Negotiating for reassigned time when writing a grant


Here’s a guiding principle: Don’t write a grant to do a project, if you don’t have the time to do the project that you proposed.

There are a substantial number of corollaries to this principle, especially at a teaching institution. The corollary I’m focusing on now is:

Be sure to get time assigned to the project by your administrators before you submit a grant.

Funding agencies spend most of their money at research institutions. Even if they claim to understand the role of research at teaching institutions, they do not back this understanding up with dollars. It’s tacitly understood that, if you land a grant, that you’ll have the time to work on the project. Even if the program provides for some salary for the PI, that salary isn’t enough to fully fund your effort on the project.

If your teaching load is two courses per semester, then you’re probably already expected to spend some serious time on research. However, if your load is much more than this, then most of your time is spent teaching, and the teaching would be substantially harmed if you’re trying to do a major project on a timeline at the same time.

If you are currently spending most of your time teaching, then you need to make sure that when you land a grant that you’ll be able to get the project done. The time to do this is before you submit a grant. After that, you won’t have much leverage in asking for time.

A number of my colleagues ultimately got fed up with, and left, their jobs because their administration wouldn’t give them the time to work on their externally funded projects. There has been some good discussion about this in the comments in an earlier post. These situations emerged because these scientists found themselves in a position in which they weren’t given the opportunity to do research that was expected of them by a federal agency. You don’t want to be in that position.

To avoid that situation, you need do talk to your chair, dean and provost up front about preparing and submitting a grant. Explain that you want to write a grant for X dollars to be submitted to Y agency that would accomplish Z. This project would bring in aX dollars of overhead and hire M students, and send some of them to grad school. However, you can only include bX dollars of salary for yourself, and to do the project would require more time if you’re going to do it right. Ask them what kind of support they could provide to make this project happen.

Negotiation is based on finding mutual interests. They administration wants a positive student experience, productive faculty, and external recognition of excellence. Grants can provide this for them, and they should be putting some money behind this. If they don’t want to reassign any of your time away from your teaching to work on the grant, then, frankly, you don’t want to waste your time writing that grant. You would be between a federal agency and a hard place if the grant came in and you couldn’t free yourself to get the project done right.

If your university can’t fund your time once your grants are funded, then your time spent writing grants might be better spent writing job applications. If your ambition is to do research, and your institution can’t support it, then you might well have some irreconcilable differences.

Teaching institutions have lower overhead cost recovery rates. Your provost and dean might not get enough overhead back to fully cover your reassigned time. If they do, then the decision for them should be a no-brainer. If they don’t, then they’ll have to find the money in other parts of their budgets to subsidize your research. If they value the research, and the opportunities it affords students, they’ll find the money. Remind them that you’re only asking for their support if the grant comes in, and that most grants are not funded.

On your end, you need to deliver product for the investment. If I’m ever asked to explain what I’ll deliver, I will promise to deliver a peer-reviewed paper in a well-recognized journal for every reassigned course (though not necessarily a first-authored paper). I’ve never been asked about this, though. My institution hasn’t ever funded reassigned time for more than 25% of my teaching load, so this hasn’t been a difficult benchmark to meet.

Most teaching campuses have their grant funding incentives bassakwards. There are plenty of grant incentive programs that help faculty get the time to write grants. I get that it’s cheaper to pay for time to write grants than it is to pay for faculty to work on funded grants.

Far less common is systemic support for faculty who are externally funded. This is what would really get grants rolling.

The last thing you want to do is pay an unfunded faculty member to write a grant. They’ll take the money, and might submit a grant, but if they do, is there any reason you should expect it to be competitive?

If faculty members are getting paid for their time to write a grant, but they won’t get any additional time when the grant comes in, then why would they want the grant to be funded?

When a faculty member really wants to do research, then a single reassigned course to write a grant isn’t goint to make a project happen. Those that want to do the research without reassigned time probably are already doing it.

For example, about a score of us on our campus just got funded a single reassigned course , plus some extra funds, to submit a grant within the next two years. I’m grateful for this time, and the additional funds to hire students to collect preliminary data, which’ll help me get a proposal out next January.

I was probably going to submit the grant in January regardless of whether the university gave me the time for it. I think most researchers who are earnestly wanting to get a grant funded would write the proposal without the time. Don’t get me wrong, the time helps, but it’s not making me write a proposal that I wouldn’t have otherwise written.

I am glad that I don’t have to squeeze it in so tightly, and it probably will be a better proposal because I’ll be less stressed in getting it together. I greatly appreciate the institutional investment. I really want the grant that I’m submitting to get funded. However, is that true for all of the other faculty who received these funds? It would not be rational for these faculty members to want to get the grant, because that just means more work without any time to make it happen. We’re already maxed out just teaching, so how are we going to add in more research?

Our university is paying for our time up front to submit a grant. And, once the grant comes in, do we have any time to do the project? The majority of the people who got funded are working in fields that won’t allow you to use much, or any, of your grant funds to buy your time to work on the project. (NIH is liberal about this, but there’s not much help for those in non-NIH fields. If you did buy enough time with the NIH grant, though, nothing would be left for the project.)

One thing to keep in mind is that writing a grant by no means indicates that you’ll get funded. Even R1 researchers are used to writing a ton of grants in order keep funding rolling, as most submissions aren’t funded. Check out the comments in Dr. Becca’s post showing how many grants folks submit to stay funded.

I don’t want to be put into the position of telling a federal agency that I will deliver on a project if I can’t create the opportunity to get the project done. If I got a standard NSF grant to do a research project, there’s no way I could get a project done to the level of NSF expectations without having the time in my schedule assigned to the project. I expect to get several publications out of a single external grant. That’s pretty standard for an NSF award, I think. How would I get the work done, much less write it all up, unless my institution gave me the time? NSF would let me buy out a course or two per year, or some summer salary, using the grant, but that might not be enough to meet NSF expectations.

So, now I’m in an awkward position. My institution is giving me time to write a grant, but as things stand, there’s no current policy in place about what will happen if it gets funded. So, before then, I’ll need to sit down with my new dean (my fourth in six years), and my provost (my fourth in six years), and have to ask, “I know you are helping me write this grant, but could I have some more?” Their answer will definitely reflect how I excited I am about the proposal that I’m writing over the next six months.

I’ll probably have to max out my salary in the budget of the grant, to the extent that I can’t fund students, and then it’ll get trashed in review for being topheavy. On the other hand, if I ask for only modest salary along with a time commitment from my institution, along the lines that you find from proposals originating from R1 campuses, then my proposal will look far more competitive. So, whether the administration realizes it or not, there are mechanisms that will prevent me from doing a project if I don’t have the time for it.

3 thoughts on “Negotiating for reassigned time when writing a grant

  1. Great post, Terry. Another trap with reassign time: you ask for the time, are given a yes, and then admin. doesn’t come through if you get the grant. Take careful note of your contract and what your rights are for reassign time and get everything in writing and writing relevant to your contractual obligations for teaching.

    • Maybe this is more common than I thought! You would think that a ‘yes’ would be honored, but I now know of a few cases where it hasn’t been. If anybody has has this experience and wants to chime in anonymously, this’d be of interest.

      I can see how untenured faculty would be susceptible to mistreatment in this way, because they aren’t free to call their admins out on not honoring an agreement. And I thought my experience with this was an outlier. If I wasn’t tenured, and prepared to return the money to NSF, then they would have gotten away with the renege.

      Great point, Josh – the arrangement not only needs to be in writing, but very clear-cut, and make sure that it’s good to go with respect to everyone who has a say in your load (chair, dean, provost). One person I know, at a different university, had the deal with the dean and the money in the grant itself, but the chair wouldn’t allow it and things got ugly.

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