For many of us, the getting of grants is the one thing expected of us in order to get tenured, promoted, and recognized.
Yet this function that is at the very heart of expectations for us, is one for which:
- The odds of success are remote. Not quite as remote as being struck by lightning, but almost.
- The actual training provided in this vital skill is minimal. We’re expected to be like “concert pianists” in grant writing, and somehow a few occasional seminars here and there are supposed to be enough for this. Could you learn to play concert piano by going to a few half-day seminars per year? The notion is entirely silly that a deep skill like playing piano can be gained through a few occasional seminars. Writing great grants is no less complex than playing great piano.
In this post, I’ll tell you how I discovered exactly what my administrators wanted from me (and it wasn’t what I thought I was hired for), why this viewpoint has become endemic in the academic culture, and five things you can do about it.
Some crazy deans and chairs (fortunately, not all of them are crazy…)
I’ve heard more than once that certain chairpersons think that proficiency at getting grants is a sign of scientific merit, and that if you can’t get grants, you obviously don’t have any merit. They somehow seem to think that, even if you haven’t had much training, you should simply figure it out by osmosis, and if your brain is not “osmotic” enough, you are clearly deficient and shouldn’t be hired or tenured.
Worse still, the people who suffer the most from this situation are women, minorities, and those at smaller universities with less support. This is not universal – certainly I’ve met some males at large universities who suffer from this as well. But when the odds of funding are so low right now that what differentiates a funded grant from an unfunded proposal can often be a minor “little” thing like whether the name of the PI is Susan versus Steve.
Do the impossible!
I know of more than one small university that expects its faculty to get just as many grants funded as for the big universities – often while teaching a full load of three or more courses per year. With no resources, no support, no network of colleagues, nothing but sheer will, grit, and determination.
Grit and determination do carry you far in life. But they don’t make up for a complete lack of support, of mentoring, of an attitude that faculty can be forever squeezed to produce more with less that seems to plague most university administrations.
Squeezing a dry sponge
I like the analogy of the sponge that’s full of water. You can squeeze that sponge many times, each time getting a few more drops of water out. But eventually there’s no more water – no matter how hard you squeeze.
Many of us are at that point now (or beyond it). We’ve been squeezed dry. We have nothing left. We just can’t keep producing more with less, no matter how much pressure is applied by thirsty administrators.
When I was faculty at a “brand name” university, the dean once came before our faculty, explaining that the university hospital was bleeding money from unpaid bills. He then went on to explain that we faculty – who were bringing in lots of grants – were the “bright spot” because we helped balance the books.
I’m not here to do science. I’m here to raise funds.
I had an “aha” moment at that meeting. I realized that from their perspective, I wasn’t really there to do science. I was there to raise funds that could be used for stuff like balancing the books on unpaid hospital bills.
That’s not all bad – it was a relationship of mutual convenience. They gave me a place to work and to do science, and I brought them in (lots) of money.
A strictly one-sided relationship
But the problem is, they didn’t see it as a two-sided relationship. No, to them it was strictly unilateral. I was bringing in $1M/year in grants, and my lab was an old, 1,200 sq ft, dilapidated and cockroach infested space that didn’t even have a window I could look out of. For the ~$430,000 worth of overhead money I was bringing in each year, they could have done a little better than that. But they didn’t. They felt that they could get away without doing that. Stupid.
I had the last laugh when I resigned unexpectedly and took all that overhead with me.
It became clear to me that they were only looking out for one thing: how could they get me to bring in more money, without any additional investment in me or my lab’s happiness or well being?
After I resigned my tenured job and changed universities, I saw exactly that same attitude play out. The first year I was there, I brought in over $1M in grant funding (and, again, ~$400k in overhead). In return, I had 800 sq ft of office space, and that’s it. There were promises of building me a lab – but after two years it hadn’t materialized. I was expected to bring in more grants with almost no startup funds, with very little space, ancient/outdated computer equipment, restrictions on new equipment purchase, and a very weighty bureaucracy.
The one-sidedness was not unique to the university I had left. It’s endemic.
I’m not trying to play a victim here. I’m not unique or being singled out. I’m not the only faculty at these two universities who was treated this way. It is the norm. I talk to clients all the time going through the same kind of bullshit. They are expected to “make do” with ancient equipment, dilapidated (or absent) space, glacial bureaucracy, and no mentoring.
As a result, many universities have become God-awfully dysfunctional places, where the expectations are extremely high and the support and training is extremely low.
Even weirder, I’ve talked to some faculty who are perfectly content with the situation. They will offer up excuses for their universities, as if this is the best the university could do. Is this the victim making excuses for the perpetrator?
It is not the best a university can do. There’s been plenty of academic study on what differentiates positive, growing, successful organizations from negative, dysfunctional, and failing organizations (or soon-to-fail organizations). A lot of it is the culture.
Is the culture supportive?
Does it see the relationship as a two-sided one of mutual support and interest, or as a one-sided affair of “let me squeeze you evermore until there’s nothing left?”
Is it a culture of investing in employee development and happiness, so that the employees bring a great attitude and ever improving skills to the job, or is it a culture that expects people to “go it alone?”
It is telling. I have quite a few clients who pay me out of their own pockets for their skills development in grant writing. It is almost a crime that their universities aren’t paying for this kind of skills development. This development leads to two essential things: 1) improved abilities to bring in grants, which will pay the university back manyfold; and 2) improved happiness and career satisfaction, which improves the functioning of the entire organization.
Yet I’ve heard about many administrators who say something like, “I don’t have the money for that!” or “You can figure it out on your own, you don’t need to pay for that!”
Have these administrators forgotten their basic math? Have they never heard of “return on investment?” A single extra R01 will bring ~$300-500k of overhead to a university. That’s a mighty big return. But universities think they can do that by just a carrot-and-stick approach – reward and punishment. Without training. Without development. Without investment.
That’s just one small example of the much larger problem: an attitude of squeezing blood from stones (as one of my colleagues frequently says).
It’s time for faculty to call this BS for what it is. It’s time for faculty to push back. It’s time for faculty to tell administrators that they’re full of crap when they ask for more, without support.
One lone voice in the wilderness isn’t going to make any difference. But lots of voices, raised in a chorus against the insanity, will create momentum, and will create change.
Here are some ideas:
- When you’re asked to do more things without more resources or pay, simply respond by asking: “ok, sure, but what do you want me to drop, since I’m already overloaded?” Do this with no hesitation in your voice, do this with firmness of will. Otherwise you might get drawn into a debate about it, and that’s the last thing you want.
- When you’re asked to get grants without support, resources, teaching release, or space, tell them: sorry – that’s a waste of time, until I have proper support to make it happen. Reviewers will likely see through the charade, anyway. Let’s not waste time on something that has no better odds than a lottery. If you want me to write grants, then invest in the support, resources, and space that it takes to do so.
- Join together with your colleagues in standing up against the madness. Machiavellian administrators understand that the best approach to get more with less is to divide and conquer – pitting one faculty against the next – creating an environment of fear and paranoia so that nobody will stand together. Don’t fall for that. Your colleagues are in the same boat, and you have more to gain by working together than you have to gain by being paranoid.
- Refuse to work all the time (more than 50 hours per week!) Somehow, many faculty have gotten the idea that working all the time will offset the madness. But this kind of martyrdom is silly. Multiple studies have proven that if you work too much and take too few breaks, you become far less productive, far less clear, and way more likely to suffer from health and/or mental problems.
- Understand that if you do work all the time and/or fall prey to the fear, you will be unable to gain clarity. Lack of clarity is the #1 problem that every single one of my grant writing clients face. To get clarity, you must be relaxed, rested, and in the flow. Most universities are set up for the opposite of relaxed flow. But don’t let them deceive you. It is the only way to true success.
We’ve gotten ourselves in a bind, and just putting the blinders on isn’t going to get us out of it. If nothing else, I do hope that this message will stir some ideas, some inspiration to not accept the status quo. The current status quo sucks. We all deserve far better.
Morgan Giddings, PhD
Former associate professor, UNC Chapel Hill
Former professor, Boise State University
Bestselling author, Four Steps to Funding