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Academic Careers

What to Say — and Not to Say — to Program Officers

On Wednesday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent advice piece by Michael J. Spires,
a proposal development specialist from the Smithsonian Institution, about interacting with program officers for funding agencies. I believe every aspiring (and early-career) academic scientist — anyone who isn’t experienced and successful in getting funding — should read it.

It’s common for mentors and self-appointed experts to advise young scientists who are just beginning to seek grants to call up their program officer for a chat. It’s always good if the person with the money is your buddy, after all. But that’s a scary prospect for many inexperienced grant seekers — and with good reason. There’s a lot at stake, especially for investigators who don’t yet have reputations or established funding records. Furthermore, many young scientists have found that when they tried to follow that advice, it didn’t work. They left a message, but the program officer never called them back. Why not?

That program officer could be doing them a favor. Like a lot of relationships, it’s important to get this one off to a good start. What’s great about this essay is that it tells you how to do that.

Spires’ advice seems aimed at helping you avoid making two mistakes: 1. Don’t act like an undergraduate trying to win brownie points; and 2. Don’t waste the program officer’s time. You can avoid both of these mistakes by only calling when you have a really good reason.

So, for example, don’t call to ask a question you can easily find the answer to online. Don’t call just to chat. Do call to get insight into a specific funding program and whether it might fit the research you’re hoping to do. (But keep the conversation short and focused.) Use e-mail whenever it makes sense: With e-mail there’s a record, and it allows the program officer to answer at his or her convenience. Even in an e-mail, keep it concise. And while you might be accustomed to rapid communication in this area of chat and IM, don’t be a pest. Give him or her a reasonable amount of time to get back to you. (That implies, by the way, that you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to make contact.)

Always take care with your communication: Prepare for the conversation.
Edit the e-mail. Search for the answer online before you send it off.

You need not always be strict and formal. There are times when it’s OK to chit-chat with a
program officer, such as when you meet them at a scientific meeting, for
example, especially during coffee breaks. But when they’re in their office, respect their time.

There is one other mistake you must avoid making, Spires indicates: When a funding decision doesn’t go your way, don’t be a jerk. Never respond when you’re angry, and when you do respond, focus not on the negative decision but on how you might do better the next time.

A program officer is an important resource, one you really shouldn’t try to do without. You need to have a good relationship with program officers working in your area. So call or write when there’s a good reason to. Just exercise restraint and treat them with respect.