When to apply for your first NSF grant

Dec 07 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

A lot of people starting up on the TT have asked me when they should apply for their first NSF grant. The answer to the question has nothing to do with time, but with data. One thing I really didn't appreciate early on was the inappropriately named "preliminary" data. I thought I could come in with a good idea, some supporting literature and a bit of data and it would totally be fine.

Not so much.

What I have learned along the long path strewn with the bodies of fallen proposals is that the bar for proof of concept is much higher than the n00b thinks. The unfortunate reality is that you've got to demonstrate your ability to generate data that support your hypotheses for at least two of your three aims. In many cases, you need to me most of the way to The Answer.

Established PIs can lean on a track record and toss in some suggestive data and off they go, but when starting out it is much less simple. If you were a forward thinking postdoc or had a mentor who knew how to prepare you to battle it out on the TT, chances are you brought some solid data to you lab to start your new life. In this case you may be able to send in a proposal right away.

If, like myself, you've decided to take your new lab in a new direction, you have a different row to hoe. If there's one thing I would love to tell N00b me, it is to get away from the computer and into the lab. I submitted grants in my first year that had exactly zero chance of getting funded because they lacked enough supporting data. Instead of slaving away on my first proposal, I could have been churning out the data to support it. While not crushing, this was a rookie mistake.

So rather than deciding on a particular time to write a proposal, decide when you think you have enough data to assuage reviewer concerns about the feasibility of your project.

The twitter conversation this morning that was the seed for this post is on storify here.

5 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    "I submitted grants in my first year that had exactly zero chance of getting funded because they lacked enough supporting data. Instead of slaving away on my first proposal, I could have been churning out the data to support it."

    I, too, made this horrible mistake and it was crushing to me. I was under extreme pressure from the more senior members of my dept. to secure funding immediately. In retrospect, I would have been far better off spending more time in the lab getting data than writing grants that were doomed to fail.

  • NatC says:

    Thank you - really, this and the twitter convo earlier are really helpful. It feels like everyone keeps asking me when I'm applying for grants (although I have one currently) - and I am applying for some foundation grants - but I feel like I hear "Early and Often!" rather than any advice on the quality of data required to support a story.

  • ponderingfool says:

    Maybe it is different in MCB and/or with an RUI, but I applied at the end of my first year/start of my second year (submitted 10 hours before the semester started). I did not get it my first go around but had positive reviews and suggestions for improvement. None were for more preliminary data. There wasn't a lot. Resubmitted at the first chance (end of my second year) after looking over the reviews and talking with my program officer. I had a little bit more data but not much more. Incorporated reviewer feedback. It was funded during my third year. The data I did have did strongly suggest the hypothesis of aim 1 was correct and doable at an undergraduate institution. The other three aims, I laid out what we planned to do without any preliminary data to support it. What I did do was explain the expected outcome and then stated what I would do if the outcome came out differently. Basically, I let the reviewers know that regardless of the results the work can be published.

  • Bashir says:

    Could you write a grant for something you've already done? It just seems like that's where we are headed.

  • Mitoqueen says:

    Is it possible to secure a grant before you have a tt position??? Like as a postdoc going on tt interviews? Im sure I heard of someone who was hired with money in hand but I don't see how its possible without being able to describe the facilities etc. Also is it possible to apply as co-PI with your postdoc mentor at Postdoc University then transfer your portion of the grant to Tenure-track University?

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