Fierer Lab

Exploring the structure and function of microbial communities

Proposals and the preservation of sanity

By: Noah Fierer

I write a lot of proposals – or at least it feels like I write a lot of proposals. As soon as one proposal is out the door, there is another one to write – a neverending cycle of panhandling. This is true for most scientists – we spend huge amounts of time writing proposals and navigating the byzantine process of submitting proposals.

This post is not about how to write a successful proposal. I’m the last person to give advice on that topic. If I knew the secret to writing a successful proposal, I probably wouldn’t have to write so many proposals. Rather, this post contains some thoughts on how to navigate the proposal submission process without 11th hour heroics, hair pulling, threats to your sanity, or severely testing the patience of your collaborators.

I should also mention that I’ve learned all of these lessons the hard way (and continue to learn them).


Don’t save it for the last minute: (OK – this is an obvious one)

There is this romantic view of the absent-minded professor who, fueled by coffee and Adderall, throws together a proposal hours before it is due and it ends up getting funded. This is not a complete fantasy – it does happen – but more often than not the proposal that gets put together at the last minute is sloppily written, not well thought-out, and any collaborators may have been frustrated by the last minute shenanigans. Procrastination rarely pays.

It takes time to put together a proposal – especially if it is a collaborative proposal with multiple PIs. You need to give your collaborators time to help craft the proposal and you have to prepare for the inevitable delays (child is sick at home, laptop on fire, dog pees on wifi router). Even if you have a genius idea and the proposal essentially ‘writes itself’ (yeah right!) – you still have to prepare a budget, route that budget through the official channels, and prepare all the supplemental documents. For NSF, these supplemental documents can take nearly as much time to put together as the project narrative itself. Budget justification, list of conflicts of interest, postdoc mentoring plan, data management plan, biosketches, current/pending, facilities description, etc. etc. – this list goes on and on. True, assembling these documents does not require that you are the 2nd coming of Steven Jay Gould, but they do take time – more time than you probably think.

Pick your collaborators wisely:

Good collaborators are hard to find. I’ve seen collaborations start and end during the proposal writing process. If the proposal ends up getting funded – you want to make sure you can actually work with that person over the next few years. You may have a famous scientist (a BSD?) who wants to work with you, but if that person doesn’t respond to emails, is not organized, is hesitant to share ideas/data, or is simply difficult to work with – steer clear. Proposals are hard enough to put together without trying to deal with over-inflated egos or behaviors that most of us managed to leave behind when we graduated the 8th grade.

Budget carefully:

Here is the scenario – you read the request for proposals and see that individual proposals can be up to $1 million dollars. You immediately envisage bathing in dead presidents in your mansion overlooking the Caribbean, drinking 50-year old scotch, pondering the awesome science you will be doing. Stop right there and put Robin Leach on hold – a million dollars doesn’t go as far as you probably think. A few postdocs or graduate students for a few years – that is what a million dollars will get you nowadays. Add in some field work, conference travel, collaborators with expensive summer salaries, or costly lab work, and that million dollar grant starts to get stretched really thin.

Think carefully about who you want to work with (see above) and how much money there will be to spread around. Be up front with your collaborators – if you think they are demanding too much money, encourage them to scale back their research activities accordingly. Also remember that senior scientists can often be expensive. I’ve seen budgets where one month of summer salary for senior scientists nearly exceeded the annual salary of the graduate students who actually did all of the work.

If you are the lead PI, be the leader:

Writing a proposal can be a collaborative proposal, but someone needs to steer the ship. If you choose to be the lead PI, or if you volunteer to be the lead, the success (or failure) of that proposal ultimately hangs on your shoulders. It is your responsibility to get the collaborators in line and make sure the proposal text is well-integrated into a cohesive and compelling project. Think it is difficult to herd cats? – try herding your fellow scientists.

Send it and forget it:

With funding rates as low as they are, dropping well below 10% for some NSF panels, you just have to assume that any proposal you submit will be rejected. Best thing you can do after a proposal has been submitted is to thank your collaborators and thank the university personnel that helped you with the submission- then go crack open a beer, go for a hike, or read a book of poetry – just do anything that helps you forget about the proposal. In fact, don’t think about the proposal ever again. Seriously. If it ends up getting funded – you will be pleasantly surprised. If it ends up getting rejected – don’t take it personally – it is all just part of the game.


2 thoughts on “Proposals and the preservation of sanity

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reads #51 | Small Pond Science

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