Reader Question: The Care and Feeding of Your NSF Grant

Reader J asked  (In July! J, I am sorry for being so late with this response!):

If you wouldn’t mind a blog request:  now that I have survived the postdoc phase, got a job, have survived some teaching, written the boatload of grants … I got an NSF grant this winter (I’m still shocked, actually!) and although I know the basic idea is:  “do the work”, I could use some mentoring / blog posts on: the care and feeding of your grant.  How often do you contact your PO, and what do you discuss? Up until now, I’ve only discussed prospective Aims, and study section comments. What do you aim for for progress reports?

In my specific case, my institution’s grad program isn’t that great, and my grad student just dropped out to take a more lucrative job.  I’ve put out an ad for another postdoc immediately, since grad recruiting takes so long, but I feel like with NSF money I should be seeking to train grad students, and undergrads (have them) – is this a big problem, or should I be looking to be productive first and mission-oriented second?

First, congratulations on receiving an NSF grant!

I will answer based on my experiences, which are likely sort-of universal, but I assume there are some differences among directorates/divisions/programs.

First, hiring a postdoc when your budget specified students only: this should definitely be cleared with your program officer (PO), because, as of a few years ago, if you want a postdoc, you have to submit a postdoc mentoring plan, and it gets evaluated during peer review (you never did, because you originally didn’t plan for a postdoc). So it’s not just a simple matter of rebudgeting. Best-case (and likely) scenario, you contact your PO, they say no problem, just submit a postdoc mentoring plan, and that’s it. I have done the converse (budgeted for a postdoc, hired grad students when no good postdoc found) a couple of times with a couple of different agencies and it was never an issue. Indeed, the most important thing is to get research done, and if you have issues recruiting good students and can find a good postdoc, that’s a strong incentive for staffing change.

In general, NSF cares that you do good science with their funds and publish in good venues. They do not micromanage, so you don’t actually have to contact your program officer ever again in your life if you don’t want to, as long as you submit your annual reports on time. However, I recommend touching base with your program officer especially if you have some exciting data or a new high-profile paper, as that helps them look good internally, and also helps the agency make a case for their own budget in front of the congress. Some of the POs are rotators, so by the time your grant expires they will be gone; you can decide how that affects your attitude towards regular contact. But with permanent POs for sure, and I recommend not treating rotators any differently, touch base on occasion and simply ask — do they want to see your papers, how often? Basically, what can you do to make them and their program look good with their bosses? While with the NSF the panels are key, the PO is who picks the panel composition, who chooses who reviews your proposal, and who can pick you up from the pile of Recommended (but not Highly Recommended) and get you funded anyway. And it is possible (though rare) to get NSF proposals continuously renewed if you have been very productive based on this productivity alone; I have never had this happen, but I know some Greybeards who’ve had a continuous NSF grant for decades.

I have had a grant with another agency for years now (competitively renewed) and I always send my new papers to the PO, largely because I know he’s a huge science geek, really curious and passionate about the field and with a strong technical track record before becoming a PO, so I think he actually enjoys reading these. Whenever there is an editorial highlight, or a cover article, or anything notable with the work they funded, I most definitely let them know, because it is important and they use these highlights to lobby for more money and to keep getting funded.

What goes into an annual report? Well, those will be submitted through and I recommend going through the PI demo site.  I have had different POs request different level of detail for accomplishments, so I always prepare Major Activities and Accomplishments as separate files (with figures) and upload. There is a lot of information that gets entered in text boxes, most of it mundane. In principle, you can submit perfectly passable reports with minimum bling just by filling out the text boxes. I recommend asking the PO if they have use for a more detailed technical narrative of Major Activities or Accomplishments, or any other thoughts on the annual reports.

With the NSF, some POs are responsive and enthusiastic and welcome interaction with their PIs; others are hard to get a hold of, grumpy, and unresponsive. I have a suspicion that the first kind may slowly transform into the second kind as the stress and drudgery take their toll. But doesn’t it happen to the best of us? If you have a pleasant and responsive PO, enjoy interacting with them! But ask first what they need and expect — no harm in being explicit. They will likely appreciate it.

What say you, blogosphere? 


Alas, I speak not of the fun kind, the province of randy college youth

Nay… My tale goes far back, all the way to the last millenium… And it is a dark one.

Every year, come October, the pearly gates windows for NSF unsolicited proposals swing open. As if in a trance, thousands of pilgrim scientists gather to worship at the feet of the unfeeling behemoth. In a month of pure agony, their bodies and souls are possessed by the tyrant, yet they remember little. Their consciousness barely punctuates the thick caffeine haze, wherein hearts race and thoughts scatter… Come November, the pilgrims wake up with a vague feeling of shame and regret, chafed, hopelessly trying to remember what it was that left that foul taste in their mouths.

In the spring, some of them bear the fruit of the unholy alliance. They care for it lovingly during its three-year-long life… And what a precious gift it is. So small, so feeble, so rare… But what an honor to be bestowed such a gift, and to be free, if but for a little while, of the unquenchable thirst that overtakes every fall…

For when you see a disheveled scientist carrying a cup of coffee, know that F*cktober is upon us. No one is safe. Best to procure some lubricant.

Embrace the Leapfrog

Another day, another NSF grant rejection.

Scores were E, V, V, V (E=excellent, V=very good). I haven’t seen the report yet, they probably won’t show up till next week.

The scores are only a little better than last year, although I thought the proposal itself was MUCH better than last year.

(Update: Did get the reviews, really very positive. Still no dice.)

Oh, well. Off to lick wounds and edit a student’s paper.

To that end, some levity.


(Middle Boy says he came up with these on his own, but he might be fibbing.)

Joke 1: Germanium, nickel, uranium, and sulfur worked together on a science project. It was GeNiUS!

Joke 2: I was going to work on my science homework, but then I thought, “NaH…”

(He drew a box around each symbol, like in the periodic table, with Na saying sodium and H saying hydrogen).

By the way, Middle Boy is 9. The Nerd Force is strong with the young one!


$hit my students recently wrote in drafts of technical manuscripts:

Point 1 is no secret

One of the first orders of business  was to determine…

This is surely the handiwork of [a physical phenomenon, i.e., something decidedly without hands or the ability to come up with evil plots]

It is possible to judge… using the squint test, squinting at thousands of plots is tiring on the eyes…

and my favorite

[B]y embracing the leapfrog nature [of an explicit algorithm for solving partial differential equations]…

Clearly, this (rough, pen only) drawing had to happen:


Embrace the (giant) leapfrog!



Notes from the Road 4

(I am unusually grouchy today, so calibrate accordingly.)

Many speakers are really not very good. Most, in fact.

No matter how cool your slides are, nothing helps if you are an anemic speaker, boring as hell and unable to make a point.

This one guy was speaking very, very slowly, ending every sentence with lowered intonation, even when asking a rhetorical question. And every time he’d open his mouth, there was this annoying “plyah” lip smacking sound.

I know people get colds and coughs, dry mouths, allergies, and whatnot. I don’t even understand why this ticks me off, but it does: why do people have to stop to drink water during a 20-30 min talk? Seriously, you have to take a sip 10 min into a talk? Don’t you ever teach? Do you stop to drink water throughout a lecture? Sheesh.

It’s interesting to note how former young rising stars have become considerably fatter and middle-aged. And perhaps not quite the stars they were rising to be.

The green laser pointer is a dangerous weapon of mass distraction. Many people have unsteady hands, owing to age or nervousness; pointing at something on the screen usually results in a crazy dance of a bright green dot. It’s good there are no cats in the audience.


I am amazed at some of the work my European colleagues do. It is technically good work, don’t get me wrong, but there is no way they would be able to keep working on such esoteric stuff for so long anywhere in the US; there simply would not be any funding for them. I know that in some (perhaps many) European countries the professors don’t have to pay for PhD students or any of their own salary, but can apply for grants to cover postdocs and travel. Having baseline institutional support for students without fearing you’d completely go studentless due to the boom-bust nature of funding in the US definitely has a bearing on the type of projects you can embark on. Whenever I have a new idea, something I would like to do, the first question is “How am going to get money to do that?” Often the answer is “There is no way I will ever get that funded,” which means I don’t pursue it despite interest.

As much as I hate the idea that I don’t get to work on some interesting topics because the current funding climate is not conducive to supporting them,  there is something to be said for the exercise of grant writing: having to pull your thought together, think longer term, and convince other people that what you do is correct, important, and novel (dare I say “transformative”?) is not necessarily a bad thing. Proposal writing definitely forces you to clarify your thinking. Some ideas are not very important and should not be pursued. If the funding rates were 30% or so, then I believe the fundability would have a strong correlation with importance. These days, the 10% or less funding rates at the NSF are simply too low and too much good science doesn’t get done.

I resent the fact that I continuously have to think about (read: scout for) new funding opportunities. There is no time to just think and do science, because you blink and the 3-year-grant has expired.


At the workshop last week, I made a comment on how next time I hope there would be at least another woman present. A student said “I thought you’d be used to it by now.” I didn’t want to tear him a new a$$hole or come off as an unhinged harpy, so I didn’t press on the ridiculousness of his claim: the fact that someone is used to something, i.e., no longer surprised by it, doesn’t make whatever they are used to right. Just because something is routine doesn’t mean that it should not be fixed.

I am definitely used to being the only or one of very few women around in technical meetings. Sure, people usually notice me, and I hear that getting noticed is important. However, they usually start by assuming I am someone’s significant other or someone’s student or postdoc (getting older helps with the latter). The fact that someone notices me doesn’t mean they think I am a worthwhile scientist, and there is a big jump from being noticed to being remembered for the right reasons and then to being extended an invitation to present your work.

Dudes, dudes, everywhere.



Reviewing Proposals for Foreign Funding Agencies

I spent the first half of this week on travel (fun, exhausting, “the uzhe,” as Eldest would say), followed by a full day of taking kids to various physical exams and dental cleanings, and another day full of meeting my graduate students. Now I have 2.5 weeks before the next trip.

I want to take this opportunity to celebrate a great yet fleeting victory over my work load. As of today, I (temporarily) have no more stuff written by other people (specifically, people who are not my students) in my To-Do folder. In my capacity as an associate editor, I read and then made referrals for the review of a manuscript; I read and then desk-rejected another. I also completed two paper reviews as a referee and submitted a proposal review to a foreign funding agency.

I try to review as much as possible for the journals where I publish often, and I definitely review proposals for the agencies that give me money. The exception is that will generally review stuff where the author is someone whose work I know well, even if it’s in journals or funding agencies I don’t consider.

But, over the last few months, I have been inundated with review requests for proposals to foreign funding agencies: the UK, Swiss, Austrian, and Canadian versions of the NSF. The UK folks alone [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)] have sent me 5 or 6 proposals since February, and they are relentless in sending reminders.

I have to admit I am a little irritated. Reviewing anything takes a lot of time and is generally not a paid activity. It takes away from the time I could be spending on my own work and on my own students. So when expecting people to review stuff, I think there should be at least some theoretical tit-for-tat: I review for journals where I too have my own papers reviewed, I review for agencies where I too have my own proposals reviewed. However, I really find it hard to justify spending my limited time to review proposals for agencies to which I will never be eligible to submit.

Someone might say, “Well, perhaps they don’t have enough experts in their own country to review?” but I would say the EU is probably plenty large to find experts, and I know many solicitations are open to all EU citizens. Furthermore, most US government agencies (in the physical sciences) rarely use reviewers who are not based in the US. So European agencies bugging me in the US to do proposal review for free, and so often, really makes little sense.

As DH says, it’s my fault – I should have never agreed to review for them even once.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you decide when to accept to review papers and proposals? 

Grant Woes

Yesterday I found out that one of my NSF proposals got declined. I was disappointed, as I think this was probably the best proposal I have ever written.

I read the comments and felt even more down. The comments indicated that it was poorly placed panel-wise.

It received 3 “goods”, and the comments were pro forma. First, the fact that there were a minimal number of reviews (usually there are more than 3 when the panel is well suited to review a proposal) was the first indication that there was no one there who would champion it. Second, the program manager had told me that theory proposals don’t usually review well just because; so this one didn’t either, even though the project is as applied as they come, I have plenty of preliminary data, and two enthusiastic in-house experimental collaborators who contributed letters of support. Comments were things like the proposal is poorly organized (Why did I not have a separate section on preliminary work as opposed to have each task  described in terms of what I have done and then what I  will do? Well, it has worked well thus far many times. Why is there no preliminary data comparing to experiments of other groups? Uhm, yeah, there are probably 6-7 figures showing exactly experiments from other groups versus theory without phenomenon versus my theory with phenomenon. Why is there no discussion on different materials used? Uhm, because they are well known and characterized and a detailed discussion is unnecessary for people at all in this field, while a brief discussion was indeed given.)

The thing with doing theory and simulation in the physical sciences is that, unless you want to be subservient to an experimentalist with DoD funding, there are not many agencies that fund purely theoretical work. And NSF allows for only a single submission window per year, and one proposal per division (which is pretty broad). People get creative and target several different divisions, but there are definitely whole topical areas that fall through the cracks. And I am tired of being shafted in experiment-only panels; I go through great pains to make the proposal readeable and understandable to non-theorists (not a single goddamn formula!) and then the panelists don’t even bother.

What’s funny is that this project is nearly complete. We have done well over 1/2 of it already with fringe funding (TA’s, internal fellowships, that sort of thing) so the story was as complete as I was ever going to write. There is no detail that I did not address because everything worth  addressing actually came up and was discussed in the proposal. As I said, I don’t think I ever wrote a better proposal, it was polished, and thorough, and just wonderful. And the criticisms just show it should not have been reviewed where it went.

I will tell you one thing: experimentalists to whom I show the work fall all over themselves with joy at the predictive capability of the simulation. As they should, because it’s unique and powerful. Maybe I will go against all I hold dear, clean up the code and allow for download at a fee. Maybe I should go with a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t need or want profit, but if everyone wants to use it, then I should be able to pay personnel to further develop it.

But I digress. Because there are not many agencies where a theorist of my ilk can get funding, every  three years I go through this cycle of despair: what if none of the grants get funded? What if I am completely out of money? What happens then?

I would not be as badly off as the people on soft money who lose their labs and their salaries (not common in the physical sciences, apparently common in the biomedical world). But not being able to have students would suck. I could still do some work on my own; but, in my department and college, how much you are worth locally equals how much money you bring in. I would suddenly become a lesser faculty member, and what I say would not matter as much as it does now.

My former postdoc is a junior faculty member elsewhere. He’s smart and overall just great, but has not been able to secure funding thus far in spite of writing grants continuously for a couple of years now. I can understand that he is panicked. If he doesn’t land a grant soon, he may never actually show to anyone what he would have to offer.

I never thought I would retire, ever. These days, I think I will retire when the time comes just to relieve myself of the need to stress about where the support for my students is coming from. As a full professor, I have A LOT of teaching and service. The time I have for research is spent on hunting for money. I wish I could spend that time advising students or writing papers or thinking about what we’ll do next.

It’s not the end of the world, and I am better off than many, perhaps most. Still lots of irons in the fire.
But I don’t think I want to spend all of my time this way.

When did it stop being important that we actually think and do science and instead what became important is scrounging for money to do the science?
It’s so exhausting and so effed up.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think scientists should be having completely free rein — it’s taxpayer money and stewardship is necessary. But we are at the extreme where considerably less good science is funded than proposed, which cannot be good.

I will lick my wounds for another day or two, but then it’s back in the saddle again, scouting new funding opportunities.

Professorial Nuggets: The Overcommitment Edition

I have been extremely busy, hence the scarcity of posts. I have been wanting to post on a number of interesting topics, but the time just isn’t there… And then I forget or the impetus to write diminishes for whatever reason (mostly due to sleepiness), and then there are more pressing things to tend to anyway…

I have been overcommitted. I say no to a lot of things, but I am still overcommitted. I need to implement even more stringent criteria as to what I do and don’t do. For instance, I make a point of reviewing for journals where I often publish, but not much outside of those unless it’s the work of authors I know. Well, it turns out that I can get 5-8 solicitations in a single week from the journals where I publish often combined with others that consider the work of some of the colleagues from the field. Before you know it, instead of writing papers in my precious no-face-time blocks, I am spending all this time reviewing other people’s papers.

A lot of people request stuff from me, and the problem is that many of these people cannot be entirely ignored  if  I want to be collegial (which I do, mostly because I may need stuff from them down the road). Even if I end up not doing what they want, I often have to spend some time reading something or participating in some meetings or talking on the phone before I can say no lest coming across as a dismissive jerk. I wish people would try to filter when and why they ask for stuff. But self-interest trumps consideration, as is understandable.

There are some service tasks that I committed to, but they turned out to be time-wasters despite having started as interesting or potentially impactful. I think really hard, but end up not being able to find a single saving grace when it comes to doing these tasks; I really resent myself for having taken them up.

I have been teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. It’s been fun and challenging for both me and the students. It’s a considerable amount of work and I have no TA (I do have a grader for homework). A large number of adorable terrified undergrads means I have to hold a lot of office hours and I always have someone in my office. None of this has helped with my workload.

I have been privy to the information about some people’s tenure cases. While I knew of the following issue from research and diversity training, after the experiences of this year, I can tell you firsthand that people sometimes write really weird $hit about women in external letters of evaluation (letters are solicited without the candidate’s input from roughly a dozen prominent people in the field). I have never seen anything like that written for a male candidate. It’s not even necessarily negative, but it’s weird, overly personal, such as analyzing the inner workings of the (mysterious female) psyche.

I keep reading and hearing of people writing 10-12 grant proposals per year. How? To whom? I have 2-3 divisions at the NSF where I can submit unsolicited proposals, and they are all due at the same time, once per year, in the fall. I wrote two different brand new grants in parallel for the fall deadline and could not recover for weeks. I recently (a few weeks ago) finished a massive renewal application of one of my large grants to a different federal agency. I don’t think I can write more than 3-4 new, different grants in a year by myself; first of all, there aren’t that many places to send to, and second, there are only so many good disparate ideas I can write up per unit time; I suppose I could do more if they were revisions, but with so few places to submit to and so few submission windows per annum, I am not going to recycle a grant with a low chance of success just pro forma. Plus I actually have to teach and advise students and write papers… And travel, and do service. So writing 10-12 grants per year, is this a biomedical thing? Or an experimental thing? How is it even pulled off amidst all the other work? I don’t know many of my physical science colleagues writing 10-12 grants per year, perhaps only the NIH or DoD-funded folks with humongous groups.

Large center grants get on my nerves — specifically, being asked to participate in grants for large centers, which almost never get funded. These grant writing endeavors are always last-minute, dramatic, and not creative at all. I know all the cool kids participate in them, and I have done it a fair number of times, but I cannot make myself go through the pointless motions again. I am all for collaboration when it’s organic (first we realize we want to do something together, then seek funds), rather than how the teams are often assembled, which is scrambling in response to a funding solicitation.

I crave the time to work on my science. I reread one of my single-author papers from several years ago. It is really cool. I never get to do that any more.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you keep your workload manageable? What do you say no to? What frequency of grant writing is appropriate for your discipline? Center grants — yay or nay?