Typesetting Grant Proposals

I am in a physical science field, addressing problems by means of theory and computation. I also work a lot with experimentalists.

When I write paper or proposals with experimental colleagues, since they all use MS Word, I use it too. I also use MS Word for a lot of small documents (writing homework assignments and tests, letters of recommendation, all sorts of administrative documents).

On the other hand, I write papers with my students exclusively in LaTeX. The students’ dissertations, which are largely based on their published papers, are also in LaTeX. There is really nothing like LaTeX for producing beautiful documents with a lot of math. And, of course, the publisher that is of greatest interest to physicists (the American Physical Society) prefers it — the beautiful REVTeX two-column template (REVTeX is a collection of LaTeX macros) is the gold standard of preprints, widely recognizable as the “template of the true physicist” (see arXiv, for instance).

I also write a lot of proposals by myself. This year is worse than average in the number that I have to submit. In the past, I have written grants in MS Word and I have written grants in LaTeX. And I have a confession to make: of late, I have been writing my grants in MS Word.

Grants are complicated documents, often bridging between disparate bodies of literature; they generally have strict formatting requirements and very high standards for readability and flow. Every grant writer will recognize the need to use the available page are efficiently, without cramming too much or wasting precious space.

LaTeX, in general, will let you format the document as you see fit, but will do so grudgingly. It always knows better than you what looks good, and it generally really does; it incorporates the best typographic practices, as it was meant as a tool that lets you focus on content while not dwelling over layout. However, writing proposals is where you need to have it your way because of the spacing requirements. I have lost a lot of time in the past wrestling with LaTeX to have the wrapped figure where I want it and not where LaTeX deems it appropriate, trying to reduce the white space around the figure etc. Also, excessive math (or virtually any math) has no place in proposals, even theory ones (typesetting math is what makes Latex superior).

While it doesn’t bother me in the least that I have to compile in order to look at the text when I write a paper, it bothers me a lot when I write proposals. The proposal is a work of both form and substance, in which text flow and layout are critical. Also, proposals are usually written (by me and the likes of me, at least) on a very tight schedule, and I find that just having one document that I can easily scroll down or up alleviates some of the tension. In contrast, when I write a  proposals in LaTeX, I usually have a master file and separate files for different chapters/sections  (which makes it easier to track content and edit), but — in the mad dash to the deadline —  working with source files in Latex  makes me feel disoriented and interferes with my work flow and thought process; none are good in a time crunch. So I go with the WYSIWYG MS Word.

So, yes; I am ashamed to say, these days I use MS Word to write proposals. *hangs head in shame, turns in physical scientist card*

I am actually a little worried about being judged for writing a proposal using MS Word instead of LaTeX during proposal review (the one I am writng now, in particular). There is a lot of “one true path” among scientists, from the choice of the operating system [e.g. real computational scientists would not use anything but Linux (Mac is acceptable, but Windows is only for the dimwitted)]  to programming language or any piece of software. I review a lot of proposals, and the ones from pure physicists, especially theorists, are usually written in LaTeX (with its recognizable Computer Modern Roman, a pleasantly plump font). I am seriously worried that my use of the Text Editor of Pure Evil will immediately dismiss me as not being a real scientist in the eyes of some who may review this particular grant. My husband thinks I am nuts for worrying about such things; of course, you’d think that the content of the proposal is what matters. But we all know scientists can be territorial, petty, judgmental, and dismissive (you know, just like other humans) and it is not inconceivable that I might be looked down up because of the non-LaTeXness of my proposal (not like my femaleness, apparent from the proposal cover page, will do much to help). Then again, it may be the nerves talking. I do tend to lose my belief in humanity and become more misanthropic than usual at proposal crunch time.

What say you, esteemed blogosphere? How do you typeset your proposals? Do you care about how people have typeset their  proposals when you review them? 

Dear Santa

What I want for Christmas this year is to, for once, not have to spend most of the kids’ two-week winter break trying to somehow squeeze in more time to work. I just want to do what I imagine normal state employees with vacation time do — take the time between Christmas and New Year’s off and actually focus on family or travel or getting some rest.

I want to, for just a little while, not constantly feel the guilt because of the looming mountain of work. I hate it that the only time to make significant strides in research or writing papers is between semesters, which makes it impossible to ever take a vacation. I love my work, but I hate it that there is never enough time for it and that I dread stepping away from it, because it just means that more work awaits my return.

Dear Santa, I wish I could have a winter break that is actually a break, without there being hell to pay once it’s over.
But, I know it might be too late to ask for it this year, especially because I have deadlines coming up and a ton of travel. I hear you are quite the globetrotter yourself!

If it’s easier, you could just talk to the Federal Grants Fairy, the Tooth Fairy’s second cousin twice removed, and put in a good word for my outstanding proposals. That would be swell! I have just the space under the Christmas tree for a notice-of-award printout, all rolled up and tied up with a pretty red ribbon…




As of a few years ago, if you are an employee of my university, you must purchase airline tickets through the singular university-approved vendor. That is, if want your ticket reimbursed before the trip; if you dare buy a ticket in any other way, you have to wait until after the trip to get reimbursed.

Somebody lined their filthy pockets with this deal.

For domestic flights, you can use the online reservation system (based on the Concur platform, which I take is quite common), but then at the end there’s an agent who checks the reservation and finalizes it, then skims a fee. What annoys me awfully is that a) every time you call or email them, they charge an additional fee (even if all the calls are in regards to the same trip); b) you cannot book international flights, no matter how simple, through the online tool, you have to call or email the agency; c) you have to use the agency even though you can get lower prices pretty much anywhere online (I like Kayak for price comparison). If I want to take the better deal found elsewhere — because, you know, it’s my grant money and it doesn’t grow on trees, and we as PIs are supposed to be good stewards of these funds — I have to use personal funds and then wait until after the trip to get reimbursed; that’s fine for domestic flights where it’s OK to buy a ticket 2-3 weeks before the trip, but not for overseas travel.

I have two complicated, multi-city international trips this summer; I have no intention of having several thousand dollars sitting on my credit cards or having to be taken from my savings while I wait for reimbursement more than half a year from now. So I contacted the agency with the preferred itinerary. We have exchanged several emails regarding this trip. Every leg is more expensive than found elsewhere, and that’s sans fee; I am dying to find out how much of a fee the whole ordeal will incur.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things.

15-min Improv Blogging

Call this an experimental post: I give myself 15 min, and I write whatever I write. When the timer goes off, I stop, edit very lightly, and publish.

Here goes.

1. I am reading “Bad Feminist” and enjoying it for the most part. I will have to reconsider my deep love for semicolons. Roxane Gay does very well with short sentences that would, in my case, be longer and connected by semicolons. By the way, if you never read John Scalzi’s “Lock In” (SPOILERS AHEAD!), he wrote it entirely without semicolons. I sort of liked the book, but as one commenter somewhere aptly said — it’s excellent in terms of world building, but the plot is thin. I greatly enjoyed the accompanying free novella “Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.”

2. I am positively fatigued by all the review requests. I think I definitely did more than my fair share of refereeing this year. I attempted to count how many today, and got exhausted at the enormity of the task. I review for a great many journals and all the requests are in a Completed Reviews folder, but there are first and second reviews, so I would have to look at each to make sure I don’t double count… I took a 5-second look at the list and thought “Nah.” All I will say that the APS (American Physical Society) alone sends me at least one paper per month, which is just as well, because as I publish with them extensively. But they are hardly the only publisher I review for, and I probably review 1 paper per week or 3-4 per month. I think that may be too many for my current overall workload…

3. I am teaching a 100-student sophomore class in the spring, so that’s going to be fun, for the definition of fun being “occasionally excruciatingly painful.”

4. I have a pretty heavy travel schedule in the spring, mostly connected with the funding agencies that graciously give me money and now expect reports and/or service. I cannot say no as I am up for renewal, on which I  am really counting. The trips are 2-day for the most part. I have two weeklong overseas trips in the summer.  2015 hasn’t even started and I am already exhausted thinking of all the work ahead. I will also be becoming the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything in mid 2015.

5. I promised my grad students 4 papers in the pipeline will be out by New Year. I am not sure how I will pull that off, but mid-January sounds plausible. Maybe.

6. Tomorrow is turkey day. We are going to our friends’ place for a party and potluck. Alas, I haven’t bought all the ingredients needed for cooking yet. I am counting on the overpriced store to have the needed vegetables in stock if my regular hunting grounds prove empty.

7. Fifteen minutes is a lot of time — who knew?

Stopped here with 40 seconds to spare. Now just for some light edits…

Happy Thanksgiving to US readers!





For my nonacademic readers: Research at universities is supported largely by grants from federal funding agencies, which are extremely hard to get. Professors in the sciences and engineering at large research universities spend a lot of time applying for grants (writing proposals). Overhead is the portion of external grants that the university takes for the purpose of providing infrastructure and resources for the research to be conducted. The amount left after the overhead is taken off goes into research (e.g. paying graduate student tuition and stipends, paying for chemicals, supplies, etc.) and is called the directs costs of research. At most public universities, overhead is about or a little over 50% of the direct costs (or 1/3 =33% of the total grant), whereas at private schools it can be as high as 75-80% of the direct costs (~44% of the whole grant). The main problem is that many agencies, such as NSF, have a fixed size of the total grant and have had so for a long time; in the meantime, the overhead rates have increased several times. When the universities increase the overhead rate, they are literally squeezing out the direct costs, i.e. the research that is to be done. The more subtle part is that this squeezing-out of the direct costs does in fact hurt the university, as the quality and amount of science done under the university’s name drops; this issue is particularly dire in public schools, which do not have private endowments as a source of internal funds that pick up some of the research costs.

(Another issue is that the overhead funds are sometimes (often?) badly mismanaged, and do not come back to help the research infrastructure at all…  But that is an issue for another cartoon.)


I am done! Both of my NSF proposals have been submitted and I am breathing a big sigh of relief.

This is the first time I wrote two NSF proposals essentially in parallel (different directorates, no worries). They were both brand new, from scratch. The original plan was to write them sequentially, but the first one ended up spilling over and the second one had a last-minute program change which pushed the submission date forward and robbed me of 5 days.

I ended up submitting a very polished one and another that could have used a couple more read-throughs.

The latter one got the short end of the stick. It is not bad, but it is not as great as it could have been, and what’s missing are mostly the final touches.

I am too old to pull all-nighters, which I had to do last night in order to finish.

However, as if the fact that the program got changed last minute isn’t enough, the SRO* person informed me today that on account of Halloween they planned on leaving very early (before lunch) to do something with their kids. You could imagine how delighted I was to hear that. This is not the first time I ended up in a mad hurry to meet some I-need-to-leave-early-for-personal-reasons deadline of the cognizant SRO officer.

I really could have used another hour or two for another read through, especially since I hadn’t slept at all in order to finish writing. I had a student read through and especially hunt for typos, but  I did what I shouldn’t have (read the proposal after submission) and I now see that the student did a far less thorough job than I had hoped.

The thing is, funding at agencies that do peer review is so competitive… Typos kill. Everything seems to.

One can say “Well, why didn’t you just prepare everything well in advance?” to which I start cursing you under my breath. I have been working at capacity for a long time now, with extended hours every day. These things just take time to do really well. The last paper from the maniacal summer of paper writing was submitted on 9/11 (it got out recently after a lightning-fast review, yey!). Since then, I wrote two new proposals from scratch on top of regular teaching and life; one is mature and very polished, another is light and fun and has great ideas but as I now see has a few typos and some rough wording spots that I would have ideally ironed out with more time.

So about 6-7 weeks is enough to do two proposals from scratch, but it’s not enough to polish them both to high sheen. (Obviously, this is my experience. YMMV.)
Ultimately, I think I put more time and effort into the first one because I think it has a higher chance of funding.
But the other one is my baby, too!

DH says that the polished one won’t be funded but the unpolished one will. I guess we’ll see!

Good luck with writing to everyone who has NSF deadlines next week!


*SRO (Sponsored Research Office). They press the final submit button on proposals. These are called different things at different universities.


Proposal update: 1 submitted, 1 to go. Mad writing around the clock to meet the Oct 31 deadline (yep, that’s tomorrow) with the second one.


Pushing limits of human ability to process caffeine and sugar.

Caffeine has replaced blood, sweat and tears. Also urine.

Sugar has replaced sleep, air, and love.

If you haven’t already, fill out the poll below and tell all us crazy NSF folks where we should be placing the page numbers in our lovingly crafted unsolicited fall proposals. It’s a once-per-year chance, and circa ~10% paylines.
You can bet your sweet typesetting butts that font size, page number placement, and the position of Jupiter at the exact time when the Sponsored Programs Office clicks “SUBMIT” are all valid criteria based on which your proposal ends up not getting funded.

In the meantime, here’s the old post on writing in a time crunch.

And other AJ works dealing with proposals and funding.

Good luck everyone!