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When It's Time

At the one-year anniversary in my research development position, I have been conducting an informal self-assessment. In this business, grant “wins” are the ultimate measure of success. So my thoughts initially spiraled around individual grant and contract submissions that I have led.

However, since it takes from 3 months to a year to know the outcome, I've also reflected intensively on other questions: “Was our grant development process optimal?”; “Did we miss any opportunities?”; "Was my effort spent effectively?" Yet these musings circle back to how our Center's team can improve upon individual submissions. I wonder if I am ignoring the signs of larger, even more valuable opportunities in favor of the daily “to-do” list. I must admit that my interest has always gone beyond the classic definition of the “win” in favor of building organizational capacity to attain grant awards and to effectively manage and conduct the awarded research projects.

In this self-reflection process, three critical observations floated to the top of my brainstorming soup. For each, I could capture a clear target initiative.

First, our core administrative team has been grappling with the share of our Center budget spent on graduate research assistants. Throughout the year, fellowship opportunities have been distributed on our Center listserv, and we have included this on the agenda of our group meetings. I had numerous meetings, discussions, and emails throughout the year with graduate students and their supervising senior scientists, but none led to applications. To increase the interest, as well as the ability of graduate students to identify appropriate opportunities and respond to them, more presentations, “how to” tools, and increased training of scientific staff will be needed to guide these students.

  • Initiative? Increase fellowship applications across the Center.
A second observation is that I spend a lot of time reviewing the scientists' monthly presentations for team meetings with our external partners that are held for contract work, as well as the quarterly reports. These involve multiple individual and group meetings and extensive version improvement that seem to always happen too close to the meeting date or report deadline. There's a need to develop the skills of the students, post-doctoral fellows, and senior staff in our Center. The ability to present data clearly and to communicate a research plan in oral or written form are urgently needed at the time we receive new contract bid offers and contract continuation opportunities.
  • Initiative? Develop a tier of contract-able researchers within each project team.
Finally, I noted that over the year I had been consulted by faculty, research advancement staff, and proposal developers from across the university for guidance on NIH proposals. This included pre-award staff trying to draft ancillary documents and budgets; proposal managers constructing the list of required elements; faculty constructing teams to develop content for multi-project proposals, and a Dean of Research trying to increase the share of NIH funding in the respective College. While I had answered these queries, provided templates and samples, or offered input on drafts of various proposal elements, more structured, cross campus training for distinct audiences might be more effective than such “one off” responses.
  • Initiative? Increase NIH agency knowledge across the university.
Don't ignore the signs. When you are spending an inordinate amount of time doing the same things one-on-one or repetitively with multiple project teams, create your own initiative. And along with it, your achievements are likely to go beyond the single grant or contract win.

When do you know it's time to carve out some time to focus your energy on organizational development for the betterment of the enterprise?

Michele Zacks is a research development professional that specializes in “grant readiness” in academia. Her “sweet spot” is focusing on strategies in the research enterprise that have impact at the college, school, or center level - and ripple institution wide.

GPCI Competencies: Knowledge of organizational development as it pertains to grant seeking; Knowledge of practices and services that raise the level of professionalism of grant developers.