After hiring 11 new assistant professors in two years, the school of engineering at Southern Methodist University found itself with an unusual challenge: helping a score of junior scholars jump-start their research by attracting grant money.
Few graduate schools formally teach Ph.D.'s the art of grantsmanship; fewer still do so for their newly hired assistant professors. But the sluggish economy has made the hunt for corporate and federal research dollars even more competitive these days. That's why SMU's engineering school has created an unusual program to help all of its new faculty members learn the tricks of the trade.
In October, the school held a daylong seminar for its new junior scholars. They were asked to craft one-minute oral statements describing their research, and then they videotaped one another making the statements during mock interviews with an SMU administrator posing as a Washington insider. The exercise was intended to prepare them for a trip the group took in November to meet face to face with representatives of grant agencies in Washington.
Professors have to be able to make their pitch quickly and succinctly, says Geoffrey Orsak, associate dean of the engineering school. When a professor meets with a grant agent, he says, that official "decides within the first minute whether to carry that conversation to the full 30 minutes. It's important that both people think they're going to get value out of this conversation."
The workshop was the brainchild of Mr. Orsak, who lived in Washington for 10 years while he taught at George Mason University. At the time, he had a lot of young faculty friends in science, engineering, and health-related fields who would travel to Washington on their own to meet with federal agencies -- something he considers "a rite of passage" for those in the profession.
"They would come by themselves and spend 90 percent of the time with me and 10 percent doing good solid business," he says. Young researchers "are in general ill-equipped to take advantage of the Washington environment. We wanted to make sure our folks who come here are well-prepared."
Start-up packages for the 11 faculty members cost SMU a total of about $1.13-million, and it would like to see that investment pay off. So, the engineering school asked each of the new hires to develop an analysis of how much money they would need annually for research in the years ahead, the number of laboratory assistants they would require, and the number of papers they hoped to publish. "Having the plan allows them to have an academic milestone, not just an abstract six-year target of getting tenure," Mr. Orsak says. These business plans, he says, are circulated to the offices of the provost, dean, and department heads "so the administrators who will be making decisions can get early input on the career direction set by these young faculty."
Programs like SMU's should be "standard fare" for new assistant professors across the country, he says. "We really hope all the folks we worked so hard to recruit will be successful and stay with us over the long term. We have to be involved in that process, not just as gatekeepers at the hiring and tenure stages."
Federal officials seem to like the idea of departments training faculty members in the grant process, although they aren't crazy about the prospect of large groups of faculty members coming to visit Washington on a regular basis. Too many of those visits, says Robert M. Wellek, a deputy division director with the National Science Foundation, "would be a burden."
His agency treads carefully in its meetings with faculty members, trying to avoid giving any particular scholar an undue advantage. "We're afraid we might give helpful hints to one professor but not to another one who couldn't afford to visit," Mr. Wellek says. As a result, in meetings with professors, program managers must give advice that is "mostly mechanistic," he says.
When he met with SMU's contingent, Ravi Athale, program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, talked to the assistant professors about his own career path. He earned his Ph.D. in engineering from the University of California at San Diego and worked in private industry before becoming a professor at George Mason University, where he is on leave. He recalls that the consulting company where he once worked had a formal training program on grant writing for its employees, something typically not found in academe. "In the university, assistant professors are thrown in the water and [told] go swim on your own," he says. "To the extent that a university can formally structure a program like this, I think it's really tremendous."
Many institutions offer informal mentoring of junior faculty members and postdoctoral students. Patricia P. Jones, vice provost for faculty development at Stanford University, says her office runs some information sessions for assistant professors on how to set up a lab group. In addition, department chairmen meet with assistant professors to discuss getting their research programs off the ground. Junior scholars also know that the chairman and senior professors are available to read initial-research-proposal drafts and give advice.
Meanwhile, the Graduate Student Association at Stanford offers seminars on writing grant proposals and understanding the peer-review process. The association has also approved the creation of a center for professional development for postdocs and graduate students, but it hasn't been established yet, says Michael Cowan, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs. Two committees on postdocs -- one university-wide and the other in the medical school -- are looking at "best practices" for mentoring postdocs and planning to issue recommendations this year.
Some departments assign their new junior professors to senior mentors. At Washington University in St. Louis, for example, when the mechanical-engineering department considers hiring a new faculty member, it also decides on the potential hire's mentor, says David A. Peters, the department's chairman. Once hired, assistant professors meet with their senior mentor to go over proposal writing and the how-to's of publishing.
At SMU, John H. Easton, a new assistant professor of environmental engineering, had already landed a $175,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency before he attended the daylong seminar. He came to Washington, he says, "to get the flavor and feel for how the process works with the various agencies" and to "put faces to names."
It will take a while before SMU knows how successful its training effort has been. Says Marc Christensen, one of the new assistant professors of engineering, "I'll be interested in what our hit rate is on grants two years from now."