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Finding Grants - Where to Start

Tomorrow's Research

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It helps to have a mentor, whether you actually use that term or not, to help you decide which grants to seek and how to navigate the bureaucratic shoals that lurk in every administrative office. A successful senior colleague can tell you what the expectations are at your new institution and how to meet them.


The posting below offers some excellent advice for new professors on writing and obtaining research grants. It is by Karen M. Markin director of research development at the University of Rhode Island's research office. The posting first appeared in Chronicle of Higher Education career advice column, CATALYST on March 10. 2006. []. Copyright ? 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: A Teaching Manifesto

Tomorrow's Research


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It's officially behind you -- that first frenzied semester of being an assistant professor. You have conquered the electronic grade-submission system and know where to get a decent cup of coffee. Now it's time to think about career development. In the academic world, that usually means finding grants.

Where to begin? It's surprising how many new assistant professors just don't know. Many feel under pressure to "know everything" and are afraid to ask what they fear will seem like obvious questions about the grant process. As an experienced grant writer, my goal here is to offer some basic advice about seeking a grant and spare you the embarrassment of having to ask.

First find out what services and resources are available at your institution. During the whirlwind of welcoming sessions for new faculty members, you may have been told about campus offices that assist with external grants. Your mind may have been focused then on setting up an e-mail account or getting that all-important parking sticker. Now is a good time to follow up on grant services.

There's No Place Like Home

Just about every college or university has an office, or at least a person, who oversees the institution's requests for external grants. The name of that office varies, and is often cryptic, but you should be able to track it down through your institution's Web site.

At major research universities, the Web site's home page usually has a link titled "research." Follow it. If you are then faced with a list of offices, start with one that says something like "sponsored-projects administration" or "sponsored programs." Some of the information you need may also be nested in a link to the office of the vice provost for research.

If you're at a medium-sized institution that doesn't post a "research" link on its homepage, try going to an alphabetical list of offices, and look there for sponsored projects, sponsored programs, or research administration. And if you're at a small college, start with the people on your campus who raise money from private sources. The office may be called advancement, development, corporate and foundation relations, or some variation of those.

Once you've found the correct office, tap into its services. Most have one or more databases of grant sources. At large research universities, such databases are probably available to you from your office computer. Some of their trade names are Community of Science; the Illinois Research Information Service known as IRIS; and the Sponsored Programs Information Service, or SPIN. You access those resources the same way that you would library databases for journal articles, selecting values for a fixed set of criteria. If you used online reference databases well enough to get through graduate school, you can use a grant database.

If your institution is small and does not subscribe to databases listing sources of grant money, ask for help from the campus fund-raising office. It may have a database of foundation grants that it can search for you. You can search for federal financing opportunities through That service bills itself as "the single access point for over 1,000 grant programs offered by all federal grant-making agencies."

Remember when you're searching it that -- unlike the subscription databases, which are tailored to the academic community -- covers the breadth of federal funding. So, in addition to grants for scientific research, you will come across grants to states for emergency-preparedness training and similar programs that are not likely to interest you.

The Web site for your institution's sponsored-programs office may provide the answers to a lot of your questions about grant-writing fundamentals. Most will list the names of key contacts and their areas of responsibility. Some include a checklist of the steps to take in preparing a proposal at your institution. If your institution is small and doesn't offer extensive online help, don't hesitate to utilize the online resources of large research universities. Start with the flagship public university in your state. It can link you to online proposal-writing help, some of which is provided by the grant agencies themselves. That type of advice is typically categorized under "proposal development." The Web sites of major universities also have bibliographies of publications about proposal writing.

Financial Aid

The next step is to track down the "starter grants" for new faculty members at your institution. Universities usually have seed money to help newcomers get their research under way. You might, for example, get money from your institution to collect pilot data in the summer so you can submit a grant proposal to a federal agency in the fall. Try asking the provost's office or your sponsored-programs office for information about the availability of starter grants.

You may also be able to scrape together money for a trip to Washington to meet with a program officer to discuss a proposal idea. Your dean's office, sponsored-programs office, or department head may have travel money for such trips.

Don't be afraid to ask, and don't be apologetic, even if an office doesn't have a formal program for making such grants. Many people are able to obtain money simply by asking. Some go so far as to act entitled to such resources, but there's a fine line between assertiveness and arrogance. The latter will not encourage people to go out of their way to help you.

Many foundations and agencies offer grants specifically for beginning professors. If you're searching a grant database, the criteria under "applicant type" probably include "new faculty member" as an option. At the federal level, new faculty members have a few grant possibilities:

* The National Institutes of Health has a series of career-development awards called "K Awards," including the Career Transition Award (code-named the K 22). The NIH also recently announced a program offering Pathway to Independence awards to help postdocs make the transition to independent research careers. The NIH Web site has a Career Award Wizard to help investigators choose among the agency's career-development awards.

* The National Science Foundation also has a program for new investigators, the Faculty Early Career Development program, known as Career.

* Some private foundations also have programs for new scientists. Examples include the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, which offers grants to new faculty members in the chemical sciences, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which supports new professors in a variety of scientific disciplines.

Breaking Away

It's time to start separating from your dissertation adviser and developing supportive relationships with people where you work.

An experienced chemistry professor I spoke with warned that new faculty members who get a degree from a top graduate program and take a job at a smaller institution will need to learn how things operate at their new college. That is something your adviser at Big Bucks U., with her retinue of research assistants and reliable clerical support, cannot help you with.

Chat with faculty members in your department to figure out how to get things done. Don't hibernate in your office or your lab, dividing your time between class preparation and manuscript writing, thinking that dutiful diligence will lead to tenure. Having conversations with other professors to learn the ropes is just as important to your survival as teaching and research. Through those chats, you may also find people on campus with similar interests with whom you might collaborate on future projects.

It helps to have a mentor, whether you actually use that term or not, to help you decide which grants to seek and how to navigate the bureaucratic shoals that lurk in every administrative office. A successful senior colleague can tell you what the expectations are at your new institution and how to meet them.

For example, it's unrealistic to think you will generate a major program of research in your first year. Find out what is considered realistic, and allow others to help you achieve it.

Be aware that many federal agencies are dealing with flat budgets, so it really is more competitive today to get a grant than it was when your major professor and the full professors in your new department were starting out.

A good mentor also can steer you away from projects that aren't likely to be a good use of your time. For example, when you're an assistant professor, it's not wise to apply for a major equipment grant, unless it specifically focuses on new faculty members. Agencies finance requests for major equipment that will be used by many students and professors, possibly even those from other institutions. As a newcomer, you will have few contacts, making it difficult to convincingly argue that you have a critical mass of users.

Also, if you are untenured, grant agencies will be leery of paying for equipment whose champion may not be around in several years. If you need equipment, consider serving as a co-investigator on a multiuser instrumentation grant, leaving the leadership role to someone more experienced.

Similarly, new faculty members should steer away from serving as a principal investigator on major multi-investigator collaborations. Those projects thrive on long-standing relationships among researchers, and you haven't been in the business long enough to develop them. They also benefit from the authority and respect that an accomplished senior investigator can command. Establish a track record before taking on a multi-investigator project.

Don't be afraid to seek advice from your departmental colleagues. Remember, everyone wants you to succeed, from the secretary who schedules search-committee appointments to the faculty member who drove you to and from the airport. By helping you, they can spare themselves the work of hiring another assistant professor.

Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island's research office.

Copyright ? 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education