[As part of our efforts to interact with Research Administration personnel across the country, BloggingORA will occasionally feature posts written by colleagues at other institutions. Our first Guest Blogger is Brigette Pfister, Director of Proposal Development at Virginia Commonwealth University.]
Following eight years in pre-award research administration, I recently made the switch to a role in proposal development. I didn’t anticipate just how steep a learning curve I faced, as I had thought the move to proposal development would be relatively easy. No more last minute deadlines! No more chasing signatures! How hard could it be?
I’ve heard the first year in proposal development described as equivalent to earning a Masters’ degree. Three months and several projects later, I’m a believer. Let’s compare, shall we?
As a pre-award administrator, a proposal went something like this:
I was notified of an upcoming submission 3-5 days before the deadline, if I was lucky. Sometimes it seemed more like 3-5 minutes. I spent most of my time checking math, dotting Is, and crossing Ts. I filled out forms. I educated the PI on allowability issues and university policy, knowing that we would have the exact same discussion next time.
As soon as I finished all the forms, the PI would call with budget changes.
I chased people all over campus to get signatures, and then sprinted back to my desk to push the Submit button at the last possible nanosecond. Occasionally, faculty behaved like large, temperamental children who needed guidance and sometimes discipline. At best, they just didn’t get it, and, at worst, they deliberately tried to sidestep the system. My colleagues and I were stressed and burned out, and the end of every day was like finishing a marathon in 90 degree heat. Faculty members lamented, “I don’t care about Cost Principles! I just want to do my research!”
In proposal development, a proposal goes more like this:
My PI needs to receive grants to earn tenure. She doesn’t know where to start, but she is passionate about her research. She is a superhero (minus the cape and spandex, thankfully) who is going to save the world; it’s great. The problem is that no one awards funds on what she focuses. When we finally find an opportunity, we realize that the deadline was last week, so we search some more. We spend eons building a team, holding meetings, and calling program officers before the whole thing falls apart.
We start over.
There are egos and expectations to manage, not to mention the fact that I know nothing about genetics. We write our proposals and we revise, until I can’t bear the thought of rejection (or having to read the thing again). We are inevitably late getting to sponsored programs, though we know better, because we want our proposal to be perfect. Then, just when we think we’re finished, OSP says “You can’t do that, it’ll have to come out,” usually referring to some element that the PI thinks is critical, and back to the drawing board we go!
After eight years, I get to see the process from the other side, and realize that both groups have the same question: “What is wrong with those people?”
The answer, of course, is nothing at all. It takes a dedicated team of very different kinds of people to make this whole grant thing work. If it weren’t for the sponsored programs types, we’d send out non-compliant proposals with wonky budgets and we’d never get funded. If it weren’t for the proposal development types, some faculty would never apply in the first place. And if it weren’t for faculty, there would be neither sponsored programs nor proposal development, not to mention the world-saving research we’re all working toward.
Ultimately, we need each other, as we’re all on the same team. On deadline day, though, it can be hard to tell.