Lunch and Learn: Postdoc Fellowships & Grants

Date: March 15, 2016

Invited Speakers:

  • Misty Hitesman, Sponsored Projects Officer, Office of Sponsored Projects
  • Peter Kraus, Associate Librarian, Marriott Library, University of Utah
  • Gary Schoenwolf, Distinguished Professor & Experienced Grant Writer
  • Karl Haase, Faculty Writing Fellow, University Writing Center
  • Justin Whitney, Faculty Writing Fellow, University Writing Center

Summary: From applying for a grant to receiving funding, there is a lot to consider.  Our panelists provided expert advice that is useful to everyone from a postdoc submitting his or her first fellowship to a seasoned grant writer.  Highlights from the discussion are summarized below:

What should I know as a postdoc before applying for a fellowship or grant?

  • Being awarded a fellowship or grant can have administrative ramifications that affect your salary, benefits, and taxes.  Work to understand these administrative aspects before you apply. They will vary based on the grant you are submitting and your individual circumstances (e.g., visa status, institutional salary, etc.).
  • Negotiate your salary with your PI before submitting a grant. Some postdoctoral fellowships can seem like they require a reduction in salary.  For example, NIH sets a maximum salary level that can be paid from NRSA award each year. However, PI’s may have some flexibility to provide you with a salary supplement, so that your total salary remains unchanged.
  • Talk to your colleagues.  Individuals that have successfully applied for the funding are often willing to share their documents or provide advice on how to complete the application process smoothly.

What advice do you have for a postdoc who doesn’t have much experience submitting grants?

    • Start early.  Get feedback early. Get feedback from experts inside and outside your field.
    • Don’t let fear hold you back.  You can only succeed at getting funding if you apply.
    • Read the announcement. It is important that you understand the components of the proposal that need to be completed. Grants can be rejected for mundane details, such as ignoring the page limits or formatting requirements.
  • Communicate to your PI and make sure they help you identify everyone that should know about your planned grant submission.  For example, the Office of Sponsored Projects needs to be informed of all applications for extramural funding. Additionally, your department may have staff that assist with budgets and grant administration. The earlier you inform these people that you are applying, the more help they can provide.
  • Realize that the University of Utah may have an internal administrative deadline that is earlier than the funding agency’s deadline.  For example, most grants must be submitted to the Office of Sponsored Projects 5 business days in advance of the funding agency’s deadline.
  • Think about whether you are applying for the appropriate funding opportunity at the appropriate time.  This decision matrix (OSP Sheet) can assist you with evaluating whether you should be developing a grant idea.

What advice do you have on grant writing?

  • There is an art to grant writing that you will learn from practice.
  • Scientific writing, and particularly grant writing, puts a lot of responsibility on the grant writer.  As the grant writer, it is your responsibility to make your arguments clear. Leave little to no room for the audience to interpret your message incorrectly. Grants should have clear logic and structure.
  • Know your audience. NIH and NSF grants are read by experts in your field. In contrast, grants for many private foundations are read by well-educated lay people.  It is important to adapt your writing to communicate with and be understood by the audience that will be reading your grant.
  • Grants are not just about science.  You are marketing your ideas.  Be compelling.  Communicate clearly. Sell your science and sell yourself.  Convey that you are the best person to complete your proposed research project.

What should postdocs understand about grant budgets?

  • Use your department, college, and university resources.  Most departments have individuals that are trained to develop and manage grant budgets.
  • Each fellowship or grant will have specific budget requirements.  It is important to understand the budget requirements for the specific application you are submitting.
  • Consider keeping a record of your research costs. This record can help you understand how much money is needed to conduct your research and can assist you in putting together a grant budget.

Are there specific funding opportunities that I should know about as a postdoc?

    • Funding opportunities vary widely by field. Realize you can get funding from federal agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF) as well as private foundations.
    • Some private foundations have restrictions regarding how to communicate with them.  Work with your PI and appropriate administrators when you communicate with foundations.
    • If you plan to pursue an academic career, it can be beneficial to target funding opportunities that allow you to keep the funding as you transition to an faculty position. The most widely known program that provides this type of funding is NIH’s Career Development (K) Awards.  Some private foundations also allow postdocs to keep funding during a career transition.  Foundations are often more flexible about their funding rules, so communicate with the foundation if you find yourself transitioning to a new position before your foundation fellowship is completed.   
  • NIH Loan Repayment Program – If you have student loans and work in the health sciences, you may be eligible for the NIH Loan Repayment Program.  This program provides funding to pay for your student loans.

As a postdoc, can I be a PI on a grant?

  • Postdocs are often listed as a PI on fellowship applications.  When applying for fellowships, however, your faculty mentor may be listed as PI on University of Utah files as an administrative convenience.  But, as a fellowship recipient, you are still the PI as defined by the funding agency.  If you find this confusing, work with your faculty mentor and OSP to understand if you can list yourself as PI on your C.V.
  • Postdocs can find themselves in situations where they are writing grants, but their faculty mentor is getting the credit.  Talk with your faculty mentor regarding whether there are opportunities for you to be listed as a PI or co-PI, instead of just key personnel.
  • University of Utah’s policies on who can be a PI on a grant can be found here. In general, PI’s must be university faculty, as defined here. However, departments may have the ability to provide you with the right administrative credentials to be listed as a PI.  Work with your faculty mentor and department to understand if this is possible, and whether there are ramifications in terms of your salary and benefits.

There seem to be a lot of grant specific terms.  What are some of the key terms I should know?

  • Fellowship vs. Grant vs. Proposal – Fellowships are funding opportunities for trainees (i.e., graduate students or postdocs).  These applications typically include a training plan, as the funding is meant to address a scientific question as well as provide training to launch your career as an independent researcher. In contrast, grants and proposals are general terms for funding opportunities. Note NIH typically uses the word grant, while NSF uses the term proposal. The requirements and eligibility for grants and proposals vary widely, so read the funding announcements carefully to understand if you can apply.
  • Intramural vs. Extramural – Intramural refers to funding from within the university, while extramural refers to funding from agencies other than the university.  A University of Utah Seed Grant is an example of intramural funding.  A grant from NIH, NSF, or a private foundation is an example of extramural funding.
  • Principal Investigator (PI), co-Principal Investigator (co-PI), Consultant, Sub-Contractor, Key Personnel – These terms refer to how an individual is recognized by a funded project. Not all funding opportunities allow individuals to be paid in all categories. See here (hyperlink to OSP sheet) for definitions of a consultant vs. sub-contractor vs. fee-for-service.
  • Direct vs. Indirect Costs  – The technicalities of direct and indirect costs are quite complicated.  A simplified way of thinking about it is the following: direct costs are the research costs (i.e., supply costs, salary support), while indirect costs are the administrative costs. The amount of money you pay in indirect costs is typically set by the university.
  • F&A, Overhead, Indirect Costs  – These are all synonyms for indirect costs. Note: F&A stands for Facilities and Administrative Costs.
  • Cayuse vs. Fastlane   – These are online systems to aid in the submission of grants. Cayuse can be accessed via the CIS and is used for the submission of most grants, including NIH grants.  Fastlane is used to prepare NSF proposals. Work with OSP to understand what system you should be using to submit your application.

What on-campus resources are available to assist postdocs with fellowships and grants?

  • University Writing Center – Postdocs are welcome to use the services of the University Writing Center. The Faculty Writing Fellows will work with postdocs to improve their grants, articles, and research reports.  Correspondence is via e-mail. Fellows can provide a valuable outside perspective to improve clarity, focus arguments, and organize ideas. This university service is free. Fellows can typically provide feedback in 3-5 days.
  • Office of Sponsored Projects (OSP) – OSP provides support to manage external funding for University activities.  All extramural grants are processed through OSP, and they provide assistance in understanding grant administration during the pre-award and post-award process. If you have grant administration questions, you should contact the Sponsored Projects Officer associated with your department. A staff directory for OSP can be found here.
  • Postdoc Grant Writing Workshop – Dr. Gary Schoenwolf will be offering a postdoc grant writing workshop in Fall 2016 focused on preparing NIH NRSA F32 applications.  Individuals interested in this workshop should contact Dr. Schoenwolf via e-mail at schoenwolf@neuro.utah.edu The workshop will be limited to approximately 10-15 individuals.
  • Foundation Fellowships – Peter Kraus is an Associate Librarian at the Marriott Library with extensive experience with foundation grants.  He is a great resource if you need assistance identifying appropriate foundation grants.  He is available for individual appointments and can be contacted via e-mail at peter.kraus@utah.edu
  • Research Administration Training Series (RATS)  – A variety of professional development workshops from grant writing to grant administration to project management are offered through RATS.  Postdocs are encouraged to attend any RATS workshop that is relevant to their individual needs and career stage.
  • Grant Writing Courses – The Department of Writing & Rhetoric Studies offers graduate-level courses in scientific writing, grant writing, and writing in the health sciences. Postdocs interested in these courses are encouraged to contact the course instructor and work with their PI in order to enroll.  Officially enrolling in coursework typically requires paying tuition. Talk with your PI regarding whether your department has ways to cover these tuition costs.

What other resources are available to assist postdocs with fellowships and grants?

  • There are a myriad of resources in the literature and online.  Talk to your colleagues to identify books and articles that are most useful to your field.
  • Realize that the websites of federal agencies and private foundations have a wealth of information.  Spend some time reading those websites as you complete your application.