Why—and How—to Talk with Program Officers at Funding Agencies

Sheila Cherry, PhDgrant funding, research success, scientific writingLeave a Comment

Advice abounds on what to do when applying for research grants, and one common suggestion causes a sticking point for less-experienced PIs: contacting the funding agency’s program staff to discuss the upcoming application. We use this advice across our workshops, Q&A sessions, and one-on-one consultations, and investigators often provide some insight into what prevents them from taking this advice. The reasons often reflect fear and/or uncertainty: fear of bothering someone they perceive as busy and/or “important”, fear of not having the perfect project idea to discuss, uncertainty about what to say (or having their questions reveal their inexperience), or uncertainty about the value of having these conversations. 

The solutions for overcoming fear and uncertainty are to understand the reality of the situation and get some motivation for proceeding. We use multiple strategies, from explaining why and how to contact program staff (also called program officials/officers, or POs) to helping investigators draft the initial outreach email and identify and practice their talking points.

One additional approach we often find helpful in a lot of contexts is to think about the worst-case scenario, which often overcomes that fear element when we realize that the worst case is not unbearable. In the context of contacting POs, there are a few worst cases:

  1. You email the person and never hear back.
  2. You hear back, but they don’t have time to meet (but perhaps connect you with someone who does).
  3. You meet and it’s an awkward conversation.

All of these worst cases mean that you lose a bit of time and may not get any guidance on your application. But if any of these 3 worst cases happen, we’d encourage you to try reaching out either to the same person again for scenario A (it’s not personal, they don’t hate you, they’re likely just drowning in emails) or to another PO to begin the process again. But why is it important to do this?

Well, if we’re thinking about the worst-case scenario, let’s also consider the best case. When you meet with a PO, you can derive some insights and benefits for the short term (e.g., an intended application) as well as for the longer term (e.g., your research career). Here are some key examples:

1. You save yourself from spending the time and effort to apply for something for which you/your project were ineligible or a bad fit.

Grant applications require major effort, and it’s important to be thoughtful about putting your time and effort toward opportunities with the best chance of success. It is never fun to spend all of that time and effort preparing and submitting an application, only to find out that your application is not being reviewed. We know of more than one investigator who submitted an NIH R01 application without realizing that the intended NIH Institute was not actually participating in the funding opportunity, and consequently, their application was withdrawn. Ouch.

Talking to the PO allows you to ask questions to confirm that you, your team, your organization, and/or your project meet the eligibility requirements of the funding opportunity and/or funding agency. You also can take this opportunity to ensure that your project (or yourself, if applying for something that emphasizes career development) aligns with the purpose, mission, and vision of the opportunity and the agency.

2. You get some helpful guidance.

POs typically have research expertise in a program area, and they talk to researchers of all stripes every day. They oversee a funding portfolio and have insights into review and award dynamics that you might not find out just by reading the application instructions. This is your opportunity to ask questions that leverage their scientific and programmatic expertise in the context of understanding how to target your application to the funding agency, funding opportunity, and reviewers, and to get general guidance on seeking grants.

3. You initiate what will become a long-term relationship.

Remember that whether or not your application gets funded, you’ll likely be meeting with the PO again: if you’re re-submitting your application, you may want to discuss reviewers’ critiques and your plan to improve your proposal; if your application is funded, you’ll have interactions with the PO across the funding period.

But more than this, POs are professionals who want to see interesting and impactful research—and promising investigators—get funded. We’ve talked to lots of POs over the years, and many of them express that talking with PIs is part of the job they love most. Having a conversation with them brings you and your work into their awareness, and vice versa. You may find that you encounter them at conferences or other meetings and that you’ll cross paths over the arc of your careers. 

Like other professional relationships, this could result in new opportunities and connections. For example, the PO could invite you to be a reviewer, helping you gain invaluable experience on the other side of the funding equation. Or they might give you a heads-up or an invitation related to other funding, scientific, or advisory roles, or might connect you to other investigators or POs in their networks. 

Feeling convinced yet? Great! Now that you understand why you should take this step, let’s talk about how to contact a program officer.

  1. Prepare some attachments that can serve as a good introduction—often your bio sketch or brief CV, plus a one-page summary of your research ideas (e.g., an aims page or white paper). Remind yourself that you don’t have to have the perfect CV or the perfect project to talk to a PO. This is not high-stakes like a job interview. It can be a casual conversation, but planning a structure for the chat can help ensure that everyone’s time is used respectfully.
  2. Craft an email introducing yourself and requesting their availability for a call to discuss your upcoming application. Attach the 2 documents from Step 1 for their reference.
  3. Before the meeting: Plan your talking points. Remember that effective communication requires a bit of forethought and intention:
    • What do you want to know, and what will you consider a good outcome of the call?
    • What is the PO’s perspective: their professional values and goals, and how do they represent the funder?
    • Word your questions in such a way as to get specific answers, rather than vague replies.
    • Have someone role-play the conversation with you if you’re feeling nervous and want to practice. (This is one of my favorite tactics for a whole range of scenarios.)
  4. During the meeting: Relax and be your interesting self!
    • Give a brief (less than 2 min) intro of yourself and your research, assuming that they may not have read your attachments.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask questions about them and their expertise—make a bidirectional connection.
    • Refer to your talking points, but remain flexible in case the conversation guides you in a different direction.
    • Take notes!
    • Ask if there is anything else they think you should know before you apply, or any fitting funding opportunities they may know of at other agencies with which they have relationships.
    • Thank them for their time, and confirm any actions or follow-up that came forward during the conversation.
  5. After the meeting:
    • Use their guidance if applicable, or contact another PO if you feel that the conversation did not produce any outcomes.
    • Feel free to send a thank-you note, and if needed, recap any specific outcomes that you want to have in writing (e.g. if there was a gray area around eligibility but they indicated that you do meet the requirements).
    • Go forth into the funding foray with a little more knowledge and confidence!

We hope this guide gives you the push you need to send that email. If you’re still hesitant to contact a program officer, reach out to let us know how we can coach you through it.

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