How I Got a Grant I Never Thought I Could Get

I had to step beyond the obvious and do more, says Matthew J. Wright, who offers advice for other scholars seeking funding.

May 20, 2019
 
 
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Last year, I somehow convinced the National Science Foundation to fund my research project. When I heard the news, I was so happy I ran into my friend’s classroom, yelling incoherently and jumping up and down.

After the excitement subsided, I began to think about how I approached the grant process. I had read a number of obvious things before, like editing your grant proposal until it is perfect, and networking thoroughly. But as a professor working primarily with undergraduate physics students, I had to step beyond the obvious and do more. Here’s what worked for me:

Keep your goals small and reasonable. You must believe that you and your team can do the proposed project. Design a project that can reasonably fit into the requested time and resources. While your instinct may be to make your NSF-funded project as complex as possible, you should focus on short-term goals that can be achieved within the desired budget. Share long-term aspirational goals -- I certainly did -- but don’t let them become the focus of your project request.

Don’t compete where you can’t win. At science conferences, the talk is usually about the exciting areas of science that are most likely going to attract grant money at any given time. Elite Research-1 institutions will need to chase those big goals. If you are at a smaller institution or working with undergraduates, you and your team are going to be less successful if you try to compete directly with those elite university teams. So don’t. Pick something that you really care about, even if it is not a sexy topic, and pursue that topic with gusto.

I always joke with people that our lab is the only one in the world that cares about light-assisted collisions with frequency-chirped lasers. While that is not strictly true, it is true that this focus means we do not directly compete with any other institution. We define our own success -- and that’s powerful.

Design your projects to optimize publication. I once told a junior faculty member, “If you turn on the lights, publish it.” While meant as a joke, we can all be more strategic about how we approach projects. Plan small projects that will lead to small publications that are core to your central project.

Work on the easy projects first. This may be counterintuitive to how most postdocs and young faculty members think. In atomic, molecular and optical physics, a researcher is probably going to focus on building the core experiment first. But unless you are doing something novel, it is going to be difficult, take a long time to complete and will not likely generate publications.

For example, I started working with my probe laser first. It was easier, more exciting for the students and led to some quite successfully placed and interesting publications. This helped us build the core of the experiment slowly but confidently.

Don’t let comments crush you. Prepare to be rejected. A lot. I certainly was. But there is a bright side to rejections: you often get back thoughtful comments. While I admit reading the comments of an unfunded grant can be a bit discouraging, if you address them as helpful rather than hurtful, those comments will help you strengthen future applications. Use them and reapply smarter.

Show broad impact and greater good. In 2016, I heard Persis Drell, provost of Stanford University, former dean of the Stanford University School of Engineering and former director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, speak at an undergraduate physics conference. She noted that engineers more often “get the people side of the equation right.”

In your grant application, be sure to get the people side right. Give back to the community and mean it. As someone who is applying for a grant, you probably are in a position to be a community leader. Donate some of your time to help middle school children with their robotics club, bring high school students into your research team, lead one of your university’s science clubs or lead a major campus activity. As you take on community-based responsibilities, the broader impact of your research will be easier to write, because you will be inherently more deeply connected to your community.

Writing grants stinks. It’s hard work and always includes rejection. But when you win, it’s transformative. Along with the ability to complete my research on Atomic Physics With Rapidly Frequency Chirped Laser Light, award #1803837, I can now also take most of my undergraduate research team to the American Physical Society meeting in March -- a career-shaping moment made possible by an NSF grant I never thought I could win.

Bio

Matthew J. Wright is department chair and associate professor of physics at Adelphi University in New York.

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