Grant Gnash

I often write here about burnout and, whether that comes across or not, I admit that I usually feel it’s my own fault the fires of technical creation do not perennially warm my heart.

But this week I realized — belatedly, surprisingly — that it’s probably not all my fault. There are serious structural obstacles to faculty work at research institutions.

Over the years, the way the university handles research funding has been getting more and more unpleasant. We have a designated department-level person, then a hub of college-level admins with one specific liaison per department, and then there’s a sponsored programs office that works with the whole campus. I love most of our department staff; however, following the addition of a new department-level grants person, now every single grants person I interact with is an unremitting bureaucrat. The number of rules we need to follow (most of them internal, mind you) is proliferating, the paperwork mounting, the internal deadlines unneeded and ridiculous, and we as PIs now have all the responsibility for all levels of operation (all purchasing, every single penny, approval of everyone’s travel) without any of the help from the admins, only more rules, oversight, constraints tightening from all sides, and all pleas for flexibility are met with formal emails forwarding even more formal memos in which yet another instance of procedural ossification has been approved by some official body, somewhere.

I feel that the admins whose role is to help us get grants not only don’t care, but actively hate us faculty and do not in the least mind doing things that make our jobs harder. There is no interest in helping or supporting us. There is only the bureaucracy’s interest in easing its own life and dumping as much work and as much responsibility as possible elsewhere.

Things have slowly been getting worse over my time as faculty, but I’ve always thought it was just me getting worn down by age, face time, and other forces unknown. Now that I am on sabbatical and the stress associated with teaching large classes is lifted, I clearly see that my mood and motivation are generally fine, but that all interactions with the grants-processing staff send me into job-related despair. I feel like I work among people whom I cannot circumvent, but who obstruct my work to the point of near sabotage.

It’s not all me. A lot of it is the fuckin’ system.

12 comments

  1. Software has made everything worse. Faculty hiring committees now use online systems to do a bunch of paperwork that used to be done by admin assistants. “Oh, but it’s so easy now that we have this software” is the excuse of the administrators.

  2. This is a big reason that a lot of people in my field run their grants through non-profit associations instead of through their university (ex. Rand, NBER, etc.). There’s just so much less hassle involved when the people there actually want you to get the grant and to keep running grants through them. And people at R1 are lucky– a lot of folks at SLACs have nobody in their university who knows how to do things because they run so few grants.

  3. Yes to this!! I am a new assistant professor and it is killing me that the very administrators that are gaining from my overhead are actively impeding my research.

    Recently I realized I hadn’t been reimbursed for a summer conference, only to find out the problem was because my address was wrong in some system I was never aware of, had never logged in to, and furthermore, I was not granted access to change my own home address in. It took a week of emails, including a 30min phone call, to change said address. This is just one example….

  4. I feel like it takes much longer for our university level admin to set up accounts, review proposals, create subawards, etc. than it did 10 years ago. On the flip side, our college has added proposal services that saves a bunch of time in preparing budgets, so I can’t complain too much.

  5. I work in an environment where staff are all softmoney and paid on overhead return. Their jobs and salaries depend on grant funding. Therefore, we get a better grant support than others.

  6. I would love to know what level of “help” people get at different institutions. I’m not sure what’s normal and what I can expect. (Even after getting tenure here, I am still asking my chair what I can ask of our departmental grants specialist.) I’m at a private R1. I have to approve every dime of travel. Before submitting grants, I am regularly finding serious errors in the budget and basic forms completed by the departmental specialist, who has a relaxed perspective on the details of funding announcements, budgets, emails, etc… should I expect her to read the relevant sections carefully? To be proactive and seek answers if she is unsure, rather than just guessing and submitting without comment? If I ask her to prepare a boilerplate justification to match a budget, she will mess it up so badly that it ultimately takes more time than if I had done it myself. She sometimes totally ignores/forgets emails. My chair knows about all of this. I am still feeling queasy that a giant grant application I just submitted will be rejected on a technicality. The university-level office is zero help and just bugs us on the formatting of our biosketches (and doesn’t notice really egregious aforementioned errors I catch, like extra zeros in a salary). Meanwhile, I have never seen a grant scored or rejected based on the details of biosketch format.

    Would be awesome to create a form of possible help/services and see what assistance people get where. I would absolutely select institutions based on that kind of information.

  7. “I would absolutely select institutions based on that kind of information.” That sounds risky, as the moment you moved somewhere the one competent person you were counting on will retire or be promoted, and you will once again be stuck dealing with total incompetence.

  8. I work at a small Public Uni and our grants office is really, really great. The head of the office is a PhD scientist and everyone is very well-informed and understanding of faculty’s lives and constraints. They are also proactive, reminding us of various deadlines and things yet being flexible and helping us connect with writing help if needed. Anyway, it’s quite a contrast to what I experienced as a grad student and postdoc at larger institutions which as you say, ends up being quite bureaucratic, even if the specific individuals I worked with were generally pleasant people.

  9. To some prof – it really depends on the individuals, as gas station alluded to. Interacting with one or two actually competent people can make a world of difference. And when they are incompetent, you either do it yourself, or end up redoing everything/chasing errors. However, I will say, that NO, these things are not acceptable. Grant people need to be THE MOST detail-oriented people. I have traditionally done ALL of the grant preparation detail work myself, and after recently trying to enlist some grant prep “services,” I absolutely flipped my lid when they continued to make errors and not follow the instructions from page 192 on the grant preparation guide. They are new, so maybe they will clean up their act, but I will remain skeptical until I see it.

    To xyk, I have only been at my institution for about 10 years, and it’s hard to think that things have changed dramatically in that time, but THEY HAVE. Holy moly, every single day there is some new “system” or “process”. The hiring paperwork has tripled. The online trainings have tripled. The procedural steps to do anything have tripled. The oversight has tripled. And yet, the actual support is getting worse all the time. IT support is worse. Facilities support is worse. Department admin is worse. None of the admin actually help or sometimes even CAN help with all of the paperwork that has to be done. Nobody can help fill out the 100-question conflict-of-interest form I have to fill out yearly, that I filled out last year, but that is now in a “new system” so I have to fill it all out again rather than transferring over my answers. Or providing more data about my accomplishments in a special format to the admins for some mysterious reporting because they can’t use the data that I already provide in a system set up by them yearly that would presumably be for this purpose. Or god forbid, collect my CV and curate the info themselves. This is wrapped up in the constant “ass-covering” that goes along with everything. I am becoming so sensitive to all of this that I freak out when even the smallest thing is asked of me, which is ridiculous because sometimes it’s not really a big deal – it’s just the sheer quantity of it all.

  10. “That sounds risky, as the moment you moved somewhere the one competent person you were counting on will retire or be promoted, and you will once again be stuck dealing with total incompetence.”

    Sure, but I believe there are still systematic differences in the culture of support. I briefly considered moving to a private research institute, the kind that charges a 90% indirect rate, but where the grants people remind you of your deadlines, write the non-scientific grant components, and give you detailed monthly projections. (My colleague there showed me some examples, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I’m already pulling in the salary recovery needed for such a place, but my grant writing here is at least 2x more painful.)

    @M, thanks for letting me know you wouldn’t find this acceptable. Also, what you describe at your institution sounds depressing, and depressingly like mine.

  11. You’re absolutely correct. People love to delegate, regardless of how it could affect anyone else. And this level of bureaucracy exists everywhere. I’ve found that there are agency deadlines and internal deadlines. The internal deadlines in just my few years here have creeped farther and farther away from the agency deadlines and it eats into my time to create a good story to pitch.

  12. Our Research Office has been great, most of the time (we don’t have department-level specialists). On each the last two proposals I submitted the grants office pointed out two items which I should remove or add.
    But a new VP in another office is piling on the paperwork for reimbursement for when we take visiting seminar speakers out for meals: Permission in advance or no reimbursement. I did not get a reply to my request of10 days ago for this!

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