Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holiday Storytelling Lessons for Your Grant Writing

Around the holidays, I often find myself recounting family stories for various people at different occasions.  Having a toddler and a new baby, people ask what's new with the kids at holiday office parties, dinners with close friends and family, and old acquaintances you run into at the grocery store.

Especially around this time of year, I try to keep a couple of hilarious toddler stories in my back pocket, but as I regale folks with my story, I notice how the story changes depending on whom I'm telling and when, and have noticed how this also applies to grant writing and marketing one's research in general.

My story:
A few weeks ago, my three-year old, Linus, and I went for a walk around my block.  When we go for a walk, he likes to tell me what he wants to see - these holiday decorations, or the blow up Peyton Manning that our neighbor puts out on Broncos game days. On this particular occasion, Linus told me he wanted to see the "mantis." "The mantis?" I asked, having no clue what he was referring to. He and I went back and forth on it, he, more and more adamantly saying he wanted to see the mantis. Exasperated, I said, "I'm sorry, I don't know what you're saying!" And, Linus very clearly said, "I want to see the praying mantis!"

I could somewhat recall seeing a praying mantis during the summer and pointing it out to Linus and figured that's what he was talking about.  I explained that we probably wouldn't see one during the winter, but that we could keep our eyes open looking for it. Linus seemed somewhat happy with this explanation.

The next week while at the store, I saw a t-shirt with a picture of Peyton Manning on it. "Look Linus," I said, "it's Peyton Manning!" "Yeah," he replied, "It's Praying Mantis!"

What strikes me about this story is how I vary it as I tell it.  When I run into that acquaintance at the grocery store and they ask about the kids, I might say, "They're great! Linus is into the Broncos and calls Peyton Manning "Praying Mantis!" (chuckle) "Take care! Say hi to so and so!"

At extended family dinners, depending on how many glasses of spilled milk there are or how many people are trying to tell their own story, I may or may not tell the whole story. In all likelihood, I'll say something along the lines of - the other day Linus was saying he wanted to see the Praying Mantis and I had no idea what he was talking about until we saw a picture of Peyton Manning at the store and he said, "Look Mom, it's Praying Mantis!" Now, you'll notice that I've changed some details of the story in this iteration to get the idea across more quickly, but still put in a few of the details of the story that I thought were charming. If I'm sitting down for coffee with a good friend, I might decide to tell the whole story, or at least start the story, gauge their interest, and abbreviate the end if I see their eyes start to wander.

This is the balancing act we must manage whether we're telling cute stories around the holidays or we're trying to "sell" our research to potential collaborators or program officers - deciding when and how much to tell. As we initiate telling these research stories, be they written or verbal, we want to be clear and concise, yet we do not want to abbreviate "the story" to the point where it is not engaging. To do this, it's important to identify the clincher - what's the most interesting/exciting part of your research story and how do you hone your story down to include the clincher and give enough context for folks to get the gist?

A helpful exercise is to try narrowing your research story - or your current research project - down to one or two sentences that give enough context and interesting points. Perhaps you can state what you're doing briefly and then make a pun about it or a quick metaphor for your work. This helps you to be memorable. If your listener seems engaged, try giving a bit more detail or give the PO or collaborator a little room to ask a question. If you have different lengths of your story to tell and you pay close attention to how engaged your listener is, you can maneuver initial conversations to your benefit or at least not waste your time and your listener's if they're really not interested.

Hopefully this parallel allows you to better engage stakeholders in your research, but if nothing else, perhaps it will allow you to be the life of the party over the holidays! :)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Aligning Research to a Sponsor

Many faculty researchers, especially those in under-funded disciplines feel that aligning their research and work to funders' expectations is selling out. And, in all fairness, faculty that see external funding in that light won't apply and probably shouldn't. It really takes a perspective that includes funding agencies and potential sponsors in achieving some larger research goals to find grant success. So, in that respect, the PI needs to understand the goals of the sponsor to which they are applying and tailor their research project to allow the sponsor to invest in something that aligns with their priorities, preferred approach, ideology, etc.

This is not to suggest that researchers should throw their own background and agenda out the window to chase the big dollars. This will not work even if they do it, because they will be competing against researchers who do have the background and an agenda that lines up with the granting agency. Reviewers will see through an overly opportunistic PI and always go with the PI whose project and background are a match made in heaven. So, what to do? Developing a fundable project for an agency calls for a balancing act that I try to illuminate in this blog.

Find agencies that fit
As you develop a project idea, start searching for what agencies fund the sort of work you want to do. There are many resources available to you for this.  Faculty at CU Denver and Anschutz Medical Campuses are encouraged to reach out to ORDE to have a personalized fund search conducted for them/their project. Please visit our website to get more information on this service. Other ways to discover potential sponsors are to look at where your colleagues are being funded and which sponsors are funding projects similar to yours.

Also, try to think outside the box.  How can your research become a fit for an agency.  We've seen PIs able to form and re-form their research to appeal to diverse sponsors - NSF, NIH, and private sponsors while still staying on their research career path.

Understand the agency
To be successfully funded by diverse sponsors takes some skill at being able to reframe your work in different ways. However, that's only half of the work. You must also really understand an agency to be able to customize your work for them. Understanding an agency should happen on different levels. Of course, you want to understand the subject matter that a sponsor funds, but beyond that, you want to understand the approach the sponsor prefers (e.g., exploratory or applied), the level of risk and/or innovation the sponsor desires, and any ideologies or political motivations that might drive the sponsor. Does your agency report to congress? Or, what is the back story on how your foundation began?

Develop your project
Once you understand your agency, it's important to meaningfully integrate their needs and priorities into your project.  Agencies and grant reviewers will see through superficial project changes that are tacked on to your project to respond to their interests. So, although you certainly have goals and a path for your research, this stage of aligning calls for you to step back to see how you can integrate sponsor priorities into your work. This may come in the form of new partnerships with colleagues in other disciplines that better connect your research to the sponsor. Or, it might come in the form of re-creating the story of your work to relate it to the agency - again, meaningfully.

Work with your PO
Another important way to gain insight into a funding agency as well as to receive feedback and a partner to help you customize your grant is to work with the agency's program officer (PO). POs generally have great insight into the agency and the grant review process and are interested in having the very best grants submission from you. Generally, you want to have a sense of the project you want to propose before you reach out to a PO. Once you do, send a short email to the PO (make sure the whole message fits in the view window), briefly describe your project (3-5 sentences), and ask to schedule a short phone call with them to discuss. If they don't respond to you within a week, follow-up with a call. Refer to your email and ask to schedule a call (they may not be ready to talk right then and there). When you talk to the PO, have specific questions ready that demonstrate that you are well-versed on the agency (don't let them catch you not having read the program announcement or information readily available on the website). Take careful note of any advice and feedback from the PO and integrate it into your project and ultimately your grant proposal.

Fund Search and Resources Page - ORDE
What do grant reviewers really want anyway? - Robert Porter, Ph.D.
Can we talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers - Robert Porter, Ph,D.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Early Career Investigators - Jump-Starting Your Research

For many early career investigators (ECIs), beginning a first tenure track faculty position is intense. Some find themselves in the first semester juggling a heavy course load, including courses they've never taught that they're scrambling to develop. It's no wonder that research goals sometimes fall off the radar until at least the winter semester. It absolutely makes sense, yet a chaotic start to your career can leave some faculty in a sort of slump as to how to really get things started around their research when they are ready to do so.

Drawing from ORDE and Office of Research Services (ORS) resources, as well as other successful research development offices around the country, I offer some tips to get started that can help to get your research and research funding work going.

Attend workshops and seminars
Even if you've written several grants with your mentor, leading a grant development effort can bring new challenges. By registering for grant development seminars and training, you can get insight on how to approach grant-writing, as well as meet other ECIs and seasoned PIs that you might collaborate with and/or learn from.

ORDE offers a seminar series that will begin in January of 2015, open to all CU Denver faculty. The Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI) also offers various educational programs, including Pre-K and K to R programs for aspiring NIH ECIs. Many professional organizations offer grant development training or intensive programs to their members as well. It's always worth exploring what these organizations offer as it may be a good fit for you.

Meet with a mentor, RD professional, or leader
Having a one-on-one conversation with a mentor, an accomplished investigator or a research development professional can help you put your research career and plans into perspective. Having someone to serve as a sounding board and/or an adviser can be incredibly helpful to ECIs as they juggle their responsibilities and find ways that they can move forward.

The ORDE team is always available to meet with any of our faculty in strategy sessions as folks who you can bounce ideas off of. This can be particularly helpful when you're also wondering what funding sources are available to you.

Conduct a fund search
ORDE is also available to conduct personalized fund searches for our faculty. We work with you to understand your research goals or your specific research project, and provide you with a planning document that outlines potential funding agencies, a summary of those agencies, deadlines, eligibility, etc. These fund searches and our follow-up updates are all focused on your research.

Find seed money
Seed money can be difficult to come by, but it can really make the difference for ECIs trying to grow their research. ORDE offers a New Investigator Funding e-Book and an e-Book for Pilot Project Funding. Additionally ORS offers small and large grants to researchers on the Denver campus. This seed money can help to jump start your project and put you in a more competitive position when applying for larger external grants down the road.

Identify/form a writing group
Although a large amount of grant development and research is done independently, recruiting and working with a group of peers in a writing group or something of the like can keep you moving forward. A writing group that meets regularly can give you accountability to your peers as well as give you a mutually beneficial group of peer reviewers to offer you feedback on draft grant applications.

These resources and tips can be helpful as you grow your research and research support.

Office of Research Development Education (ORDE)
Office of Research Services (ORS)
Colorado Clinical and Translational Service Institute (CCTSI)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Supporting Documents for Grants

Letters of recommendation, letters of collaboration, references, oh my! Unfortunately, these important support documents are often left to the last minute by grant-writers. But, there is a danger to leaving these documents to an afterthought...

Get them early
First, they take time to get together.  If you're waiting till you finish writing your grant to reach out to your collaborators or supporters to provide a letter for you, it oftentimes frustrates those vital partners who are forced to turn something around so quickly, if in fact they can turn it around as quickly as you ask. Waiting till the last minute can also impact the quality of the letter you get. As we all know, writing is only as good as the time put into it.

Clarify what the sponsor wants to see
In some situations, agencies are happy to see letters that speak to the character or strong qualities of the PI, but more and more, agencies want to see specifics in letters of support, and do not want to see any "fluff" on how great the PI is. For instance, depending on the program and agency, they may want to see specific resources that a collaborator is providing - including time, numbers, access, etc. Some sponsors want to see letters from department heads that assure them that the institution and department are supportive of the PI, the project, and their career trajectory.

Write them yourself
Although you don't want to be presumptuous, most letter writers appreciate if the PI provides a draft of the letter (including exactly what the sponsor is looking for) that they can then alter or put into their own words. More often than not, the letter writer will just sign the letter written by the PI, although if there is any misunderstanding around commitments, the letter can bring those to light early on.

Consider submittal requirements
Most grant submissions use an electronic process. Make sure that your letters are submitted appropriately and once submitted, print out the full application to make sure that it looks right and that all of the letters look professional, especially if they are in a different format than other parts of the application with signatures, etc.

How to write an effective letter of support - Tufts University, Office of Proposal Development
Letters of Support - Fresno State, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs
Letters of Support - The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Office of Research

Friday, November 7, 2014

Getting Funding in the Arts and Humanities

It seems that this year there has been a lot of buzz around seeking external funding for the arts and humanities in the research development world. Despite this particular funding landscape being particularly challenging, it makes sense that RD folks offer more support to those faculty in the arts and humanities. But as soon as someone asks what we should be doing for these essential faculty, there is either a resounding silence or someone timidly points to the Foundation Center's Directory for Arts and Humanities Funding.

At any rate, in this week's blog I offer some tips and resources for those faculty in the arts and humanities both from conversations I've had with our own A&H faculty and from other experts - both those faculty writing grants in these fields and those supporting them.

Finding a common language
Artists have a unique perspective on their work, what it does, and how they cultivate that work. They sometimes have what feels like a different language to discuss their creative process that us art dummies (and I'm referring to myself) have a hard time following. The dilemma here is that depending on the genre of art or creative work we're talking about, these languages don't necessarily translate even within the arts.  And, when the art dummies come into the process, either as research developers, grant reviewers, or sponsors in some cases, the faculty member's work can be greeted with confused looks.

This is where research developers can provide support. When working with those in grant development, they can help you cull out the common language that will speak to sponsors. They can also help to illuminate where there are holes in your story and thus your case for funding.

Humanities PIs have a similar challenge in that it is often difficult for them to quickly and succinctly get to their case and point, often forcing them to skip over or abbreviate centuries of foundational work that may seem obscure to the layperson, but is necessary to really see the richness of a new project. Again, use an outside perspective of layperson to help you translate some difficult concepts into something simpler. Although it may be difficult to set aside some of the details that seem so crucial, always remember that effective writers, and certainly funded PIs must learn to "murder their darlings," which refers to cutting the language that although you may love, does not help your reader to understand your point.

Write your story
The University of Colorado Boulder's Center for Arts and Humanities offers some tips to A&H grant writers. Among their suggestions is that faculty write a 3000 word grant-like description of their work. Whether this is in response to an RFP or just an exercise you go through, answering what you're doing, how you're doing it, and why it's important for a broad audience will offer you clarity on your own work that will extend beyond your artist's statement or your research mission statement.

Susan Stanford Friedman of Carleton College's English Department suggests that A&H grant writers focus on the big picture of their research and work, to really try and step back and conceptualize the whole of your work and how all of the pieces then fit together.

Open up to different funding opportunities
I mentioned already how competitive grant funding is for A&H, but there is a larger span of funding opportunities than most faculty are aware.  First, being aware of the big A&H sponsors in the federal and private arenas and what they fund is important, especially if your work is a good fit for any of the major funders.

Funding in the arts and humanities also often take on different forms than traditional grants.  Opportunities like residencies, travel opportunities, etc. may not look like funding opportunities, but they are competitive support programs that can further your work and build your credentials as you go after other funding (traditional and non) in the future.

Lastly, faculty can find success by looking at how they can partner with faculty and researchers outside of their field and be eligible for funding on larger grant applications where they play a unique role as a co-PI or consultant. It's also good to note that by collaborating with others outside your field, you will further improve how you position and discuss your work and its relevance to laypeople.

Funding Opportunities in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences - NORDP presentation
Writing Effective Proposals - Susan Stanford Friedman
Gigi Rosenberg's Blog - Author, Artist, and Entrepreneur

Friday, October 31, 2014

The #1 Threat to Your Grant Success...Procrastination

It always feels ironic when I'm researching procrastination. I ask myself, do I really need to be spending this much time learning about procrastination, or am I just putting off writing my weekly blog? This is part of the haziness around procrastination that makes it so easy to justify. Really, only the procrastinator truly knows that they are procrastinating, and sometimes they're not even sure.

ORDE and other grant experts recommend that grant developers spend at least six months developing a grant application. Yet, when I suggest that to our researchers, I follow-up very quickly saying that if you don't have that much time for whatever reason, you should at least include the important elements on the timeline in a shorter time period before they laugh me off.

According to Psychology Today, approximately 20% of the population are chronic procrastinators. They clarify that although everyone procrastinates at some point on some task, it is the chronic procrastinators that experience more dramatic and ongoing consequences in their lives and work.Chronic procrastinators have a difficult time weighing long-term rewards against immediate gratification. They may also procrastinate due to fear of failure or success.  And, procrastination seems to be a larger and larger problem in the technology age. Canadian Psychologist, Timothy Psychl says that "50% of the time people are online, they are procrastinating." That's a remarkable statistic when you consider how many people are constantly online for work or with their smart phones!

Although I don't have the research to back it up, I would suggest that grant development is a task that is often procrastinated - it somehow takes all of those drivers of procrastination and puts them into one effort - fear of failure, unclear/unsure rewards, and a large amount of time and thought required. So, because we often see our researchers avoid getting started on that next grant, here are some remedies to combat this great enemy - procrastination.

Work with someone: Forming a writing group with other grant-writers/colleagues can keep you on task and give you a group to bounce ideas off of and review your work.

Build a routine: Try setting aside a small amount of time everyday to work on your grant and gradually see if you can increase that amount. Maybe start with 20 min.

Write in the morning: People tend to do their best and most thoughtful work best in the morning, yet many waste that time on less creative/thoughtful work, e.g., checking email.

Write grants or nothing: One extreme solution posed by writer, Gretchen Rubin, is to set aside a large block of time each day where you can either write or do nothing.  She doesn't force herself to write, but she won't let herself do anything else.

Reduce/eliminate distractions: Since email, texting, social media, and the Internet in general are such large distractions for people, try to disconnect for a while or even just silence you phone to try and allow yourself some time to focus.

Many experts compare and link procrastination to other addictions, such as alcoholism or gambling. So, it makes sense that awareness can be the first step for procrastinators, too. Try to recognize when you're procrastinating and identify why. Then you can begin to remedy the situation.

Articles on procrastination - Psychology Today
Grant Development Timeline - ORDE

Friday, October 24, 2014

Grant Development Resource: Video Clips

As another outlet/format for grant development education, ORDE has edited short video clips from our seminars from the past year.  These clips are around five minutes long each and feature one of our seasoned faculty researchers discussing their experiences in grant development. Below, please find descriptions and links to these videos. We hope you find them useful!

Grant Development Videos

  • NIH grant development tips
  • Conveying your case in visuals, research strategy, and innovation
  • How do you persuade your reviewers that your research is important?
  • Showing impact and significance in an NIH grant
  • Project summary examples and lessons learned
  • Incorporating passion
  • What makes a strong proposal for NSF
  • Overview of the NSF grant

  • An Overview of PCORI
  • PCORI priorities
  • PCORI criteria
  • PCORI hints
  • PCORI patient centeredness
  • NIH grant development tips
  • Conveying your case in visuals, research strategy, and innovation
  • Project summary examples and lessons learned
  • Incorporating passion
  • What makes a strong proposal for NSF
  • Overview of the NSF grant
  • IES: Tips for intervention studies
  • IES: Focusing on methodology
  • IES: Attrition and letters of cooperation

  • Choosing and working with collaborators on your grant
  • When to apply for grant funding
  • Maintaining focus and flexibility
  • Effectively using mentoring
  • Recruiting mentors
  • Rethinking Work/Life Balance