Thursday, November 28, 2013

How to start a "grant club"

Starting a lab is sometimes a lonely pursuit. You are now in charge of everything and must have the final say on papers and grants that go out. While it may have been like this even before your transition, now your grants do not benefit from the shelter of your mentor's name and the success of your new lab depends on them.

Finding good readers becomes really important, because you need people who may not fully understand your field to take a serious look to your proposal and give you feedback. The more detailed and honest it is, the better. While senior investigators with experience in obtaining NIH funding will help, sometimes they have time only for a passing look and you are still wondering whether there is something you should change. Since there are eight of us who were hired in the past few years, we organized and started a monthly "grant club", where someone submits their latest effort for slaughter. R01 aims or full proposals, foundation grants or career award applications are sent out to everyone and dissected over pizza and beers. After 6 months everyone seems to really like it, in particular the fact that we all provide a lovingly brutal sounding board to test ideas. Now we started adopting stragglers from other departments, who have an interest in neuroscience.

The recipe is simple, 1) make a Doodle and find a day when most people can come, 2) the host/grant writer sends out their draft a few days before, 3) the host gets pizza/beer or fancier fare and other people can chip in (Girls, if I guy is hosting, remember the fruit and cookies...), 4) to break the ice you can ask for advice on how to get students or can just start complaining about things you would like to change in your institution, 5) discuss the grant. Do the aims weave a good story? Is the questions asked approaching a fundamental mechanism? Can you even tell what the fundamental mechanism studied is?   Is it too much work? Too little work? Is it cohesive? If Aim 1 doesn't work, will everything fall apart? and so forth and so on. Be nice and honest, but more importantly try and be helpful.

Which brings me to a sticky issue, be mindful of the purpose of these meetings to find the right mix of colleagues. As far as I can tell, we all really care about each other's success and we all enjoy discussing each other's science. Many of us don't have a chance to talk apart from this monthly occasion and it is great to bring everyone together. You may already have a wonderful group of colleagues that have offices right next to yours and that you meet often for coffee. Or you are in a small place where there are only a couple new hires or in a big place where everyone is competing and spying on everybody else. Then I would say, propose an online grant club with friends at other universities or meet with people at other local institutions. It makes such an enormous difference to have a cohort to lean on and if you have no grants coming up, meet anyways to talk about science, lab management or
which grants people have applied to.

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