Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fundraising in Academia

Although I've often encouraged my students to consider academic careers, it occurred to me recently that I have not talked to them enough of what such a career actually involves. What is often invisible to graduate students thinking about a career in academia, particularly in a research-oriented university, is that a great deal of faculty time and attention is spent on raising funds to support their students, bring in summer salaries, fund travel, equipment, etc.

So I did a two-hour session talking about fundraising in academia for a few students, post-docs and visitors to my group today.

I began with a short back-of-the-envelope calculation suggesting that a faculty member who intends to fully fund five research assistants needs to bring in about $300K a year, a non-trivial amount. (For larger, more resource-hungry research groups that are not uncommon in engineering departments, this amount can be easily as high as a million or more.)

I then talked about the different kinds of funding sources including internal university sources, industry sources and the various government agencies including NSF, various DoD entities and NIH. I talked about how, for industry sources as well as for many DoD-based agencies, much can depend on building relationships with key people. I then focused in on NSF, with its more academic-friendly model of open calls and relatively transparent peer-review process. Finally, I discussed the ingredients of a good proposal and tips and pointers on writing proposals that get funded.

Something I hope I was able to bring out is that while this process of fundraising could be considered "overhead", at least to the extent that it takes away time that should be spent *doing* research, it is also very helpful in many ways. Being forced to convince others to give us money for research gives us a good reason to think deeply about what we want to work on, and the quality and impact of our work.

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