Strike One for the PI

Sara’s post last week about applying for grants hit me right in the middle of, of course, applying for a grant. I found Sara’s tips very useful and loved the advice from the Chronicle on how not to get a grant. I also enjoyed Adriana’s take on not getting grants, as well as the excellent comments.  This week I thought I’d add my own (really great) experience with not getting a grant.

There was a time when I thought I’d never apply for a grant to do math. I mean, I’m a number theorist. What do I need money for? Numbers? Paper? I thought that only professors at R1 institutions needed to apply for grants, to support PhD students or strengthen their tenure cases. How incredibly wrong I was. I feel lucky that I don’t need a lab or to buy any expensive machinery for my research, but I do need time to work, to stay connected through conferences, and to travel to work with my collaborators, all of which cost plenty of money. For this year I have start-up funds and a yearly allowance from my department, but I’m also applying for the second time for the AMS-NSA Young Investigator grant. Last year I thought it would be nice to apply so I plunged in and spent a few weeks working up a research proposal. I didn’t get it (strike one). However, I present:

Four reasons it was worth applying for the grant I didn’t get

1) Writing this grant forced me to let go of old plans.

I have always been interested in lots of varied problems and had picked up several different projects since the beginning of graduate school. In my earlier research statements, I had included all my projects in an attempt to demonstrate breadth and adaptability. However, I could tell that a proposal that included all of these would seem scattershot and poorly focused. The separate background sections alone would take up most of the length I was allowed. So I had to choose one area where I was most interested in going, at least for these first few years. I decided to focus on curves over the rational numbers and finite fields, topics where I had active and exciting projects, instead of some other topics where my work was older or my questions weren’t as well developed. It was hard to cut those topics loose in my mind, but also liberating, because after consciously laying them aside (for now!), I have more energy for the ones I have chosen.

2) Writing this grant made me ask better questions, and gave me ideas on how to start answering them.

My previous (mostly job application) research statements were focused on explaining the research I had already done, with a few questions for future study. When I wrote those other statements, my goal was to show that I was an accomplished researcher with plans to keep my research moving. The grant’s research proposal had a different goal—I was asking for money and concretely stating exactly what questions I would answer with that money. First I had to ask myself what problems were really interesting, then sell those problems as being worthwhile. Second, I had to show I could solve them. I wanted to showcase my accomplishments, but only to demonstrate that I had the background, skills, and good ideas to address my stated questions. It seemed important to show that I had convincing plans of how to take at least the first steps. Of course that meant I had to really think about these first steps, and I found that I had ideas I’d never bothered to organize before. I thought I didn’t know how to start, but that was because I hadn’t honestly thought about how to start. Now I have.

Also, in the process of solving a problem I tend to get tunnel vision and ignore all diverging paths. I want to know this one thing!!! Who cares what else I know? Who cares about anything else?!?   And then it’s on to the next thing. In writing this proposal, I found that looking back on the work that I have done and thinking from a little distance about where I would like to go revealed the landscape very differently. I can see how one project might relate to another, and how this approach might apply in this other situation. It made me really excited about my research, and gave me more ideas I probably wouldn’t have had if hadn’t taken this time to reflect and try to create a narrative.

3) I will never again underestimate the amount of time it takes to apply for a grant.

After applying once, I have now done everything wrong once. With all this excitement about my research proposal, I didn’t spend much time last year thinking ahead about any of the other parts of the grant application. I assumed that the major part of the proposal was the research plan, and didn’t even think about the other parts carefully until a few days before the deadline when I logged in and started submitting my application. If you’re a beginner at writing grants, as I was, let me save you some pain and tell you right now that there are many more parts to the application. There’s the short summary, the budget, the biographical details and time commitments, the indirect rates agreement from the University, and the approval of the research office at the University. And also several other things that I’ve forgotten at the moment. Of course, I’d read the website and skimmed over the list of requirements, but they all seemed minor compared to the research proposal. When it came time to submit, I was somehow totally surprised by the fact that I needed to be in contact with my own University’s research office to get their approval and deal with indirect costs. The short summary sounds like no big deal, but it needs to do a lot of what the research proposal does, but in ONE PAGE! Holy cow. That is hard. Each supporting document took approximately 2 to 10 times longer to prepare than I’d anticipated. I wrote panicked emails to my university’s research office—“Help, this grant is due tomorrow and I need your approval!” They very kindly stepped up to help me at the last minute.

This application didn't take as long as building La Sagrada Familia, but it did take most of my trip to Barcelona.

Did Gaudi apply for grants?  This application didn’t take as long as building La Sagrada Familia, but it did take most of my trip to Barcelona.

And let me also mention that the last minute was happening for me in Barcelona, where I had gone on my fall break. This was really exciting, my first ever non-mathematical trip overseas. I thought I would just finish up the details on the plane and then submit my application from the airport when I arrived. Then off to enjoy my vacation! Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I was completely preoccupied and stressed for the first 4 days of my trip—trying to find wifi in Barcelona cafes, figuring out what time in Spain I could expect to get a reply from someone in Philadelphia, and what time exactly was the cut off for application submission. In the end, my proposal had several embarrassing typos, because of time pressure and because I wasn’t able to print for a final proofread on paper. By the time I hit “submit” I was exhausted, and felt really awful for spending the trip glued to my laptop. This doesn’t sound like much of a positive about applying for the grant, but I would never have imagined it could take so much time and now I know. I will never make such a ludicrous plan again.

4) The reviews from my rejected grant may be the most valuable feedback I have ever gotten on my research.

When I received an email last summer letting me know that I didn’t get the grant, I was disappointed. The next email, with the reviewer’s responses, sat in my inbox unopened for a couple weeks. I was steeling myself for some tough reading. When I finally read the reviews I was shocked. The reviewers were unbelievably nice, generous people who gave me a lot of encouragement and very helpful feedback on my application. They took the time to read it carefully, make thoughtful comments on the content, and very kindly suggest ways to improve it. These were clearly people who knew the area well, and they offered additional references and pointed out applications that I had not emphasized.  This was perhaps the most extensive feedback I had received on any document since my thesis.  I have to say that some reviewers of my papers have also offered excellent feedback, but the grant reviewers discussed my whole research program–it was a little like having the opportunity to explain my research without nervousness to four experts in my field, then hearing their considered responses.  Far from being painful, reading my reviews was one of the most positive experiences I have had in sharing my research with the larger world. I was so excited that I wanted to revise and resubmit right then! Unfortunately the portal didn’t open again until September.


This year has been much better. I went in really knowing what was required and started my application online over a month before the deadline. I had time to let the University’s research office know what I was up to, and to ask my wonderful PhD advisor some questions about my research proposal. I have printed, proofread, and fixed scores of errors. I have revised the proposal to use the strange but appropriately formal language of “the PI” (and I do picture myself with a mustache every time I say that, in case you were wondering).  Of course, my application may not be funded this year either. But a) it might, b) there’s no way I will ever get funding without applying, so I’m not giving up, and c) if nothing else, round 2 will make the round 3 just that much better.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any great grant advice, or have made any of the grant mistakes that I did.  Good luck!

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Grant Me Strength

One of my goals for this year is to apply for some grants: two for conference travel and one internal grant for research at least. My position has no explicit expectations for external funding, and even if a massive grant to buy research leave fell in my lap, my department would not be happy if they had to scramble to cover my classes. So I have the luxury of keeping my expectations manageable.

Street sign reading

“Grant” by Benson Kua on Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I have written a few small grants before, and even had some funded, but I’m still a rank amateur. To bring my game up a notch, I’ve been reading a lot about good grantsmanship. But I’ve overshot: now I have far more information about grant writing than I can possibly read, much less implement, before my due dates hit. So I’m trying to focus on three major points.

  1. “Chase the idea, not the money.” If you’ve seen Lee Zia from the NSF speak at the joint meetings about grants, you’ve heard him say this. And he said it again at a panel here at Hood last week. After the panel, I realized I still hadn’t internalized it – I was still thinking about applying for grants because I thought I should be applying for grants. Even though I have plenty of ideas for worthwhile, potentially fundable projects, my mental process was still putting the cart before the horse. How do you avoid this? Zia gives some advice: identify a problem that you care about. Identify other people who care about it too. What will you (and the funding agency) learn from your investigation of, and solution to, this problem? Write a one-page summary of all this, and then write your application.
  2. The government is not the only source of money. Three-letter-agencies are the most obvious place to look for money, but not the only ones. Your school may have a foundation office separate from the grants office to help with private funding, so ask around. Also provides information on grantsmanship and funding sources, much of it open to the public. Your institution may have a membership to allow you access to even more resources. Advice we were given at our panel: build a relationship with the program officers, and if a foundation states that they are not accepting unsolicited applications, you can still send your one-page summary and invite them to contact you if they want more information.
  3. Put yourself in the reviewers’ shoes, either literally or figuratively. I just signed up to review for the NSF’s Department of Undergraduate Education, but the rest of the NSF and the NIH are also soliciting reviewers. If you can’t manage the time commitment of reviewing, at least solicit outside feedback on your application from experienced colleagues. If your grant is for a general audience, your grants office can make sure your application is accessible to a non-mathematician. Ultimately, be respectful of the reviewers’ time – if you make them slog through your whole proposal before you get to the point in the last paragraph, don’t expect them to look kindly upon you.

There’s a much longer list of what not to do. The NSF provides one in their presentations called “10 Ways to Write A Good Proposal…That Won’t Get Funded.” Highlights include the obvious (spellcheck!) and the non-obvious (assume a project website is sufficient for dissemination). Your grants office may even have this as a nice glossy brochure. How to Fail in Grant Writing from The Chronicle of Higher Education is another great list of don’ts. Personal favorite: “Remember the old axiom: The longer the equation, the better. Panelists will be afraid to acknowledge in front of others that they don’t understand it, so they will be more likely to recommend you receive a grant.”

Any more tips? Please leave them in the comments. If you’re a reviewer, you might end up saving us both some work.

Posted in grant proposals, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Doctor is In–Office Hours Makeover

How can the students possibly stay away when art like this is on display in my office?

How can the students possibly stay away when art like this is on display in my office?

This week I decided it was time to entirely overhaul my office hours. I did this after several years of increasing frustration with my (dare I say) former office hour method. You see, office hours have always been a dilemma for me. I currently have 5 office hours a week and I love doing them because I get to interact with my students one-on-one and really talk with them about math and how they think. I also enjoy meeting them as people, hearing about their lives, making human connections. The problem is that most of my students come to the same time slot (right before the assignment is due, of course), so my office fills up with students and I don’t get to spend time working one-on-one with any of them. Often people are struggling with the same problems and so I decide to talk to several people at once about something. This turns into a sort of mini lecture, where I tell them how to get started. A few people are off and running then, and start working the rest of the problem right in my office, while others are still confused, so they ask more questions, prodding me to outline the next steps. Sometimes, before I know it, we’ve worked the whole problem “together” in my office. I always ask questions, so the students are forced to give me direction, but at times there are students who aren’t catching on, and everyone is waiting for me to work the next problem, and the atmosphere in the room strays far from my student-centered, conversational, growth-oriented vision.

Some students like coming to office hours anyway, some because they are comfortable speaking up in groups and get the attention they need in this atmosphere, some because they have realized that I will basically hold their hands through the entire problem. It can turn into a dynamic that I really dislike. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about math. That may be the problem, and why my office hours have turned out this way: there is (ahem) perhaps something personally rewarding about having the attention of a room focused on me while I play the expert and talk about what I love. I talk, they listen. And it’s not like in lecture–the homework is due, and students are ready to really pay attention!  They look at me like I’m giving them gifts! But I can feel that there are other possibilities, where the students take more responsibility for their learning and get proportionally greater rewards.


Marlow Anderson, expertly scuba diving in a sea of student questions, or maybe just the sea.

So what did I decide to try? The new method was inspired by Marlow Anderson, a truly excellent teacher and my former colleague at Colorado College. I observed that on many afternoons when Marlow has office hours, there are somewhere from 2 to 10 students sitting in the hall outside Marlow’s office. There is probably room in his office for all of them, but he only admits one or maybe two at a time. The students wait their turn in the hall, sometimes talking math with each other and working out problems there. When it’s their turn, each person gets to ask questions and talk with him one-on-one. They then leave and work the actual problems outside the office. When I worked at CC, my office was a couple doors down from Marlow’s. I sort of waded through his students on my way in and out of my office. At the time, I was running my office hours in a classroom, as a sort of problem session, and they seemed to be going okay. But I was always impressed with how he managed to engage more closely in office hours and wondered if it would work for me.

My first office hour this week was very busy because the homework was due that afternoon at 5. I started the office hour as usual, with several students in my office, and shortly I was at the board explaining something. The students who mostly knew what they were doing told me how to work each of the early steps of a problem, and the students who didn’t know nodded and followed along, writing every step down. One really cool student who has struggled on the last couple assignments was in my office, and I was really pleased, because wow, this meant the student had made the decision to seek help and so everything would go better, yay! But as I stood at the board, I suddenly realized that I was missing this amazing opportunity to actually connect with that student. We were in a small room together, but they were still being placed in a passive role. Coming in to office hours was a great step, but I wasn’t getting to know them at all. I was never going to uncover what misconceptions or confusions were at the base of their mathematical struggles because I wasn’t making them talk to me. But I couldn’t put them on the spot in front of the rest of the students, who I could imagine appeared to already know everything. So I decided to change everything right then. It was a little awkward at first, but I just told the whole room, “Okay, we’re going to try something different in the office hours. If you’re working on a problem, go out in the hall. I will see you guys one at a time. You explain where you are on a problem, I will help you work out some ideas and get on track, and then you go in the hall. You can come back and ask more questions later if you need to.”

For the first few minutes it was awkward, because I had to basically tell the students to get out of my office and go to the hall. I am constantly trying to get them in my office, and now I’m kicking them out? But with some jokes and repeated explaining we all seemed to get comfortable with the idea. And it worked! It worked so well! Immediately, the atmosphere changed. The student who seemed passive and dutiful when everyone else was in the room was curious and engaged when we talked one-on-one. Some force of polite instinct kicked in, perhaps, and each student had to talk to me like a real person when we were the only people in the room. They seemed to feel like they had more of a stake in the problem, because I told them right off that I would only give ideas, not tell them how to do the whole problem. It was more efficient, even though I said the same things about the same problems many times, because I could start where each person was stuck and often had to say much less to any one person than I had before. They were working hard in the hall, talking with each other and solving problems without my help.  But they each got personal attention, I felt better connections with them, and they all said thank you when they left.

I asked Marlow about my take on his office hours, and he made the following comment: “I actually structure some assignments to facilitate this.  What you saw was mostly small group (2 or 3) assignments, where by the honor code they are precluded from seeking any assistance from anyone except me (and their group members) – not even the paraprofessional.  This is my effort at the calculus level to ensure that most students do end up in my office in a setting where I can really get to know them.” This makes me wonder how I could actually engineer my assignments to encourage the interactions I want. So of course there is more to work on, but my office hours makeover feels like a major improvement. Let me know in the comments if you have my next great improvement idea, for office hours or building good professor/student relationships.

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