due to a combination of increasing number of researchers with decreasing funding. This is in contrast to what I see in my divisions in industry: the funding vastly outpacing the personnel. I’m not looking forward to dealing with the boy’s club of funding, hence I’m hoping to really bank on bringing in industry dollars. I imagine that as more and more federal cuts occur most researchers will have to look for industry money. I wonder if at some point industry research panels will be created similar to the ones at the NIH or NSF to review grants and divy out industry funds. I.e, Boeing, Medtronic, etc. will review grant applications and vie for which ones they really want to fund. But I’d imagine that a select few in-the-know will still get the majority of money. Can’t really come up with a good solution to the funding problem in academia.

  4. Phdindustry, there are consortia in my field that already review proposals and it’s virtually impossible to penetrate the inner sanctum if you are an outsider. I went to some of their review meetings and it’s instructive to see what and who gets funded — it’s the who, and the what is secondary.

    In many physical science fields, DoD funds are already disbursed largely according to the program officer’s discretion — if he likes you and what you do, you will be funded. I know people who no longer waste time with agencies that require peer review and exclusively rely on DoD funding; these people have large groups. Of course, you have to get well acquainted with the PO’s, which requires a lot of travel to get and stay in their good graces, and tailoring what you do to their portfolio. Those already in-the-know are more likely to remain so and receive continued funding over the new people. (Most of DoD funding is essentially impossible for me alone, without an experimental collaborator, PO’s lose all interest to talk to me once they hear I do theory and computation; but I have had funding as part of teams led by experimentalists. )

  5. A 10% acceptance rate is not sustainable. My field (astrophysics) was buffered for a while because we have two funding sources (NSF and NASA) but the shit is hitting the fan now. Groups breaking up, soft money people retiring, etc. I am seeing the effects at all levels: students who can’t find postdocs, professors with no funding, and of course the mid-career types like me who have been soft money or working for a research center or observatory with no funding. It’s deeply depressing.

  6. @Phindustry: I can’t imagine any company I know of — in any field — giving the kind of money that NIH or NSF gives to researchers in academia. If you think you are going to thrive in academia mostly with industry funding, you are truly delusional. (Unless all you require is a computer … and even in that case, your inability to get federal funding will tank your tenure case at anyR1, and possibly even most R2s.)

  7. Astra,

    In spite of the facts you have described, would you believe that some of our astronomy faculty have persuaded themselves that we have a PhD shortage? They figure there is grant money to be had for grooming undergrads for grad school, to relieve this fictional PhD shortage

  8. @Ann I work with one academic lab that pulls in a fair amount from my company and some more from other companies. We pay around $200k/year to his group…no idea what the others do, but I’m certain it’s less than that. But he has no federal funding. My research is definitely not entirely computational, and I know being able to pull in that kind of cash from industry is not going to happen with me since I’m not an MD (I’m very naive and delusional…but not that much 🙂 ). My hope is to just pull in enough to keep me afloat in the hard times while getting to know those-in-the-club with regard to federal funding (as xykademiqz mentioned). I would never forgo federal funding agencies for lots of reasons: tenure being one. Still not looking forward to kissing ass to get into the club.

  9. Phindustry said ” Still not looking forward to kissing ass to get into the club.” From what I’ve seen, getting money from industry involves a lot less paperwork and grant-writing, but a whole lot more ass kissing.

  10. The group I’m a part of got 1/2 invited for full proposal this time around, but the same thing happened last year and we failed at the full proposal stage. So, FML. Our 2nd submit of the same general project for last year got canned for having too much data (because, duh, we kept collecting it even thought we weren’t funded)…

    I guess the only hope for any given group is to submit twice as many proposals. Of course, if everyone else does that too, no one is helped and in fact everyone just wastes more time writing stupid proposals.

  11. In spite of the facts you have described, would you believe that some of our astronomy faculty have persuaded themselves that we have a PhD shortage? They figure there is grant money to be had for grooming undergrads for grad school, to relieve this fictional PhD shortage

    Well, there are a couple of problems. First, the system is currently set up to reward accepting more students. The amount of funding support from the college is tied to the number of students, and faculty need students to do the research they can’t do because they are too busy covering all the other poorly supported areas of professorial work these days (writing grants, teaching, admin, etc.). So even if faculty thought we had too many students, it’s hard to lower acceptance rates without a cost.

    I also worry about lowering acceptance rates to graduate school too much because we will start to see cookie-cutter candidates. I for one would not have been accepted to grad school in astronomy if acceptance was lowered, as I came from engineering rather than physics undergrad, yet I have done rather well professionally (if I do say so myself).

    So what is the solution? I would like to see more training for work outside teaching and research (although this can be hard as astronomy faculty can only teach what they know and they know these areas). Astrophysicists have outstanding job skills for a range of positions. Once we start getting more ties into industry, we will be better at directing undergrads and Ph.Ds into good jobs outside academia. My last student didn’t even get call-backs on applications for postdocs directly in her area of research. She got an industry job doing data mining and it doing great (and being paid twice what she would have made as a postdoc). I think she is well out of it, frankly.

  12. What Astra said re shortage of postdoc positions:
    I have an excellent senior student who can’t find a postdoc — he applied quite broadly, but nothing. I have heard from a number of colleagues who said they would love to have him, they simply don’t have the money. I remember three years ago when I received a large grant and was looking for a good postdoc I couldn’t find anyone I liked; this year, I have received emails from at least 4-5 really strong candidates whom I would like to hire, but I don’t have the money for an extra postdoc, as it looks like I will have to keep my senior student for a while. Another grant on which I was co-PI and was supposed to get as student (the PI told me it was a sure thing) got cut at the last minute, so now I have an incoming student (who was supposed to be on the cut grant) and a graduating student turning postdoc who was supposed to leave as unexpected extras to accommodate on my existing grants… If I don’t get any new grants in 2015, I will be in deep doo-doo.

  13. Our theory group in my current department is 100% unfunded. There are some very good people here. At my last department, two faculty members who had headed large groups for 20+ years are now going begging to colleagues for summer salary.

    My guess is that my student was applying for jobs in which the faculty either a) hired a student they already knew through collaborations or b) hired someone more senior who is on their second, or third, or fourth postdoc.

  14. In the same starship as Astra here. A problem particular to our field (I think) is that observatories (in space and on the ground) have traditionally employed a large number of soft-money scientists to run their science and operations. The time commitment is too large for us to hold down a faculty position and its associated duties. So we bumble along running the facility, trying to do our research, not knowing how long our position will last, and writing proposals to fund students and postdocs like our academic faculty brethren. The difference is that we’re not just scared for our junior hires, we have to worry about our own salary, too. The funding rate changes have been brutal. I hired an awesome postdoc this year, with only a year’s promised funding, and I have no idea how I’ll be able to keep him or where he will go if I can’t.

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