I remember the day I received my first grant, funded by the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders—even though that day was almost 30 years ago. I was so excited; I made my research assistant dance a can-can with me. I would get release time from courses; I would be able to support more students; I could pay a statistical consultant; I could pay myself a summer salary; I would probably get a merit raise; and it would surely look good in my tenure file. Best of all, I would be seen by the leadership at my university as a truly valuable commodity—someone who could bring in those federal dollars along with their generous coverage of indirect costs that support not only my work and the work of the department, but that of the university as a whole. Yes, there are plenty of rewards associated with funded research and many very good reasons—both practical and vainglorious—for faculty to pursue these opportunities.
The Flip Side
But let me talk a little about the other side of the coin. A lot of what we used to call “paperwork” (though we no longer do most of it on paper) comes along with research funds. There are a variety of reports that need to be filed—some annually, some quarterly. For many kinds of research, the investigator will be required to bank the data in a federal repository for sharing with other researchers, and the format in which data must be saved and uploaded can be quite complex and time-consuming. The university will have to demonstrate compliance with a range of regulations about human subjects, drug policy, civil rights, smoke-free workplace policy. and many other factors. For faculty who work at a Research I university with strong infrastructure to support funded research, much of this “paperwork” is handled by the office of grants and contracts. At universities with less ongoing funded research, a great deal of faculty time will be consumed ensuring compliance with all of the regulations.
Current Funding Climate
Unfortunately, the pot of money available for federal funding has shrunk, making the chances of securing federal funds smaller than ever. When I was awarded that first grant 30 years ago, about 30% of submitted grants were funded. Today, the number is fewer than 10%. Moreover, it’s hard to obtain a grant if you’ve never had one—a sort of “Catch 22.” One of the criteria for obtaining a grant is demonstrating a track record of grant management and research productivity. Yet, it’s hard to demonstrate these skills if you haven’t secured funding in the past. So, what’s a beginning faculty to do to get started on a research career?
Some Solutions for Early-Career Faculty
There are several ways to address this problem. One is to team up with a more experienced researcher or research group and serve as an investigator, rather than as the principal investigator (PI), who usually designs the study, writes the grant, and manages the research. Many new faculty continue relationships with their dissertation advisors after securing a first position or join an ongoing project of another faculty member at a new institution. This approach takes advantage of the PI’s experience in obtaining grants and builds the new faculty’s track record of experience and productivity. The downside is that less of the funding will be available to you and, of course, you don’t get the glory of being the one who “brought in” the funds. But it’s an excellent way to begin a research career and learn from the masters who are successful in securing funding. I spent my first 4 post-PhD years as an investigator on a series of grants in my first job as a research associate in a Research I medical center. Although I did not submit a grant on my own during that time, I was often assigned to write sections of grants, gather information for required human subjects’ procedures and other regulatory material, and proofread the entire grant application. By the time I landed my first teaching job, I not only had some publications, but I was prepared to write my own grant, because I understood how the grant-writing process worked.
And this brings me to a second approach: doing a post-doctoral year or 2. Historically, most new PhDs in our discipline have not pursued post-docs. Given sizable faculty shortages in CSD, new PhDs can obtain faculty positions right out of grad school. But for faculty who are serious about a research career, a post-doc makes a lot of sense. Given the right setting, a post-doc experience offers mentoring about the research process itself, time to get your own line of research off the ground, and the preparation to become an independent researcher. It also provides experience with the many large and small details that successful grant submissions require. A third approach is to start small. Look for local foundations that provide modest levels of funding for scientists. These days, it is easy enough to find possible funding sources through online search engines. Small grant awards can provide needed start-up funds to get your research off the ground and support enough data collection to publish some findings and to reassure reviewers that your research is a safe investment.
Another way to start small is to launch your research program without funding. This strategy may not be as impossible as it sounds. Many students are eager for the opportunity to participate in research and willingly volunteer to help with data collection or other tasks. With proper training, they can test participants, learn about data analysis procedures, and be exposed to how data is interpreted in light of the study’s research questions. This will not only help you, but it will make them more scientific clinicians, even if they never intend to pursue research themselves. I completed my dissertation research this way. I recruited master’s students to collect data for my study, trained them on the procedures, invited them to periodic pizza and data-analysis parties, and kept in touch with them for many years. My dissertation was done on time and with no external funding, I made stronger connections than I would have otherwise with these master’s students, and they felt they had learned some useful skills in the process. It was definitely a win-win. You just have to have the courage to ask for help!
The other advantage of this last approach is that it allows you to get started right away carrying out your research. Demonstrating the feasibility of your methods and collecting some pilot data will increase your likelihood of securing funding in the future. Of course, we all seek the additional resources, as well as the validation and perks, that external funding provides. But even without funding, there are ways to pursue a meaningful and productive research agenda. Starting small is one way to set yourself on the path to a successful research career and eventual funding.