Do you expose your trainees to the NIH Grant sausage making?

June 24, 2010

Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made. –Otto von Bismarck. (or maybe it was John Godfrey Saxe)

Our longtime commenter bsci recently asked:

DM, This brings up a suggestion for a potential future posts. What DO you do to train your mentees for academia? Do they get to read your grants? Comment? Write parts of an R01? I assume you have them submit NRSAs, but merely submitting isn’t a training experience. Have you found ways to improve the educational utility of the process?

Let me answer this last question first. I have no idea if I am improving or impairing the “educational utility” of the training I provide. I just don’t have the numbers. There are many differences in the motivations and desires of trainees, these motivations shift significantly from the beginning to the end of a typical training stint and if a job is the outcome measure, then we are all at the mercy of a varying job market.
The grant part, however, I can answer.

I start with the fundamental assumption that writing research grants is my responsibility in the laboratory. This is very much shaped by the fact that my lab group is medium to small and it is possible for one person to handle the job. Get just slightly larger than my operation and there will be a need for the postdocs to contribute in a serious way and on a consistent basis. So the way I do things is not some sort of ethical prescription for PI / postdoc responsibilities.
The point is that I do not insist that trainees get involved in the grant writing process beyond, of course, dressing up their own data as needed. On the other hand, I certainly invite my trainees to be a part of the process and email them drafts as I am working. When I remember to do so :-).
In this I take a lead-to-water approach. I make opportunities available and am happy to follow up with additional instruction if the trainees is interested. It is very possible that this relatively hands-off style of mine does not work for all trainees, very likely it does not. However when it comes down to the grant writing in particular, I just don’t see this as something essential in the training experience as, say, learning to do science my way and above all else getting papers published. So I’m not going to push really hard.
There is also a degree to which I think there is an arc of training that changes across, for example, a three year postdoctoral stay. Early on the postdoc needs to be working on learning skills, the scientific background and getting a research project going. As time goes on it is important to broaden a little bit from the experimental perspective. This may be establishing collaborations, working on so-called side projects or supervising the efforts of technical staff or more-junior members of the home laboratory. Towards the end is where I see grant writing and the mechanics of running a lab really coming to the forefront (because it is assumed that the postdoc will have learned to keep the earlier stuff afloat and is ready to throw another ball into the routine).
Another twist, that precludes me asserting that I have a general plan, is the ebb and flow of grant success on specific projects in the laboratory. Sometimes it is going to be the case that the postdoc may be ready to shoulder some grant writing but whatever I need to be working on just isn’t in that person’s sphere / domain. Conversely, it may be the case that I really, really need input from a relatively junior person because I’m going hammer and tongs at an area that is right in this person’s bailiwick.
In practice this has ranged from a relatively senior person doing a great amount of writing on a grant I was preparing to some people who barely even read a full proposal I’ve written. The variance is just this large.
In terms of prescriptive advice? I think that PIs should always be willing to involve trainees in the grant writing if they are interested in learning about this part of the career. Always. To absolutely refuse to do so is dereliction. IMO. I also think that postdoctoral trainees should seek out the opportunity to help with preparing grant proposals. If asked to contribute they should view this as training, not as exploitation*. Yes, even when the contribution amounts to scientific ideas that some postdocs think of as “their own”.
bsci had another related question:

For that matter, I assume you’re not one of those PIs who treats all students as if they’re going into academia & those who don’t are considered failures. Anything you do to make sure that attitude doesn’t enter your group or to train people for other options?

Well, I don’t think everyone as if they are looking to fill my seat…but you’d have to ask one of my trainees. I can’t say I do anything specific other than to try and figure out with the trainee what their future job goals are. If they can give me some idea of what they are thinking then I can steer them toward the right people to help out. Connections are one thing your PI does have, because of friends and grad school peers and prior trainees. So this is one thing I do rather explicitly, i.e. to put them in touch with people who did not continue on the PI / professorial track.
There is a specific point here about learning to do grant writing, however. This is a job category in and of itself. There are many, many jobs which involve government contracting that require similar skills. This goes far beyond science and into everything from the manufacture of gignormous weapons systems to local non-profit social service and education. Contract research organizations that have to work out protocols with clients write agreements / proposals that look like grants in a lot of ways. Even within traditional academic science there has been an expansion of jobs which provide grant-writing support to laboratories. Check out VWXYNot and writedit for examples.
*I recognize there can be an imbalance in the trainee / PI relationship that does indeed amount to unjustified exploitation. It is just not nearly as common as the typical disgruntledoc would like to assert.

18 Responses to “Do you expose your trainees to the NIH Grant sausage making?”

  1. Sounds like your lab is a fucking sweatshop.


  2. 3rd year grad student’s perspective: My boss does the grant writing but I have contributed a figure or two to his RO1 application and reviewed earlier drafts of it. Also I receive nothing but encouragement or support when applying for fellowships from my PI. But as for any of the trainees writing a section of the RO1, over his fucking dead body. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go finish running a western and making 1000 pairs of Nike shoes so I can leave the sweatshop for a dinner break.


  3. Mxh Says:

    As a (recent) former grad student, I would agree with Genomic Repairman’s sentiment. I’ve created a few figures, maybe even written the drafts of a few paragraphs, and gotten to give some feedback on the final product, but it was all pretty much the PIs domain. Frankly, I don’t know if I wanted more work piled up (especially when I know he would change pretty much everything I write for the grant). Writing my own NRSA was a pretty good experience though.


  4. Carnival Says:

    “What DO you do to train your mentees for academia? ”
    One thing that institutions, professional societies, advocacy groups can do is to keep mentees away and alerted in the face of lecturers and mentors type Nemeroff and the likes.
    It is unbelievable that he has been in Study Sections few days ago and also (these days) he is a keynote speaker at the Pontevedra Inn Club for Continuing Medical Education.
    Does this guy understand what treatment, if not prevention, mean?. Is he aware that keeping himself away from the circulation for a while could be a dignifying option for him and his medical profession?


  5. qaz Says:

    There does seem to be a change between when I was a student and now. When I was a grad student, I didn’t realize my advisor was unfunded until almost my 5th year. (I was on various training grants and NSF fellowships and the like.) But in our graduate program here at BigStateResearchU, all of our graduate students write NRSAs as part of their prelim sequence. Many of the NRSAs get submitted (and a lot get funded). That may be a difference in fields or it may be a difference in school culture or (I think most likely) it may be a difference in era (now vs. that long ago golden age when funding was easy and men were real men, women were real women, and little fuzzy creatures from alpha centauri were real little fuzzy creatures from alpha centauri…).
    In terms of training students to write grants, my students know when I’m working on what. (I report to the weekly lab meeting just like everyone else.) I also talk to them extensively during the process (getting data, checking phrases, etc.), but I don’t insist they do any writing. On the other hand, there are a lot of grad student and postdoc grant opportunities (NRSA, NSERC, HFSP, etc) and I encourage them to apply for such independent funding.


  6. GenPop Says:

    As a trainee who wants to make a career in academia, learning how to write a grant is a necessary skill. The best thing my advisor did as a post doc was let me work with him and others on grants. But, I’ve been able to apply those skills and get my own grants. It can be a fine line between training and exploitation, but if you are just starting out, learning grantwriting is a necessary skill and hats off to the PIs who let their trainees see how the sausage is made.


  7. The best thing my advisor did as a post doc was let me work with him and others on grants.
    Stockholm syndrome, dude. He was stealing your ideas and exploiting your labor.


  8. DK Says:

    The best thing my advisor did as a post doc was let me work with him and others on grants.
    He was stealing your ideas and exploiting your labor.

    You say it as if it is some sort of abnormal or reprehensible practice. Just about everything “advisers” do with regard to their “students” amounts to exploitation. That’s the nature of labor market. Government buys, workers sell, PI is a middlemen.


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    aren’t you just makng excuses for the evil Ponzi scheme of science?


  10. GMP Says:

    I don’t have NIH funding per se (hard STEM field) but I certainly think it’s a good idea to get the students (to a small degree) and postdocs (to a greater degree) involved in the grant writing process. Often, simply having them read through drafts helps them understand how to structure a grant, where the emphasis should be, how to avoid overpromising while avoiding underpromising, how to appropriately draft a budget… I think the involvement of trainees need not be excessive, especially if they are not interested in academia, but it’s really a good thing if the PI makes it clear to everyone that grant writing is an important skill and offers opportunities for deeper involvement to postdocs and really intetested students.


  11. GenPop Says:

    CP- Stockholm Syndrome might not be too far off but the KoolAid was just so damn tasty. But let’s get real, if you are starting out and trapped in a system in which you have no power and do not know how the system works, isn’t it a good idea to be friends with the Big Boys who hold the keys? And, if the slip up and just happen to leave those keys lying unattended, well… I admit I lost control of some good ideas but I learned from that and won’t repeat the experience. Just like when I presented some really cool unpublished cool data at a meeting and got scooped by another group. The diagnosis of Stockholm Syndrome is only realized if you perpetuate the exploitation when your in the power seat. And, I hope I can resist that temptation.


  12. bsci Says:

    Thanks for posting. I was away for a few days and just noticed this!
    I don’t get the ranting of Stockholm Syndrome regarding this post. Everything useful that is done in grad school benefits ones advisor. Some take advantage of this more than others and cross the line into serious abuse. The question is what the advisor gives back in return. One of the things to give back is training. If one leaves grad school or post doc comfortable with the mechanics of grant writing, that’s a very beneficial skill for many lines of work. The impetus for my original question is that no one usually talks about this part of training. What does the scientific world except from faculty in this regard? What is actually happening?
    As for my own training (not a PI yet), my grad advisor had almost everyone submit an NRSA application. I could have probably used a bit more feedback/mentorship along the way, but it was good enough to get the grant so I can’t complain. I never was part of the faculty process. Once, the whole lab was enlisted to help print and collate a very large grant application that was getting put together a bit too close to the deadline, but we never actually sat down and read it.


  13. DrugMonkey Says:

    no one usually talks about this part of training. What does the scientific world except from faculty in this regard?
    We do around my neck of the woods.


  14. bsci Says:

    I guess a better way of saying this is, if a faculty member is up for an evaluation does the quality and style of their career mentorship ever enter the picture? I know that grants & publications are key, but they at least pretend to care about teaching. Grad student/postdoc career mentorship isn’t even in the picture or is it simply assumed that if your students get grants and manage to stay employed your doing it right?


  15. DrugMonkey Says:

    In my experience, yes, the fact that you can recruit and train top quality postdocs/graduate students is a criterion of evaluation- tenure and Full is where it comes up, usually. In the latter case I imagine that it matters if postdocs have gone on to faculty appointments or not and where those appointments have been.
    Of course trainee success is a part of the picture.


  16. qaz Says:

    Bsci #14 – In some universities, a candidate going up for promotion (to tenure, to full, being re-appointed if on a non-tenure track) includes letters of support from students in their packet. (I wrote one for my advisor when I was a GS.) I don’t know if they got used or thrown away at that university (since I was a GS). Here, at my current university, we don’t have explicit letters, but the candidate’s ability to train students is very much of a point of discussion in tenure and full-professorship promotion discussions. (We’re a small enough department that everyone knows everyone and knows what is going on both good and bad.) In my experience, grad student training is much more important than teaching evaluations and is more akin to a third research arm (after grants and pubs) than to a teaching arm.
    For some grants (like NRSAs), a sponsor’s training history is one of the most crucial components of the discussion. If the study section doesn’t feel that the sponsor would give good training, that would pretty much sink an NRSA proposal.


  17. whimple Says:

    I guess a better way of saying this is, if a faculty member is up for an evaluation does the quality and style of their career mentorship ever enter the picture?
    Only in so far as that mentorship can be quantified in grant dollars and publications.


  18. bayma Says:

    PIs probably don’t elucidate the true nature of PI-ness to their minions because they need them in the lab doing experiments, thinking they’re training themselves to be future PI.


  19. […] you are a postdoc in a lab, part of what you are doing is servicing the grant game. Whether you realize this or not. You are going to be expected to work on topics related to the lab's current funding (in […]


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