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Believing in Your Research
Brian Kahn discusses the challenges of writing research proposals.
October 19, 2012
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10:48 PST
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Brian Kahn works on a research proposal at his desk. Credit: Brian Kahn.
Brian Kahn works on a research proposal at his desk. Credit: Brian Kahn.

Being a scientist is not easy. It is certainly rewarding and challenging, but it is never easy. I knew fairly early on in my life that I wanted to be my own boss and basically work for myself. That may seem strange, given that I am a scientist who works for NASA; we have managers and bosses like anyone else does.

For many scientists at my lab, we work fairly independently and are expected to carve out our own research directions, and eventually bring in our own research funding, much like a professor at a university. It is certainly possible to work in particular programs that are financially supported by other scientists, but you have much less freedom than if you have your own research program. I wanted to be one of those scientists that could bring in the funding to employ myself, and maybe even others, giving me a small group of people to work with on my ideas.

To do this, you need to have an established reputation -- and a good one at that -- and manage to convince your colleagues that your ideas not only have merit but are worth funding support from the government. Research dollars are not infinite and the science world is very competitive for those funds. You either sink or swim.

Brian Kahn is an atmospheric scientist at NASA JPL. Credit: NASA.
Brian Kahn is an atmospheric scientist at NASA JPL. Credit: NASA.
After I defended my Ph.D. at UCLA, I accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This fellowship supported me as I was doing my own research. It also provided an important opportunity for me to take the next step in my career, either as a university professor or as a NASA scientist. Other options existed, but I was most interested in those two possibilities.

I spent a lot of time interacting with scientists who were much more experienced than I was, and saw that they often wrote proposals to help support their research. Most of the time they failed -- in fact, the average for funded proposals was around 25–30% at that time (and even lower now). I knew that in order to be a successful scientist, I had to learn how to write a successful proposal and stand out from the crowd.

So, with the encouragement of my postdoctoral advisor, I started writing proposals. Proposals take months of preparation: thinking about what you want to do after you see the announcement released; writing the proposal and making very clear the ideas you want to work on; making sure your ideas fit with the proposal objectives; putting together a budget and dealing with days’ worth of bureaucratic stuff; passing proposal drafts back and forth between colleagues, and trying to reconcile completely different opinions on what we should say and do; and lastly, making sure the proposal is submitted by the due date. There are no exceptions: if it isn’t complete by the due date and in the exact format requested, the propsal disappears into the circular file. And there goes all of that effort and lost opportunity.

My first proposal was awful. It was so bad that the review panel never bothered notifying me of the result or sending their evaluation to me. In hindsight, it was probably best. I call that my “practice” proposal. The second one was a little better. I thought about the ideas I wanted to work on more than the first, but I never felt entirely confident with it. The reviews said it had “potential” but did not fund it. It is certainly easy to give up after a few tries and think of yourself as one of those scientists that will always have to work for someone else. Fortunately, I am more stubborn than that.

About a year later, a new proposal opportunity came along that allowed me to take my doctoral work on studying clouds in Earth’s atmosphere further. For a long time I had thought that it would be natural to study clouds with several different satellite instruments. Luckily, the proposal opportunity was looking for precisely that. I worked hard to make my proposal clear and concise, and explain why this scientific problem was important and deserved to be supported. I edited the proposal for weeks, talked with many colleagues, and was very excited about it. I felt like this proposal was written differently – I really wanted to do the work, and I knew the research would be highly beneficial. I believed in what I was writing.

A year later, I received a letter from NASA headquarters. It said my proposal was “selectable” but, at the time, they were unsure how much money they would have. I would have to wait a few months. Talk about torture! So, I waited…and waited. Finally, another letter arrived that said my proposal was “selected for funding”. When I read those words, I was ecstatic. It felt as though all of those hard years in school had finally paid off: I managed to convince people to support my work with money. The best part was that I would be working on something I really enjoyed. That is what makes my career so rewarding.

Post by Brian Kahn, atmospheric scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Read the full-length Explorer article on Brian, Daydreaming About Weather

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October 23, 2012 - 7:12 PST

Congratulations on a great article and inspiring story about commitment to your work. You should go on a speaking tour for young kids to teach them how not to give up when they fail at something.

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