Prepping the lab for the proposal bomb

Jan 05 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

A couple of people, including Jen and Leigh, brought up an important point about grant proposal time from a trainee perspective on the post from the other day. Essentially the message was "It's all well and good to depend on data from your trainees as long as those data are not demanded on an impossible time frame".

Agreed. There's nothing worse for morale than feeling like the boss is over demanding or "doesn't get what it takes" anymore. I say that with the caveat that there may be occasions during the life of a lab where everyone has to focus on certain things and burn a little extra midnight oil to get shit done before a deadline. It's part of the funding game and it should not be a regular thing. But, that doesn't mean that a PI should storm into the lab demanding that a ten day experiment produce data in three days because of a deadline.

So what can one do to prep the lab for an upcoming deadline?

Well, I can tell you what I have had some luck with and let others weigh in on their experience. The lab submitted several proposals in June and July and the summer was a bit crazy with travel and such. When September rolled around, I used a lab meeting to talk about each project in the lab and what needed to get done during the semester to make the next round of proposals competitive, should they not be funded. I gave each person in the lab a list of things that they should focus on and we talked about papers that we could / should start writing.

At the end of November I revisited these things and talked with each person about how I was structure the proposal their work was related to and what they could provide. That gave most people a head's up on what was coming and the data I needed. Based on that, there has been very little data that we have been trying to squeak out at the last minute. Sure, there is some, but the amount is relatively low. I also found that this approach helped me to focus the direction of the proposals (because any resubmit needs something a little fresh to spruce it up, no matter how high it was rated in the previous round) and think hard about what papers we can start to get out.

All in all, it was successful this year so far. Part of that is related to the maturity of the lab (much more settled and established than even this time last year) and the fact that we have been producing a lot of data so that we have plenty to analyze and not a lot to produce for these proposals. Nevertheless, I think the people in the lab liked knowing what my more long-term thoughts were for each project and what they could contribute to the whole while advancing their own agendas.

6 responses so far

  • Stacey says:

    Fantastic approach - in any work setting. As a grad student, I was always searching for the big picture outside the minutae of my immediate experiment. Helping trainees to see and appreciate that long-term view...and then celebrating as a group when you DO get essential for keeping up morale when the days get long.

  • ecogeofemme says:

    This seems like a great policy. Not only do your people get a heads up so they can structure their time, but they get trained in how to build longer-term goals, how projects fit together to build a research program, etc. Plus it helps them see how their work contributes to the larger goals of the group's program. Nice!

  • You have the right approach!

    Grant writing works best as a team effort and involvement is an important part of the training for anyone aspiring to become team leaders themselves. In many instances a senior PI will never have performed the protocols their lab is expertise in. As such they rely on the technical experts to tell them whether or not a proposed experiment is realistic or not.

    Senior PIs can be a hindrance at the bench, but someone who was a postdoc a only a few years back can be a real help when it comes to generating data fast. What a newer PI lacks in writing experience he can make up for by offering a helping hand in the lab when the pressure is on. It also fosters respect.

  • Lin says:

    Sounds like the lab I would like to work! Goals, lists, expectancies out in the open.... What a bliss

  • Namnezia says:

    I've found that using papers as an overall goal is far more motivating for my lab peeps rather than "getting data for the grant". Ultimately, yes you need the grant to run the lab, but as far as the people in the lab, this will help their CV or long-termgoal, whereas publications will.

    Plus I also noted that having a handful of publications out, helped make my proposals way more competitive.

  • @Namnezia
    Good to hear it--that is my strategy too!

    I do try to keep my group informed about upcoming deadlines for proposals and conferences so as not to pull a sudden "I need a week's worth of work in a day" on them. I don't know how successful I am with that, but I also want to try to teach my students about the thinking required (short term and long term) in a research project.

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