Friday, September 23, 2016

Budget Justification

I had a PI this week ask what should go in her budget justification. She was asking, in part, because her budget seemed quite straightforward. There wasn't much more she wanted to say about it in the budget justification. That's a good thing, but usually grant application guides do not allow you to forego the budget justification. So, below are some tips:

Follow the rules:
Sponsors usually outline the format they want to see in your budget justification. Be sure to read through your grant application guide and to include all the information the sponsor asks for in the budget justification. The sponsor and your institution also have rules around allowable costs. Be sure to check that all of your budget items are allowed, or they'll be a no-go and make it look like you didn't do your homework if unallowable costs slip through in your submission.

Stick to your budget order:
Again, check your application guide for the format for your budget and budget justification and follow those rules to a T. But, in addition to that, if the guidelines do not offer you rules on order of budget and budget justification, make sure to follow the same order in both. This makes it easy for your reviewers to go back and forth between budget and budget justification.

Elaborate on costs that may not be clear:
If there are items in your budget, where your need for them isn't abundantly clear, take extra time to communicate your need and/or describe the items. Or, if you need equipment at a certain quality level that costs more than other versions, you may want to explain in your justification why you need the version you need.

Make sure all costs are reasonable:
It's true that oftentimes when you're awarded a grant, it comes with a budget cut in a negotiation with your Program Officer. This reality can make it tempting for PIs to pad their budget to soften the blow when they're cut. But, resist padding! The truth is that your budget and budget justification are a reflection of you as a project manager and if your budget isn't frugal, that will reflect on you. Most reviewers and POs know when something is padding, so it's more likely your budget will get cut more significantly when they see it.

The budget justification is certainly not an exciting part of your proposal, but it is still essential in showing your competence and skill-level, so make it clear and informative!

Writing a budget justification - Appalachian State University
Budget Justification Guidelines - Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research
Budget Justifications - University of California, Irvine

Friday, September 16, 2016

Building a strategic mentoring circle

Mentorship is important to your development as a researcher; Mentors can provide support, advice, and advocacy to early career investigators. But, the traditional mentorship of having one guru to guide you in all things is less useful than strategically developing a mentoring circle.

Below are some considerations as you plan your mentoring circle:

Focus on your needs
Although, there seem to be those people that just seem right to seek out as a mentor, take some time to really assess your mentorship needs. Are you looking for guidance or support within your specific research field? Are you looking for moral support and advice from another academic who has shared your unique position? Or, are you looking for someone to provide insight as you navigate the tenure process? Likely, you have multiple needs. So being clear on what they are can help you identify the right person for each need.

Do a test run
Instead of introducing yourself and asking someone if they will be your mentor, it's a good idea to introduce yourself to a potential mentor and work to build some rapport with them. Remember, you're asking a mentor to invest at least time in you, so you want them to know you and your potential before you ask. Once you've gotten to know your prospective mentor, try asking for their help or a small commitment from them. Perhaps ask them to review a grant proposal or an article for feedback or take them to coffee and ask their advice on something. This way you and the mentor can get a sense of how you might work together before you ask them to make the larger commitment of being a mentor.

Consider the return
As mentioned, you are asking a mentor to make an investment in you, so it's important that they see the value in this mentoring relationship. Sure, your mentor is likely paying it forward, and does not expect an equal give/take relationship, but you must make sure that you're easy to work with and respectful of their time. Come to meetings with agendas and make sure you stick to agreed time limits for meetings. Also, be sure to acknowledge your mentors when you receive accolades for your own work. Offering additional visibility to mentors may not be something they expect, but it shows your appreciation for their investment in you and offers something back.

As with any relationship, it is wise to work on developing clear communication and expectations with your mentors. Be clear on what you're hoping to do and what you'd like their support for, and make sure you understand their expectations of you and the relationship as well.

Mentoring: An Essential Leadership Skill - MindTools
Mentoring FAQ - Management Mentors

Friday, September 9, 2016

The three foci of grant development

Grant development is more than just grant writing. It takes sponsor research, Program Officer relationship-building, and idea development.  Yet, when it comes to actually writing the proposal, you're smart not to go in with one focus.

The Venn diagram depicts the three essential foci of a good grant proposal. According to Wood (2012), "In the study of rhetoric, successful communication is traditionally expected to address all three equally. The speaker, or in this case, the principal investigator or project director, needs to establish credibility so that the audience will bother to read the message. Equally important, the speaker must analyze the audience -- in this case the reviewers -- to tailor the message specifically for them. In proposal development, the proposal is your message, and the sponsor's personnel and reviewers are your audience."

So, given Wood's framework, let's dig into these core pieces of the proposal.

Principal Investigator
I know I've said it before, but competitive grant applications don't just propose a fantastic idea and realistic project, but they also show that the PI is the best person to carry-out and/or lead the project and bring the fantastic idea to fruition. Certainly, there are spaces reserved for making this case in a proposal, such as the biosketch, but before you begin writing your proposal, take some time to identify exactly why you are the best person to conduct the research you're proposing.

Reviewers are the audience for your grant proposal, and they play a large role in deciding whether or not your proposal is funded. So, it makes sense to focus on who they are, what they want, and even the climate in which they read your proposal. Some things to remember are reviewers end up reading a lot of proposals in a short period of time. They want to see an exciting/compelling project, but they want the proposal to be easily understandable, well-organized, and clear.

Bearing in mind your strengths and your reviewers, you must apply these components in your vehicle for communication - your proposal. Your proposal must first and foremost, propose a project that is a good fit for the sponsor, follows all the rules in the program announcement or proposal guide, and then be clearly written and easy to navigate.

If you can really be excellent in all of these foci, with a great research project, you'll be able to knock it out of the park!

What do reviewers really want, anyway? - Robert Porter

Wood, B. (2012). The writing (Chapter 6) in Licklider, M.M. (Ed.). Grant seeking in higher education: Strategies and tools for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Writing your personal statement

I've gotten questions or been asked to talk about writing personal statements in the past week, so I thought why not talk about it here? Various sponsors ask for personal statements from PI's, especially for career development grants. But, the personal statement is a mainstay of the NIH biosketch.

So what goes in the personal statement? How personal should it be? How do you put it together?

Of course, the answer to these questions, as with everything in grant development is... it depends. The first thing to realize about a personal statement is that you should not just copy and paste the same one into each grant you submit that calls for one. Depending on the type of grant for which you're applying, you should mold your personal statement to position yourself as the ideal candidate to conduct the project or develop your career.

Having said this, below are some elements to consider incorporating into your personal statement, especially if you are an early career investigator:

Describe your preparation
It's important in your personal statement to give background. Tell the story of how you got to where you are now. Particularly, focus on your productivity and successes you've seen as you've developed as a researcher.

Describe your commitment to career
Reviewers want to understand not only who you are as a researcher, but where you're heading and that you are committed to the research you're doing . With limited grant funding available, sponsoring agencies want to invest in those researchers with the most promise and commitment to their work.

Explain choices
Although sponsors are generally not looking for long explanations for why you did what you did in your career, the personal statement is a good place to briefly address possible points of confusion. If there is a gap in your productivity or you made certain choices because of a need for family leave or due to visa requirements, the personal statement is a good place to share your brief reasoning.

Highlight opportunities
As you discuss your past work and aspirations, show how you have seized past opportunities and how you plan to seize those in the future. Because a research grant is a huge opportunity, reviewers want to see your track record on how you've succeeded with opportunities you received in the past and get a sense of how you will succeed with future opportunities.

State goals 
Along with your commitment to your career, strengthen that commitment by offering both short and long-term goals in your personal statement. Offering long-term goals shares your vision, and short-term goals show your reviewers a realistic path toward that vision.

Incorporating these components into your personal statement can paint a solid picture of you as the researcher and give reviewers a sense of your promise and why an investment in you and your research will be worthwhile.

Personal Statement Workshop - University of Alabama at Birmingham
NIH Personal Statement Template - Ball State University

Friday, August 26, 2016

Research Collaboration

This week my spouse sent me an online assessment from RoundPegg to see how our work styles compared. Happily, we shared 94% of the same values, but where our work values diverged, the program showed problematic assumptions we might make about one another (and nailed it - we totally make those assumptions), and showed how we could complement each other in places that our values diverge. Even though we used this tool as a quick marital assessment, it is actually designed to help collaborative teams to communicate and work more effectively together.

This got me thinking again about what makes for good research collaborations and partnerships, and below are some things to consider as you work to build and strengthen your research collaborations.

Develop the collaboration before the project
Although it is generally the case that PIs go in search of collaborators to fill in the gaps of their expertise on a project they're leading, Licklider (2012) suggests that building collaborations first can make for stronger and more competitive teams. She suggests that when researchers who focus on a particular issue from different disciplines and perspectives come together, they can form the most innovative projects and actually do a better job of predicting the future of the issue. This can allow the group to have a competitive edge when program announcements come out looking for the most robust solutions to the very issue the team has been working on.

Develop communications
Collaboration can be a rewarding experience for those involved, but it can also become a research horror story. When collaborations go awry, it is almost always due to a break down in communications. Intragroup conflict also stems from a lack of communication. Although some shy away from it, it's important at the outset of collaboration to identify agreements, such as author order in publications or positions/responsibilities in grant applications. Licklider (2012) also suggests having a plan to cut loose team members who do not uphold the responsibilities to which they agreed.

Consider data management
Data management is usually a challenge when you are the sole investigator on a project, but imagine multiple researchers sharing and building data with each other. The complication factor goes up exponentially the more researchers and the more diverse the researchers who participate in a project. Discussing data management at the outset of a collaboration is important, along with data hygiene, security, and access. If this feels overwhelming, you have resources; a great place to start is to attend our Data Management seminar on September 27th.

Collaboration is not easy, but it does allow researchers to do things they cannot do alone. The number one thing to remember in engaging in collaboration is that it must be a give and take. All participants must contribute to the project albeit in different ways, but they must also receive benefits for their participation.

Licklider, M. (2012). Grant seeking in higher education: Strategies and tools for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Planning for Funding

How do you think of your funding trajectory? Do you have a major project you're looking to fund 5-10 years down the road or are you solely focused on getting the next grant to keep your research going? If you fall in the latter group, you may be shooting yourself in the foot without knowing it. According to Licklider and the University of Missouri Grant Writer Network (2012), those researchers who only start thinking about the next grant when their current grant is ending are those who will likely remain at the same level throughout their tenure.

To make sure that your research isn't stagnant or mediocre, they suggest that you create a long-term funding plan where you start small and grow your funding amounts and sources, and of course your research goals and impact.

Growing and Diversifying
If you're a brand new research faculty member, you may not be quite ready to go after the whopper of all grant awards in your field, so instead start building your research enterprise. A good place to start is looking for what internal grants your institution may offer. At CU Denver, on the Denver Campus, faculty can apply for small grants through the Office of Research Services and the Center for Faculty Development. These smaller grants can get you going on a pilot project, but then you should start looking for other small funds that can build on your preliminary data, and allow you to move up the ladder toward the aspirational grants. Be sure to think about this trajectory early so that you are always moving toward the next level of research and funding to support it.

Get to know possible funders
Susan Fitzpatrick and M. Brent Dolezalek, in their article, "Diversifying Your Funding Portfolio," showed that in a survey of major research articles in a Neuroscience journal, 60% reported having a mix of private and public funding to support the research published. This makes sense; as research funding gets more and more competitive, researchers need to diversify their portfolio to make sure if one well dries up for them, they have others. So, to do this, start by doing a search for agencies with which you should be familiar. ORDE offers personalized fund searches for faculty on the Denver  and Anschutz Medical Campuses. Find out more here.

Consider the threads of your research career
To adequately plan for your robust research career, it's important to work backwards. Start by identifying where you want to be in 5-10 years and then work backward to identify the steps or benchmarks you need to get there. First, you likely need to get funding for your research, but to get that funding, you need to compete for it through grant proposals. Identify when you want to have a grant, and remember you should be working on that grant about a year in advance. To write your best grant, you need to have pilot data to help you form your project, and you need to have publications under your belt to be competitive for those grants.

Once you have a research career plan, be diligent about sticking to it. As you develop as a researcher, more and more opportunities will present themselves. Some of these will fit in your plan and get you where you want to go. Others will distract you and even if they seem great at the time, you will pay a price with the time and effort you would have otherwise spent moving toward your goal. So, make sure in all decisions, you're intentional.

Diversifying Your Funding Portfolio - Susan Fitzpatrick and M. Brent Dolezalek
Charting a Course for a Successful Research Career - Elsevier

Friday, July 29, 2016

Making your grant application easy to read

I've been reviewing some writing recently and found myself making edits or suggestions around sentence length in some places where sentences went on for three-four lines, but left sentences of the same length alone in other places. This got me thinking, what's happening in those long sentences I let slide that made them easier to read than those I revised? To provide some answers to this question and the broader question of what you can do to make your grant writing easier to read, consider these tips:

Use first person, active voice
I've said this before, but I'll say it again, it is much easier to read writing that is written in the first person (using I and we instead of "the PI" or "the research team"). Of course, there are still granting agencies that frown on use of the first person, so if that is the case, always follow their rules first. But, even if you are forced into third person, you can still use active voice.

Third person, passive voice: The experiment will be conducted by the PI.

Third person, active voice: The PI will conduct the experiment.

First person, active voice: I will conduct the experiment.

You'll notice that not only is the first person, active voice example easier to read, but it's also shorter!

Read it aloud
Many writers/editors work to strike a conversational tone in their work. But, how do you do that? Well, try turning the written word into the spoken word to see how it sounds. Try reading what you have written and revise the turns of phrase that don't roll off the tongue the way they did the pen. And, of course, if you can engage someone else in listening to your talk and get their opinion, you've gone one step further to making your writing conversational.

Avoid big and vague words
Research is often dealing with highly technical or theoretical concepts, and of course, these areas lend themselves to some whopper, super-smart-sounding, words. These five dollar words are fantastic to include in your scholarly articles, but when it comes to grant-writing, they will likely not earn you any bonus points. Consider the reviewer who you send to the dictionary a couple of times. With a stack of grant applications next to them, they probably won't thank you for building their vocabulary and may resent the extra time they spend reading when you should have explained things for them.

One thought = One sentence
Circling back to our original query of why some long sentences are easier to read than others, I think where writers often get into trouble is when they try to put more than one thought in a sentence. Aside from considering the tips above, one thing that makes sentences difficult to read is when they become a list of conjunctive clauses. When you find a sentence that is long, and it's riddled with ands, or it is plum full of ors, but you lose the point of it somewhere along the way, and then the writer shifts ideas, or then they try to bring it back around, but you are already lost, and get the point. That last sentence wasn't much longer than others I've used in this blog, but it just wanders on. Even if you had no trouble following it, you were probably getting a little annoyed. So, try to keep your sentences short, but if you need to get lengthy on a couple, do all you can to keep them readable and focused on one idea.

3 Quick-and-Easy Tips to Make Your Writing Easier to Read and More Effective - Jen Stevens
Making Your Writing Easy to Read - Cheryl Stevens