Competing for Grants: Weighing Risks and Rewards

Q: How important is it to get grants as a graduate student or un-tenured faculty member? 

Author: Chandra Muller, University of TexasChandra L. Muller

Grants are beneficial because they provide money to travel, reduce your teaching load, hire research assistants, and so on. Some departments, typically those with a research center, value grants in the hiring and tenure process. It is very important to remember that grants do not substitute for publications. Publications are essential because they are the vehicle for sharing research and ensuring that the findings have an enduring impact.  A grant might facilitate the research but it does not have enduring impact without the research products (aka publications).

When a student or junior faculty member solicits my advice regarding whether to pursue a funding opportunity, I encourage them to ask themselves three important questions:

  1.  Will the grant help you to accomplish your research goals and agenda? It is important for a scholar to develop an intellectual identity by pursuing a set of focused and core research questions.  Will the grant keep you on track to accomplish this by contributing to that focus, or will it derail you by taking you on a tangent? It is not a good idea to have funding sources dictate your research agenda/identity because your agenda won’t look like you. Rather, your research agenda should determine whether and when you pursue a particular grant.
  2. Can you afford it? Think of the published articles on your CV as your money in the bank and your time as your resource to get more money in the bank. Set goals for what your CV should look like in 6 months, a year, two years and figure out a schedule for getting it there. Think of writing a grant proposal as going to Las Vegas to gamble: you could strike it big (and get funding to get more time) or you could lose everything. Only gamble what you can afford to lose. You cannot typically turn a grant proposal into an article or book unless it’s funded. Most people who get grants have more unfunded grant proposals sitting in files than they have funded grants. This is less true about articles, which usually get published if you keep working on them and if the ideas and data are reasonable. All things considered, the odds are against the success of your grant proposal (especially in the current funding climate). In other words, the time that you spend writing the grant proposal can easily be lost, and the less experienced you are, the more likely that you will lose. So – consider the opportunity costs.
  3. Is now a good time in the development of your project to write a successful proposal? Beyond the fit with your agenda and whether you can afford it, timing is an important. A strong proposal will have a well-developed idea, with a good framework and strong methods sections. If the project uses secondary quantitative data, it may benefit from preliminary or exploratory analysis. If the project qualitative, it may benefit from advance or pilot work. I have heard it said that a project has to be at least one-fourth complete to write a successful grant proposal. In other words, the point in a project when you will be able to write the strongest proposal is (1) when you already know a certain amount about the topic, (2) you have established expertise and have a developed framework (maybe even by publishing on the topic), and (3) you are able to show that funding the project is a reasonable safe bet and will substantially broaden impact.
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