Our longtime commenter bsci recently asked:
DM, This brings up a suggestion for a potential future posts. What DO you do to train your mentees for academia? Do they get to read your grants? Comment? Write parts of an R01? I assume you have them submit NRSAs, but merely submitting isn't a training experience. Have you found ways to improve the educational utility of the process?
Let me answer this last question first. I have no idea if I am improving or impairing the "educational utility" of the training I provide. I just don't have the numbers. There are many differences in the motivations and desires of trainees, these motivations shift significantly from the beginning to the end of a typical training stint and if a job is the outcome measure, then we are all at the mercy of a varying job market.
The grant part, however, I can answer.
The point is that I do not insist that trainees get involved in the grant writing process beyond, of course, dressing up their own data as needed. On the other hand, I certainly invite my trainees to be a part of the process and email them drafts as I am working. When I remember to do so :-).
In this I take a lead-to-water approach. I make opportunities available and am happy to follow up with additional instruction if the trainees is interested. It is very possible that this relatively hands-off style of mine does not work for all trainees, very likely it does not. However when it comes down to the grant writing in particular, I just don't see this as something essential in the training experience as, say, learning to do science my way and above all else getting papers published. So I'm not going to push really hard.
There is also a degree to which I think there is an arc of training that changes across, for example, a three year postdoctoral stay. Early on the postdoc needs to be working on learning skills, the scientific background and getting a research project going. As time goes on it is important to broaden a little bit from the experimental perspective. This may be establishing collaborations, working on so-called side projects or supervising the efforts of technical staff or more-junior members of the home laboratory. Towards the end is where I see grant writing and the mechanics of running a lab really coming to the forefront (because it is assumed that the postdoc will have learned to keep the earlier stuff afloat and is ready to throw another ball into the routine).
Another twist, that precludes me asserting that I have a general plan, is the ebb and flow of grant success on specific projects in the laboratory. Sometimes it is going to be the case that the postdoc may be ready to shoulder some grant writing but whatever I need to be working on just isn't in that person's sphere / domain. Conversely, it may be the case that I really, really need input from a relatively junior person because I'm going hammer and tongs at an area that is right in this person's bailiwick.
In practice this has ranged from a relatively senior person doing a great amount of writing on a grant I was preparing to some people who barely even read a full proposal I've written. The variance is just this large.
In terms of prescriptive advice? I think that PIs should always be willing to involve trainees in the grant writing if they are interested in learning about this part of the career. Always. To absolutely refuse to do so is dereliction. IMO. I also think that postdoctoral trainees should seek out the opportunity to help with preparing grant proposals. If asked to contribute they should view this as training, not as exploitation*. Yes, even when the contribution amounts to scientific ideas that some postdocs think of as "their own".
bsci had another related question:
For that matter, I assume you're not one of those PIs who treats all students as if they're going into academia & those who don't are considered failures. Anything you do to make sure that attitude doesn't enter your group or to train people for other options?
Well, I don't think everyone as if they are looking to fill my seat...but you'd have to ask one of my trainees. I can't say I do anything specific other than to try and figure out with the trainee what their future job goals are. If they can give me some idea of what they are thinking then I can steer them toward the right people to help out. Connections are one thing your PI does have, because of friends and grad school peers and prior trainees. So this is one thing I do rather explicitly, i.e. to put them in touch with people who did not continue on the PI / professorial track.
There is a specific point here about learning to do grant writing, however. This is a job category in and of itself. There are many, many jobs which involve government contracting that require similar skills. This goes far beyond science and into everything from the manufacture of gignormous weapons systems to local non-profit social service and education. Contract research organizations that have to work out protocols with clients write agreements / proposals that look like grants in a lot of ways. Even within traditional academic science there has been an expansion of jobs which provide grant-writing support to laboratories. Check out VWXYNot and writedit for examples.
*I recognize there can be an imbalance in the trainee / PI relationship that does indeed amount to unjustified exploitation. It is just not nearly as common as the typical disgruntledoc would like to assert.