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.