Interview with Joseph McNicholas

Joseph McNicholas, M.B.A., Ph.D., Director of the Loyola Marymount Office for Research and Sponsored Projects, taught me a great deal about grant preparation while I worked under him. In this interview, he reveals important insights for faculty, staff, and graduate students interested in submitting grants at a predominantly undergraduate institution of higher education.

Dr. McNicholas has worked in research administration and development for fifteen years and regularly presents at national conferences on research administration at predominantly undergraduate institutions.  An active member of NCURA, he most recently he co-edited a volume for NCURA’s micrograph series titled “Establishing and managing an office of sponsored program at non-research intensive colleges and universities (3rd ed.)” 2014. 

Tell us about a grant submission early in your career

In one of my earliest grant submissions I learned a great deal about working with faculty on rhetorical issues.  It was a grant proposal from a biologist that was written in jargon unreadable to a non-expert. That particular grant was to the National Science Foundation and, while it could contain much technical material, it needed to have the ability to explain itself to a non-expert.  The proposal should have included a clear articulation of the broader impacts in addition to intellectual merit. It didn’t, and it was very difficult to persuade the faculty member that it needed to, because she was accustomed to writing for journals.

The instructions were clear -- those are tucked away towards the end of the RFP -- but the guidelines were only glancingly referenced by the PI. So the researcher just wrote what she knew how to write, and that was a journal article.  She wrote a good journal article, I suppose, but it didn’t get funded because it wasn’t persuasive in that way. So, that was one of my earliest eye-opening experiences of trying to persuade someone that they needed to be persuasive. 

What are the basic differences between a journal article and a proposal?

It’s that issue of persuasion. A journal article is usually designed to reveal the knowledge or explain the results of a research protocol and help advance either the methodology or the knowledge and understanding in the field. A grant proposal is designed to persuade a funding body that a particular channel of research is going to be productive, or informative. This is true for a research proposal. Then there are programmatic proposals where you explain a particular intervention and how that’s going to be helpful to the population. In both cases they need to be persuasive, and therefore, the arguments need to be grounded in the values of the funder, not the values of the proposer.

Grant writing is a rhetorical exercise, which is part of what attracted me personally to it. I studied and taught rhetoric at the University of Texas, Austin.  So grantwriting became a natural extension of my graduate preparation.

What advice do you have for a new grant seeker?

For a graduate student or young faculty member just getting started, my advice would be to start a file of grant ideas and save it as a document on your desktop with a quick paragraph on each idea, and just stockpile them. Whenever you think of an idea do a quick sketch of it.  Jot it down. Having such a file is helpful for when you actually find a funding opportunity: you can quickly refer to it. ‘What was that great idea I had last year? I had some insight for how I was going to teach, psychological methodology to undergraduate students, and here’s this grant about teaching,’ and ‘What was my perception there?’ Keep it like a journal, adding to it incrementally. You know how people keep a writing journal? That kind of thing for grants would be extremely helpful as a resource to yourself. It doesn’t take a huge investment of time at the outset. It takes just sketching your idea down. You can dive into it, or discard it as the funding opportunities and conversations with colleagues come up.

You may, at the outset, define yourself as a researcher, because you want to do research, but you may find something that’s fundable that comes out of your pedagogical interests, or that comes out of your potential to intervene and contribute to the broader community. I worked with a psychology professor who specialized in childhood development. That was her research area, childhood development, and she saw a contract from the local county to teach child development courses to the public. She took the chance – it was a little different from what she had anticipated doing, but she wound up really, very much, enjoying teaching the public about childhood development. It made her research and teaching much more immediately relevant. She didn’t get as removed from the needs of the general population. She understood the concerns that new parents might have, for example, in her community, which was very different from the community which she had originally come from. 

What about getting help with grant proposals?

If, as a new PI, you can recognize that there are administrators, faculty members, and staff members at your university who already know a great deal about how to submit a grant proposal, you’d be doing yourself a tremendous favor because you can allow them to do their jobs and help you. It’s understandable, I think, for all of us, when we’re new to a field, when we’re new to an area of activity, to want to know as much as we can. We want to learn as much as we can, and we can easily assume that if we don’t understand x, y or z, no one else understands it. That’s not usually the case with grants administration.

The Office for Research and Sponsored Projects, Corporate and Foundation Relations, the Development Office, whomever you work with at your college or university, will have experiences that will be helpful to you. You can allow them to help you build your budget, for example. You can allow your senior faculty members to make suggestions about the content of your grant proposal that might help you with the literature review. It might help you with understanding what has already been done at this university and you could build on that. Let senior members of your department guide you to more rewarding activities. So that would be some advice that I would have. That’s hard advice to follow because it involves trusting other people.

I can relate a story of how this can go wrong sometimes for a new investigator.  Recently we had a new faculty member who had just completed his Ph.D. and been hired in a tenure track position.  He had never applied for a grant through our university, though he had been awarded scholarships directly before.  He planned to submit a complex National Institutes of Health grant in partnership with a faculty member at a different school.  Well, he didn’t anticipate that there would be an internal review and routing process; the budget he “negotiated” didn’t include fringe benefits or indirect costs; and many other deviations from the norm.  In fact, he only reached out to us when he needed the tax ID number for the university.  And it was due next week, of course.

We assured him we would help him and we gave him an overview of the process, which had been designed to minimize the administrative burden to the faculty.  Unfortunately, the researcher didn’t take a learner’s approach; he took an defensive approach, firing off an angry letter to the chair, dean and provost about how our office was impeding research.  Of course, those are the exact people whose approval he needed to submit the proposal in the first place, and our office was busily advocating on his behalf, preparing the materials, and securing their signatures.  Fortunately, those folks understood that far from impeding research, we were supporting it, and that is a message that the researcher quickly received as well, in a mentorly kind of way from the dean.  We have since gone on to work very happily with this person, who is a great grant writer, and an award recipient now.

How to be Persistent – Your Way

The metaphors we choose say a lot about how we approach a problem. Persistence is important, and one metaphor for that is to be a bulldozer.  One way of being persistent, is to say to yourself, ‘I’m going to push through obstacles and move them back.’ It takes marshaling a lot of personal resources for some people. Some people just aren’t bulldozers, nor would they know how to stop someone bulldozing them, and that may be a problem for them.

Other people are persistent like a bumblebee is persistent. Bumbling here, bumbling there, bumbling all around, and being very successful at gathering pollen. Think of a senior administrator that seems to do little but drink coffee and chat with people.  That person knows a little about everything, and that’s a great resource.

Others might be like a monkey that climbs up every tree, looking, asking for help. We have a faculty member that works like this.  He goes up one branch of the university such as the dean’s office, grabs an answer, doesn’t like it, and goes over to the next branch such as the finance office, for a different answer.  Every branch will be climbed until he either hears the answer he wants or learns that all the answers taste about the same.  It is easy for administrators to get frustrated with being “second guessed”, but we shouldn’t.  This way of searching for information has its place, too, because it’s thorough.

There are many different ways of being metaphorically persistent. There’s the old “touch, go away; then come back again.” Touch, go away, then come back again.  There are people like that. They’ve never pushed anything forward, or pushed anything out of the way. They might be waiting for things to happen naturally.  They are waiting for a policy to change, for a funding agency to announce an initiative, for a chair’s term to end.  But they are on the lookout, seeking a path forward by going around, under, through, over… and they can succeed as well.

One PI told me that he had worked with an administrator once who was just such an obstacle, he had dug way down, and was a massive obstacle. He could not be bulldozed out of the way, could not be pushed, had been there for 20, 30 years, and he wasn’t going anywhere. And if he wanted to block a path administratively, that’s what he would do. So this PI, he worked at working around, building other paths to go elsewhere and that was part of how he had to work. It’s one of the qualities of a person who is resourceful. Be resourceful, literally: figure out what you need to do to get the resources you need to do your work, within the institutional process, of course.

Of course, the best starting position is to assume that others are there to help you, and that, once they know what you are trying to accomplish, they will help you. 

Is it a good idea to re-submit a grant proposal?

If you submit a grant which is declined, and then never submit a grant again you are not being resourceful. That’s failure to learn. A new faculty member or staff member can expect to be funded 10-30% of the time, which means, 3, 4, 5 grant submissions may have to be made. You may want to strategize carefully about that. You may want to approach it like, ‘Okay, where are the grants that only need 3 to 5 pages to get consideration?’ ‘Where are the grants that can get me some summer funds, or some library or travel funds?’ Some of those sources of funding will come from your professional organization; they might come from private foundations in your region. They might be subcontracts on other people’s grants, so that’s a great way to learn in a low stakes manner.  You don’t have to struggle for months to write a 15-page, thoroughly footnoted proposal. You can bang out some short ones quickly, and you can bang them out again for resubmission.

What’s the role of leadership in grant getting?

Recognizing that getting a grant is not an individual pursuit is extremely important. Maybe some of those travel grants, maybe some of those summer stipend grants are individual pursuits, but grants are mostly a team effort. And if new PIs are going to be successful they are going to need to build networks, they are going to need to know people. Additionally, to get a $5 million grant means you’re paying a lot of other people to do something on the project. It means that those people (and you) know what work needs to get done. You have a way of structuring all that work and all those relationships and all those tasks to get the work done. It’s important to be building those connections.

Management skills are important too. Yeah, PIs are going to manage graduate students and potentially undergraduate students; they may manage post-docs. They may manage subcontractors at other universities who have a different budgeting system and a different business process. They may manage private companies or firms that do some of the work, collect some of the data, or install some of the equipment. They, themselves, will have their own internal business systems that they need to build.

I remember the story of a political scientist at another university who ran into a management problem, and apparently this was because there was an inconsistency in the way the graduate students marked texts for citation. The thing was, that her entire team of graduate students, every single one, needed to have one method of doing the marking – of doing the work that they were doing. They had to be consistent. It was the professor’s job to provide that work process and to ensure its integrity.  She didn’t do it. She ran into real management challenges, and in the end she was accused of plagiarism.

That’s an extreme example, but if you don’t rise to the management challenge, there can be many sorts of ramifications: it’s not so much that you’re not a successful PI, but you won’t be able to get those larger grants. Or, if you get a larger grant, you risk defaulting on it.

And so, to approach grants, a new PI should know it is not just about getting more money.  It’s building the capacities and skills it takes to be worth more money to a funder, to be of greater value to a funder. That’s part of your challenge, if you want to go that way. At a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI) there are some who will be content getting a course release and some summer money, and that level of support will meet their research needs. In fact, that may describe a successful PI at a PUI. At a research institution that might not be enough.

Why Do Universities Encourage Grant Writing?

Part of what a university is attempting to do is ensure the generation, dissemination, and quality control around new knowledge. And part of the monies that a university derives to generate, disseminate, and control the quality of new knowledge comes from tuition. But we’re fortunate enough that we work in an environment and culture where there are other sources of funding that can help people pursue those goals. 

Supporting faculty getting grants is a way that the university supports faculty making new discoveries, integrating those discoveries, disseminating those discoveries, applying those discoveries. That is part of what a university is trying to create: an environment in which all of those things happen. And it can’t do it all from its own pocket, but it can do it all by helping faculty get into other resources outside the university. In addition, those very sources of funding are usually structured to ensure peer review. So that a faculty members’ work is vetted by peer-reviewed publications system, but prior to even getting there, it can be vetted by a peer-reviewed funding system. Federal and private research grants are usually designed that way.  Then there are all the political processes that are sometimes brought to bear as well, but the main game is peer-reviewed funding. It’s a tremendously important and valuable mechanism that our whole society has for supporting this kind of work.

Do Principal Investigators ever have trouble spending grants out?

It may surprise some of your readers to think that one of the problems that we face is not spending the grant out. That’s usually the furthest thing from the mind of people applying for grants. It’s not frequent, but it’s a common enough occurrence. The problem that you encounter in trying to administer the grant is that you can’t spend the funds the way you anticipated, or that the people you planned to hire are not available, or that the population you intended to serve never really manifests itself, or any number of potential problems can come up. Now, staying in touch with your program officer and your university staff is key in that process because the earlier you let these people know that there may a problem, the wider the degree of latitude you have in addressing the problem. Because you can say, ‘Okay, if we can’t get access to that population; let’s expand the population definition out further so we can get a broader population.’ Or if you can’t get access to one piece of equipment, maybe you can get access to another machine that is somehow useful in the project, or maybe you can redefine the research question. There are any number of things you can do, but if you wait until the grant is over, then you’ve let all of those options pass without seizing any of them.

There is, for the NSF, a built-in no-cost extension period for one year for most grants, and that recognizes the fact that reality is more complex than a scheme drawn on paper. And so people are given a little more time to wrap up what they propose to do.

Now, in terms of what happens if you actually do default, or if you actually don’t spend the money, there’s a whole range of possible outcomes. The funding agency can put you on a watch list or a high-risk list to identify, not you as a PI, but your whole institution, as a potentially risky grant investment, which could have repercussions not just for you, but for your whole university. That’s major, and that’s a situation where you’ve created a lot of problems for a lot of people.  The sanctions could include a change in the way that money is made available to a university, it could include a reduction of the availability of funds to your university, it could mean the next payments on certain grants will not be made to your university until accounting procedures are put in place, or oversight procedures are put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again. There are a series of sanctions of increasing levels of severity that would come into play. So, as a PI it’s important to work with your team so that you don’t create problems that you may not foresee.

One reason people may not foresee spending out the grant as a problem is they figure, ‘Well, if I don’t spend money then I didn’t spend the money, and the agency can have it back and that’s no big deal, right? Everyone likes getting money back.’  The fact is the agency does not want the money back. The agency has already budgeted for this money to go out. Next year when they go back to Congress, or back to whomever makes budgeting decisions, to request more funds, they like to show that the money they spent is spent. It’s done. They don’t want it coming back in the door because it undercuts their ability to expand their programs. Also, if they knew you weren’t going to spend $100,000, or whatever the amount is, they could have awarded the funds to another project. So, you put the agency at a double loss. On the one hand, they could have done something more useful, and on the other hand, they may be not able to do something in the next funding period.  So it’s important to stay in touch with those folks and figure out a way to work that out.

Are the interest of the grant writer and the funder always aligned?

Ideally, when you’re writing a grant you’re taking your own interests, as the PI, and aligning them to the interests of the department of the university, and aligning those with the interests of the funder. However, you can see that at any point in there, there are possibilities of getting interests skewed with one another. So the PI can be doing something that’s against the interests of the university, but in the interests of the funder.  Or the PI could be asked to do something that’s against his or her own interest, but in the interests of the chair or dean. Anywhere along the way these things can get out of synch with each other. So ideally, a PI and a good research administrator are able to help bring all those constituents into alignment with one another. Sometimes that means uncovering hidden value within a project that might not be immediately apparent to the dean or to PI even, or to the funder. Right? Often the PI does not actually think about what the impact of the project might be on the community. They might miss that. At the university, a PI who writes a grant does it because she’s interested in it, and that’s great.  There may be other ways that a project is helpful, however, and it’s important to help the funder see that.

What Role Does the Research Administrator Fill for the PI at Your University?

We have research administrators working on both the pre- and post-award levels, and a truly excellent team, by the way.  We do a lot of problem-solving.  Some of those problems are related to people, some are related to business processes, some to other agencies.  There’s a number of possible sources of problems.  And by “problem,” I mean anything that slows and stops the ability of faculty and staff to bring in external funding to get their work done.  An optimist might say we are involved in TQM (Total Quality Management), always seeking to improve our services.  That’s a fair way to phrase it.

Some “problems” aren’t really solvable.  Some faculty and administrators at a predominantly undergraduate institution are going to value teaching well more than publishing in journals, and vice versa.  That will be a debate that continues, and the very process of discussing the issue brings a value to the university.  As a research administrator at a non-research intensive university, my role is to create a safe, welcoming and supportive space for all faculty and staff, to help them get the resources they need to do their jobs, and to help them administer those resources well once they have them.