The funding rabbit hole

Jun 12 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

For the first time in a Very Long While, I do not have a grant proposal pending. Anywhere. As much as I thought this might be freeing, it's subtly unsettling. I'm trained to find this unsettling.

With an active grant and a if-sequester-doesn't-kill-it grant in the works at the beginning of the year, I planned on taking last January off. Then I had to resubmit my 2012 preproposal just in case and a collaborator contacted me with an idea right up my alley. From zero to two proposal, just like that. Now that we've had official word on our second grant and some other funding sources have paid off, it's time to dig in and get the work done, right?


Last week I saw the NSF CAREER reminder come out and it immediately made my mind start to click. We have projects that need funding. This is my last year of eligibility. I was on a preproposal panel so I could submit to that panel and actually know the competition!

Click, whiiiiir. Click, whiiiiiiir*.

But at what cost? I'm currently in paper writing mode and I'm optimistic that we can get a healthy number of manuscripts submitted this summer. This is important because I feel like papers from my lab are the area I need to shore up on my CV before my tenure dossier gets submitted. Submitting a proposal this summer is going to cost me time that could be focused on those papers and likely result in one or two not getting out in the time frame I need it to. Besides, my trainees need those papers for their careers, too.

There's a relatively loud voice in the back of my head yelling "GET THE MONEY AND LET THE PAPERS SORT THEMSELVES OUT!" but I'm inclined to ignore it, this once. As someone I talked to about the situation reminded me, the money is simply a means to an end. That end is getting the work done and the papers out. There's a justifiable focus on funding in this line of work, but with two new projects to get started and one that is going into it's final year it's time to let a proposal deadline go by**. Fighting the urge to send in a proposal now is also going to help put the lab in a better position to compete in the 2014 round, as well.

Sometimes the big picture means going against what seems right in the moment. Let's hope the decision still looks good in a year or two.

*Isn't that what it sounds like when you think?
**Yes, that makes me feel a little sick.

16 responses so far

  • namnezia says:

    Dude just suck it up and write the proposal. Have the trainees begin to write the papers, after the proposal is due in July you can pick up the papers from the drafts your trainees handed you. This is also better for the trainees since they gain experience writing papers. Don't pass-up an opportunity to get a CAREER award, especially if this is your last year. You definitely need papers, but you just have to learn to rely on your (inexperienced) trainees and try and get everything done.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    They are writing drafts. Several of the papers involve collaborators and need to be moved along, for a variety of reasons.

  • Anonymous says:

    I like to remind myself that we get funding to do science, not the converse... when you have funding, your reward is you can do science. Do science.

  • GMP says:

    Seconding what Namnezia said. Don't pass up the opportunity to get a CAREER award, it's not just money, it's a very shiny bullet on your CV.
    Btw, when people ask me what CAREERs are like and how to pick a topic, I tell them to imagine someone gives them a $400K gift to do what really gets their motor running; that's the project they should write on. You are well funded so you can really afford to write this CAREER with wild abandon, about a topic you are very passionate about and that can have far-reaching impact in 5-10 years. Good luck!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Damnit, people.

  • Joshua King says:

    Comments I've gotten from two different PO's suggest that what GMP says is in-line with what they are looking for. Of course, if reviewers perceive it as "too risky" or some other such foolishness, they will quickly crush your pipe-dreams. My problem with CAREER is uniting the two or three "big projects" I want to pursue into a coherent mess, as opposed to just a mess. Tough decision. But then again, if you don't do it this year, you can't do it again. So there is that.

  • Heavy says:

    These trade offs are all too true.

    Write the CAREER.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The question is whether there is significant doubt about the tenure decision for PlS and whether more papers accepted would help. Doubtful the CAREER would land in time to influence the external reviewers and the outcome is less certain. Of course there is also the question of how many papers would be prevented by working on the application. If he's going to have several anyway and the app will only cost him one, that differs from a 2-1 or 1-1 scenario.

  • anon says:

    We can all use more money. But can you really put up with the extensive educational/outreach part of the proposal for 5 years? Do you have to?

  • TheGrinch says:

    I'd have said go for papers if you think you have raised enough $$ to earn tenure at your place. However, my understanding is that a CAREER award is more than just any other NSF grant—it is considered a prestigious achievement. As GMP said, a star on your CV. May not be seen as such at your current institution, but there are plenty where it may matter. Who knows what lies in the future?

  • poke says:

    My former adviser always had good insight in these situations: do both.

    Sometimes (rarely) one could convince him that it was not physically possible to do both, and he would grudgingly advise prioritizing one thing over another.

    But the conversation would always end with him saying "...but it would be really good if you could somehow find a way to do both. That's what I'd do, but you'll need to work out your own priorities..."

  • babakubwa says:

    Obviously getting a CAREER would be huge, but a complete cost-benefit analysis takes into account the expected payoff times the probability of success. From everything I've heard, success rates for CAREERs in Biology (as opposed to some of the other fields NSF awards them for) are extremely low.

    The question is whether Benefit(CAREER) * p(CAREER) > Benefit(extra manuscripts) * p(extra manuscripts) with respect to tenure and overall research program success.

    Assuming the probability of getting a couple manuscripts accepted somewhere reasonable is close to 1, and assuming that the probability of getting a career is less than 0.1, then it would make sense to go for the CAREER if the boon to your CV was 10 times greater than having a couple extra manuscripts.

  • TheThirdReviewer says:

    Wouldn't the typical sciency response here be to do both? Isn't that what's expected of us? If you aren't doing both then you obviously don't have the passion to be in the business and should let someone else take over your $/space/position. And FSM-forbid that you have a life outside of research.

    Who's career is more important, yours or your trainees? I say write the papers. Or take a vacation.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Poke, It sounds like you worked for a slyly passive aggressive a-hole in the St. Kern mold. I actually like to contribute as a parent, so no.

  • bob says:

    poke, sounds familiar. But my PhD advisor used to just keep it short and sweet. I'm not sure how many times I heard (verbatim quote) "full speed ahead, all fronts". It was funny, but it was only kind of a joke.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    There are two issues, the first obviously is that the CAREER award carries a lot of prestige. The other is that seeing you are funded and in your last year of eligibility the panel may think that the award would be more important to others.

    Therefore, if you go for the CAREER swing for the fences with something Earth shattering if it works, but risky and frame it that way, e.g. really far out stuff here folks, and if it hits my lab and students are set for life.

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