One of the biggest challenges for new, tenure-track faculty is obtaining external grant funding. The Proposal Development Institute (PDI) was created to provide guidance for faculty and help alleviate some of that stress.

The goal of the PDI program is to provide a variety of experiences that collectively enhance the ability of faculty at Virginia Tech to successfully pursue externally funded grants and contracts to support their research. The program is primarily designed for faculty members who are still developing formal written proposals to external sponsors like federal agencies, foundations, and private industry.

“New faculty who come right from their Ph.D. programs or post-doctoral fellowships are not usually familiar with how to write and submit proposals for external funding. The PDI program helps them learn this new skillset and introduces them to a grant-writing support network,” said William Knocke, PDI program director and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

Begun in 2011, the PDI is an annual faculty program administered by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI) and jointly funded by OVPRI and the colleges, departments, and research centers of faculty members selected to participate in the PDI program.

“Programs like the PDI are critical to the growth and success of Virginia Tech’s research enterprise,” said Vice President for Research and Innovation Theresa Mayer. “I’m glad to be able to support our junior faculty as they develop the skills and relationships necessary to be competitive in today’s research funding landscape.”

Approximately 35-40 faculty members participate each year from across all colleges at Virginia Tech. Faculty participants are from Blacksburg, the National Capitol Region, and other Virginia Tech sites around the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Admission to the PDI program is based upon a review of nominations received by department heads, school directors, and research center directors.

The call for nominations goes out in September each year, with a submission due date in early November. Nominations for the 2019 PDI class are due from departments and schools by Friday, Nov. 2.

The PDI program for the 2018-19 academic year will start in December 2018 for chosen participants and conclude in late May 2019.

“The PDI is an excellent opportunity for all faculty, including those affiliated with ISCE, to gain not only valuable information about how funding agencies work and what funders look for in grant applications, but also to learn about internal resources available to them," said Karen Roberto, director of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment and University Distinguished Professor. "Participation in PDI also gives the faculty in the social sciences the opportunity to develop a new network of colleagues and potential collaborators from disciplines outside of their own.”

One of the major events is a two-day workshop with external consultants who have many years of experience working with faculty to develop their proposal preparation skills. The workshop experience, tentatively scheduled this year for mid-January 2019, will include information targeted to specific federal agencies and foundations.

Topics addressed at the workshop include interactions with program managers, writing styles, and approaches for effectively communicating research ideas in proposals, and how to pursue specific “early career” research awards from several funding agencies. The workshop also includes time for PDI participants to consult one-on-one with the external consultants in areas of interest about effective proposal writing skills development.

Another major component of the program is the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., in late May each year to visit one or more federal agencies or foundations and meet with program officers. The two-day event also includes presentations from program managers from multiple agencies regarding their research programs and funding opportunities for newer faculty. Prior to the trip, PDI participants are given guidance as to how to best prepare for a face-to-face interaction with a research program manager.

Each year a high percentage of the PDI faculty members choose to participate in a PDI mentoring group. Each group consists of four to six PDI participants who are paired with a more senior Virginia Tech faculty member who serves as the mentor for the group. Monthly meetings of the mentoring group take place during the duration of the PDI program each year.

Dennis Dean and Janet Webster, director and associate director of the Fralin Life Science Institute, respectively, have hosted PDI mentoring groups since the program started in 2011.

“Janet and I have been impressed with the funding record of participating faculty, which is far above the national average. I think that the shared wisdom and experience of the participating cohorts, as well as their being open to giving and taking critical peer evaluation, is one of the keys to their collective success stories. We are delighted to have the opportunity to work as part of the PDI mentoring group and look forward to continued participation," said Dean.  

These mentoring groups primarily focus on aspects of writing effective research proposals and pursuing funding with external agencies and foundations; however, they likewise are designed to address topics of interest and importance that arise among the participants in the group.

“As a long time PDI mentor, I have seen first-hand the short- and long-term successes of providing a structured time for faculty to come together to work through their research ideas and get feedback from one another. The groups I have facilitated tend to have faculty from across colleges whose research focuses on or integrates social and behavioral challenges, be it within sociology, geography, engineering, education, or elsewhere, and who all share a common goal of securing funding to support their research programs,” said Roberto.

Other components of the program include seminars addressing a variety of topics related to pursuing research funding, opportunities for mentoring from a senior faculty member, as well as networking with other PDI participants, and possible internal review by university faculty of a PDI participant’s NSF CAREER proposal.

Chloé Lahondère, a new research assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, participated in the PDI program this past year.

Lahondère researches the effects of temperature and climate change on different mosquito species, kissing bugs, and tsetse flies, using an interdisciplinary approach to ultimately help control the spread of vector-borne diseases.

“I enjoyed meeting other new PIs from different departments, and through an organized mini-symposium eventually found a new collaborator. I had the opportunity to meet with deans and distinguished professors and through fruitful discussions, learn from their experiences. I also participated in mentoring sessions to discuss grant specifics, such as figures, specific aims, and got feedback on a grant application that was later funded,” said Lahondère.

All PDI participants are expected to submit a proposal to an external funding source by the end of the year.

“In essence, we want faculty to enter the PDI program with a research idea in mind and a potential funding source as well, and then to work through the program and take advantage of its resources in preparing their formal proposal for submission by the end of 2019,” said Knocke.

Nominations for the PDI class of 2019 are due from department heads, school directors, and research center directors by Friday, Nov. 2.

For more information about the PDI program, please contact William Knocke, knocke@vt.edu.