Important considerations when trainees and supervisors participate in grant writing
Recognition of the potential for a conflict of interest
When faculty collaborate with trainees (masters and doctoral graduate students, or postdoctoral fellows, scholars, researchers) in the conception, writing, and submission of grant applications, this is typically a mutually beneficial research experience that contributes to more successful applications. However, conflicts may arise when trainees and faculty co-operate in preparing grant applications due to various issues ranging from compensation and intellectual property to how awarded funds are spent. Typical scenarios outlined in the FAQ section below are a series of responses to questions often asked by trainees when collaborating with faculty on grant writing. The goal is to highlight best practices and minimize the potential for conflicts. In some aspects, issues that arise among multiple grant writers are similar to those involved in a conflict of interest.
Mitigation strategies should be defined, documented from the outset and reviewed regularly
Issues may arise when the trainee is paid to perform some of the duties outlined in the grant as work and also have other aspects of the duties included as part of their thesis projects. Blurring between what is considered to be paid work and what is considered to be thesis-related can lead to tension and problems when it comes time to write a thesis. Clear discussions and documentation from the beginning of the grant conception to submission and finally to completion of the work can reduce ambiguities.
At the time of the conception of the grant hypothesis and objectives, the supervisor should have an idea of what tasks in the application would be suitable for paid work by a trainee or other staff and what tasks would be performed as part of the thesis study. At the outset, these ideas should be discussed with the trainee. Meeting notes or e-mails may be used to document writing progress and ideas as the application takes shape.
By the time the grant is submitted, the supervisor and trainee should have a document which outlines what objectives or aims in the submitted grant the trainee is responsible for, and how (or whether) completion of those aims would form a part or all of their thesis and thus be considered to be study and what parts would be considered to be work and thus not suitable for inclusion in their thesis. Should the grant be funded, discussions on trainee participation should occur at regular intervals and conclusions documented. Should the grant undergo multiple submissions either to different agencies or upon re-submission to the same agency, the document should be revisited and revised to reflect any changes in the role of the trainee in the design of the application or their responsibilities once activated.
These documents can be a letter between the trainee and supervisor or a Letter of Understanding. Regardless it should be shared with their GPD, uploaded to MyProgress or in some manner be recognized within the Unit. Reports on the success of work and study should form part of the yearly Progress Tracking report. The trainee and supervisor should be mindful of the number of hours that a trainee may spend on work is limited. This provision is set so trainees can focus on their thesis work and graduate on time.
Whenever possible, it may be useful to include a co-supervisor in instances where the separation between work and study is difficult. The role of the co-supervisor is to foster trainee study and act to maintain trainee focus on the thesis research. The co-supervisor would be included as a member of the student committee and attend Progress Tracking meetings.
FAQ: Best Practices for Collaboration of Trainees and Faculty on Grant Applications
Clarifying expectations at the outset
What types of questions should I ask before agreeing to help a faculty member apply for a grant?
There are various issues you might want to address prior to working with a faculty member on a grant application, such as: What aspects of the grant application will I be responsible for (e.g., literature review, tables, budget, writing)? Will this grant fund my thesis/postdoctoral project if it is awarded? If the grant is rejected, will my project still be funded? How will I be compensated for grant preparation (e.g., salary, stipend, volunteer)? Will I be included as a grant co-applicant or collaborator? Can I put the grant on my CV if it is successful? Regardless of the question, it is important to discuss such issues before you start working on a grant application with a faculty member to ensure expectations are clear and responsibilities are understood by all involved.
What is the best way to clarify expectations for trainees and faculty when collaborating on a grant application?
It is essential that detailed discussions between trainees and supervisors concerning the completion, compensation, and contingencies of a grant application occur before collaboration on the application has begun. It is also critical that any resulting agreements between the trainee and faculty member are clearly documented in writing prior to preparing the application. For graduate students, these agreements can be noted in annual Progress Tracking Forms or comprehensively outlined in Letters of Understanding. For postdoctoral individuals, these agreements should be explicitly described in jointly approved Letters of Agreement.
It is strongly recommended to also document any agreements concerning grant application roles and responsibilities in writing (e.g., detailed emails following meetings), and to revisit these agreements on a regular basis to reaffirm or modify as needed (e.g., every 6 months). It is the responsibility of the faculty supervisor to ensure everyone working on the grant application, or included as co-applicants or collaborators, are regularly updated (e.g., application status) and clearly understand the specific nature and scope of their participation. If you are unclear, confused, or concerned about some aspect of the grant application process, be sure to request updates or clarification directly from your faculty supervisor who should be able to advise.
Is it acceptable to discuss with the faculty supervisor how grant funds will be spent before agreeing to prepare a grant application?
Yes. It is important to clarify early on with a faculty supervisor if/how you would be involved with any future projects to be funded by a successful grant (e.g., if you will be funded from the grant as a research assistant). For example, graduate students may wish to confirm if grant funds will be used to cover their thesis costs (e.g., participant compensation), and postdoctoral research may want to confirm what expenses will be reimbursed (e.g., software, conference travel).
Co-applicant/Collaborator Status and Compensation
Is it appropriate for a trainee to discuss being included as a formal co-applicant or collaborator when preparing a grant with a faculty member?
Definitely. Feel free to ask the faculty supervisor questions about the requirements for being listed as a co-applicant or collaborator on a grant application, as faculty should be familiar with applicant regulations pertaining to the grant competition (e.g., SSHRC). Although granting agencies typically do not permit graduate students to serve as formal co-applicants or collaborators, it may be possible for postdoctoral researchers to be included in such roles. Accordingly, doctoral students nearing completion may wish to discuss with the faculty supervisor if such a role would be considered if they assume a postdoctoral position later on (a co-applicant can often be added to a grant even after it has been awarded). It is also encouraged to confirm with the faculty supervisor early on what happens if the grant is not successful (e.g., will you be included as co-applicant if the grant is resubmitted) or in the case of personal or career developments (e.g., maternity leave, graduating and leaving the university).
Who makes the decisions about who is on a grant and what role they play?
The Principal Investigator makes the final decision over who is included as a co-applicant or collaborator on a grant applicant. For example, if a postdoctoral scholar believes they warrant inclusion as a co-applicant based on the effort invested in the grant application, it may not be required that the faculty supervisor do so. It is also important to understand that granting agencies typically reserve co-applicant or collaborator status exclusively for individuals who will contribute significantly to the project after the grant is funded. This means that although multiple people may be involved in the preparation of a grant application (e.g., literature reviews, pilot studies, writing), only those individuals who are eligible to participate and selected by the Principal Investigator to contribute to the project if funded will be listed as a co-applicant or collaborator. As with other grant application issues, be sure to discuss being included as a co-applicant or collaborator on a grant early in the grant preparation process, and to clearly document all related agreements in writing to ensure shared expectations and accountability concerning formal participation roles.
Should I be financially compensated for collaborating with a faculty member on preparing a grant application?
Yes and no. In some Faculties graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are financially rewarded for assisting with grant application preparations. These activities may involve literature searches, conducting pilot studies, preparing tables or figures, or writing the application text. This financial compensation may be as payment for tasks assigned as a Research Assistant (e.g., employment salary) or for agreed upon tasks for a postdoctoral fellowship (e.g., in a Letter of Agreement). Financial compensation should be agreed upon in writing in advance of grant preparation, with these agreements revisited on a regular basis to accommodate changes in status (e.g., from MA to PhD rates) or other developments (e.g., taking on additional responsibilities). Regardless of if a student and postdoctoral researcher volunteered or was paid to conduct tasks that contributed to faculty member completing a grant application, these activities should be agreed upon and documented in writing prior to beginning the work.
Does helping to develop ideas or writing parts of a faculty member’s grant application justify being included as a co-applicant or collaborator on the grant?
No. There is no obligation for a faculty supervisor to include any individuals who were paid or volunteered to help prepare any aspect of a grant application as formal participants. For example, regardless of whether a post-doctoral scholar conducted literature reviews, helped develop research ideas, or wrote entire sections for the application, they would not typically be included as a formal participant if they were not going to be involved in the funded project. Participation on a grant application is not like authorship on a manuscript: Only individuals who will be substantially guiding or supporting the project after it is funded are typically listed as co-applicants or collaborators.
Is it appropriate to be promised compensation for assisting in a grant application only if the grant is awarded?
No. Grant writing for commission (“contingency payments”) is largely considered an unethical practice given the high rate of grant failures and funding agency restrictions on pre-award costs. All payments for assisting with a grant application should made prior to submitting the grant from another funding source, with the method, timing, and contingencies of the payments stipulated in prior written agreements between the trainee and faculty supervisor.
What should I do if a grant I helped a faculty member prepare gets rejected?
Commiserate. If you were paid only to assist a faculty supervisor with a grant application, your work is usually done once the grant is submitted. If your efforts are being requested to revise and resubmit a failed application, you should then re-establish the terms of the grant preparation work (e.g., tasks, compensation, participation) with the faculty member and confirm in writing prior to revisions. If you were previously a formal participant on the grant application (e.g., co-applicant, collaborator), it is important to confirm your participant status with the faculty supervisor in writing prior to the revision to avoid misunderstandings as to project involvement if the grant is funded. As a result of the grant reviews, the faculty member may decide to alter the grant such that your participation may increase or your section may be removed entirely.
What can I do if the faculty supervisor does not use a grant to fund the project or people outlined in the application?
The Principal Investigator is the primary decision-maker when it comes to the direction, participation, and spending for a grant funded project. Faculty members may also be afforded considerable flexibility by granting agencies to change minor or major aspects of a project after funding is received. What this means is that a faculty supervisor may indeed be allowed by the granting agency to no longer pursue a topic described in the application, even if this topic represents a trainee’s personal project and was proposed in collaboration with the trainee. However, it is important to remember that faculty supervisors may nevertheless be obligated to pay trainees according to amounts stated in Letters of Admission, Letters of Understanding/Agreement, employment contracts, or other written agreements.
Grants and Thesis Research
Is it important to distinguish between research activities that are expected for my thesis and those that are proposed in a grant application?
Yes. Conflicts can arise when there is no or little transparency in the description of what constitutes work and what constitutes graduate study. Clear discussions and documentation from the beginning of the grant conception to submission and finally to completion of the work can reduce ambiguities. At the time of the conception of the grant hypotheses and objectives, the supervisor should have an idea of what tasks in the application would be suitable for paid work by a trainee or other staff, and what tasks would be performed for a thesis study. At the outset, these ideas should be discussed with the trainee.
By the time the grant is submitted, the supervisor and trainee should have a separate document prepared and signed. This document should specifically outline the objectives in the submitted grant that the trainee is responsible for and how or whether completion of those aims would form a part or all of their thesis. Activities considered to be study vs. work can then be adequately differentiated, which is important given that some work activities may not be suitable for inclusion in a student’s thesis. This document should then be shared with the student’s Graduate Program Director, uploaded to MyProgress or in some manner be recognized within the Unit. Reports on the success of work and study tasks should also be noted in the yearly Progress Tracking objectives.
If figures or tables I generated were used in a grant application can I use them in my publications and thesis too?
Yes. Typically data figures or tables are used by the faculty member in a Preliminary Data section of the application to show feasibility and to convince the grant review that the project has a high likelihood of success. These data may grow in size and complexity as the study progresses, but they can be included in publications and in your thesis.
Concerns about grant applications or grant administration
What should I do if a faculty member has not treated me fairly regarding a grant application I helped prepare?
Trainees who have concerns about questionable practices by a faculty supervisor during the grant application or administration process are encouraged to consult the granting agency website or agency officers for guidance specific to the granting competition. Trainees may also report serious concerns regarding their participation in faculty grant applications to their Department Chair, their Associate Dean in Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS), or a McGill Research Integrity Officer for further investigation.