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How to Secure a Three-Million Dollar Grant: Some Tips, Insights, and More…

Eduardo Salas
University of Central Florida

How does one obtain a $3 million grant from any agency? What does it take? How difficult is it? Can I-O psychologists get that level of funding? The answers are simple, straightforward, and may surprise many. Obtaining a $3 million grant is no different than trying to secure a $3K, $30K, or a $300K one. It takes basically, in my opinion, six things. First, you must “buy the ticket.” I have often said in the funding business that if “you don’t buy the ticket, you don’t win the lottery.” You have to “buy a ticket.” So, if you don’t write or submit a proposal or white paper when a call is out, you’ll never get a grant! Simple as that. Tip #1: Be willing to write, submit research proposals.

Second, in order to “buy the ticket” and have a chance at winning, you must be credible. You must have credentials (at least some) and/or a track record in the kind of research project you are proposing. You must position yourself to be competitive, have a chance. So, start developing a credible portfolio in an area early. Publications, presentations, at least attendance or participation in relevant meetings, help. Tip #2: Create or and maintain a reputation—give yourself a chance.

If you win because you “bought the ticket” and have a reputation, then in order to keep the chances of follow-up work or winning another grant you must accomplish what you said you would. Deliver on time and within budget. Get things done, collect the data, develop the theory, and test the intervention or level that is needed to fulfill the grant or contract. So, ensure all milestones and products are met. Tip #3: Deliver! Deliver what you promised.

In order to “buy a ticket,” be credible, and deliver, you must have good ideas. Ideas that are relevant to agencies or foundations; ideas that are new, risky, innovative, compelling; ideas that are focused on solving a problem long or short term; ideas that have a scientific or practical payoff. Although all of these things are easier said than done, good ideas (and we all have some) are funded, always. So, create a file and in the file write down in as much detail your ideas. Develop them. Talk to colleagues. Refine them. Update them. Tip #4: Always have relevant, good, and doable research ideas ready to “buy the ticket.”

Sometimes you have good ideas and you are credible but don’t know where to “buy the ticket.” So, to be in the grant and contract business, you must know “the business.” Knowing the business means being aware/informed on what and how agencies fund work, what they require, their award process, the peer-review process (if any), their expenditure requirements, their lingo and requirements. Learn the business side. And there is one, don’t ignore it. Tip #5: Know what it takes to be in the grant and contract business.

None of these tips work unless you are patient. My experience has been that it takes several tries to win a grant even if you are credible and have a great idea. It takes several attempts in some careers to get a grant. Tip #6: Persevere, don’t give up.

What about I-O psychologists getting grants? Well…what about it? I-O psychologists can (yes, can!) and have gotten substantial grants and contracts from many agencies. Several colleagues in our field have been successful at securing funds. It is very possible. My UCF colleagues and I were fortunate to receive a Multi-Disciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant from the Office of Naval Research. The MURI is a congressionally mandated program primarily aimed at stimulating basic research in the engineering field; behavioral science rarely gets a topic. The FY 07 call had a topic on teams in Net-Centric Warfare. Twenty-seven proposals were submitted. UCF and partners (Arizona State University, University of Illinois, and Carnegie Mellon University) were selected in the winners. This is a $3 million award for 3 years with a $2 million additional in options. The purpose of the MURI research is to understand shared cognition (at the macro-cognitive level) in one-of-a kind team-based scenarios by focusing on theory building, metric development, and experimentation in complex environments. The products of the MURI are to improve our understanding of collaborative processes in teams. We will focus on increasing the theoretical underpinnings on the macro-cognitive processes that teams use to solve problems in natural environments and in deriving metrics that are cognitively based, dynamic, and diagnostic of collaborative work. The MURI program will hold a series of workshops on theoretical developments, team performance measurement, and one on the state of the science in team effectiveness.

How did we get it? We knew the grant business, we had ideas, we had a reputation and a track record, we persevered (wrote the proposal twice before for other agencies), and, of course, we “bought the ticket”—we wrote a proposal. And if we deliver what we promised in 3 years we get 2 additional years. There is no magic, no silver bullet, or prescriptions here. It takes an interest, perseverance, some passion for research, an understanding of the grant business, some reputation, solid ideas, and a willingness to “buy a ticket.” Try it.