Did you get a feel for what the grant-application process and lifestyle involved as a PhD student?

By Grant Jacobs 22/11/2012

Do you think Ph.D. students should?

One thing I’ve written about in the past is what is taught to Ph.D. students. Perhaps more accurately, elements of what might be taught to them. (I would say what should be taught to them, but your opinion may differ.)

Ph.D. training ought to prepare the student for future positions in research science. I’ve previously touched on how we teach students how to write scientific papers, for example. Ph.D. training might also prepare students for the wider range of positions that science Ph.D.s in practice take up—the research career as the follow-on from a Ph.D. occurs less often than work outside of academia.

Recently I have been talking amongst others about grant applications.

Were you taught about the grant application process as a student? How did you learn what grant funding and the soft-funded lifestyle might involve?

The main thing I’d like to draw attention to here is not so much the advice about grant applications itself—although that matters—so much as if students are given an insight to what this aspect of research involves.

Where I trained was block-funded[1] (at least during my time there) so it’s perhaps not that unexpected I entered the scientific workforce largely ignorant of what grant-funding systems might entail.

How might Ph.D. students get a feel for this – and should they?

Without putting a lot of thought into it, let me toss out a couple of loose possibilities.

One approach might be for supervisors to let students with a year or two under their belt follow the process of getting more funding for the lab as it unfolds during the course of the months it takes. It’d be one way of letting them see at something close to first-hand what this aspect of what working in academic work involves.

Similarly Ph.D. students could sit in on the courses intended to assist university (etc.) staff on grant funding, as a way to gain insight.

Perhaps you feel this is best left until they are applying themselves? After all for many the early post-doc applications are job applications, really, with the PIs of the lab they are applying to work at having written and won the grant funding the position they are applying for.

Ph.D. students already have a lot on their plate, too. Perhaps you feel it’d just be loading more on. I can’t help saying, though, that despite what it might feel like at the time in many ways it’s the most carefree time of a science career – perhaps in part because of not having to also worry about winning something in the next round of grants![2] Despite this, I like the idea that a small part of the Ph.D. programme should give students some insight into what this part of a research career involves, too.


1. A wonderful illustration of that was Peter Lawrence’s Kafka tale of research grant funding in which he describes writing his first grant application after 40 years as a scientist after shifting to the university’s genetics department.

2. I’m not saying all of research science is awful. Like all jobs it has good and bad points. It’d be a safe bet to say that for most researchers grant applications are one of the headaches!

Other articles on Code for life:

Thoughts on scientific abstracts also a science writing check-list

Science PhD career preferences surveyed

On alternatives to academic careers and “letting go”

Doggie ERVs

Coiling bacterial DNA

0 Responses to “Did you get a feel for what the grant-application process and lifestyle involved as a PhD student?”

  • But a rising tide lifts all boats!

    1. The rapid rise in the number of PhD graduations in NZ in recent years.
    2. But the number of PhDs employed in R&D in NZ has flattened at about 4000 FTEs.
    3. Don’t expect to see much growth in employment of PhDs in the universities or CRIs in the next few years.
    4. Therefore if PhDs want research careers they should look overseas or to the NZ business sector.
    5. If they want to be employed by the business sector, they should choose their research topics carefully, broaden their learning and experience, and make themselves more ’employment ready’. Writing grant applications won’t be too important.

  • ‘kemo sabe’,

    I have toyed with a longer post closer to your interest. (I’ll admit the main reason I haven’t written as I fret at the trouble it might get me in!)

    My interest here is following how the PhD might be tweaked to better serve students, regardless of it there are to be fewer of them (or not).

    That said, fair points if you are to looking to the larger scene. Two quick points:

    4. I’d be cautious about thinking that the situation for academic careers is that much better overseas. The general trend shown in the figure in my earlier article Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception is true for other countries too. (This sounds to be the case for the UK and USA. I heard a contrary claim for Australia via twitter a little while back, but haven’t chased it down for details.)

    5. The point a understanding the grant application process was in part so that the students might have a better appreciation of what (that part of) an academic career entails and, in part, be better able to make career decisions. In that sense it might work ‘for’ industry for those the recognise that’s not going to be something they want to tackle or will do well at. (This isn’t about heading people off, but recognising a ‘fit’ with skills, wants, etc.)