Grant Writing- No Map and No Compass

If your grant-writing experience in graduate school paralleled mine, then you probably earned your degree with no idea how to go about tackling external funding. Although some of my grad school friends worked in labs that regularly wrote NIH grants, the lab I belonged to was quite grant-free.
When I arrived at my tenure-track job bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I had absolutely no aspirations for grant work. The entire world of NSF, NIH, and others just seemed out of reach, mysterious, and downright scary. But then, in my first semester, a funny thing happened. I learned that my university provided competitive internal grant opportunities designed to serve as seed money for faculty research projects. With the full expectation of not being funded, I wrote up a 10-page proposal for a diversity course effectiveness study I was planning for the next semester. Much to my surprise (seriously, extreme surprise), I was awarded one of those internal grants to get started.

Of course I am not writing about this to chronicle my internal grant efforts. When I began thinking about some of the challenges early career SPSSI scholars face, the pursuit of grants must be one of the greatest unknowns we will encounter. Those of us in the academic realm face the confusion associated with exactly how grants fit into the promotion and tenure package. Do I have to pull in external grants in order to get tenure? Is it optional? No one knows!! Early career scholars in professional settings outside academia may feel grant pressure to secure their future employment. And that is even more stressful. The question for me is- where do we get the training for this?

For me, having some success with internal grants gave me the confidence to pursue my first external grant with NSF. I am still working on finding external grant success, but getting through the first submission made it easy for me to consider future NSF grant proposals. My advice to early career scholars is to check into possible internal grant opportunities. Not only will it give you some grant-writing experience, but it will also help you collect the necessary pilot data for your external grant. Even better- get to know the friendly people in your local Office of Sponsored Programs (or some other title for the research office). You might be surprised by all of the grant allies you will find hiding there!! During my own feeble attempt at NSF funding, I learned that there are people on campus that understand the federal grant application process who could support me through each hair-pulling stage. They already understood the NSF language, the forms, how to upload everything properly, and how to handle the budget request.

Considering my grant-writing experience at this point is still probably less than many graduate students, my main hope is that this blog post will inspire much discussion of your ideas about finding grant sources, making time to write the grant proposal, tricks and tips, or advice for early career grant-writing. While waiting for your comments, I will re-read my NSF reviews and hope that I have better luck next time!

[Note: This post was originally contributed as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Early Career Committee 2009 blog.]