Mastering NSF projects: An insider’s guide to success

At the Concord Consortium, 12 of our research scientists are Principal Investigators or Co-Principal Investigators* on our dozens of National Science Foundation-funded projects. We polled our Principal investigators and their project managers to find out what it’s like to run a successful research and development project. Below are their top ten tips.

1. Like most things in life, planning is key

When you’re just getting started with a new project, you may have a million (or more) ideas. But remember that you already made a plan—it was all written out in your proposal! You likely included a timeline with benchmarks along the way. Refer back to that calendar. At the same time, keep in mind that your initial timeline was just an estimate. It will almost certainly need to be adjusted, so modify it as necessary. Plan anywhere from a couple months to a year out at a time, and include key milestones on the calendar—conference submissions, pilot testing dates, development schedules, etc. And be sure to write a clear statement of your project goals as you begin the project. Describing what success will look like at the end can keep a project on the right track throughout. Most importantly, don’t reinvent the wheel. Use all available resources to run your project.

2. Work with the people you work with

As the PI, you’re the boss, but you’re not alone. You have a team of people on your project (including your sponsored research office or other administrative support). Let them carry some of the burden. Work to uncover people’s strengths and areas of expertise and aim to make your project as collaborative as possible. Give everyone on your team some personal attention. Check in on how they’re doing and decide what project priorities they should focus on. Delegation is key, but it’s also critical to keep enough of what excites you about the project work for yourself, too. Finally, don’t underestimate the value of a project manager. A good manager is worth their weight in gold, helping you and the rest of the team stick to a schedule, plan agendas, document progress, and more.

3. Schedule regular meetings and make them fun

Consider holding a full-team project kick-off meeting. You’ll not only get a lot of great ideas about your research and development goals right out of the gate but also begin to develop goodwill among project team members. Then, keep that momentum going with regular partner meetings. Communication breeds understanding, trust, and a willingness to take risks, all of which can lead to innovation. And remember that, while productive meetings should follow an agenda, it’s important to make space for fun, too.

4. Make decisions, including the the hard ones

Making decisions is an essential part of your job as PI. In fact, it’s your primary responsibility. Not everyone will agree with your choices all the time, but as the leader, you need to make the choices you think are best for your project. Listen to input, but remember that suggestions are just that—suggestions. You don’t have to accept all pieces of advice as long as you have a reason for the direction you’re pursuing. Whatever you decide, it will (almost certainly) be fine. And, if it isn’t, make a different choice next time. That’s how we learn.

5. Watch your budget, but not too rigidly

Don’t fret about the budget too much, especially in the beginning. Just do what’s needed to make the project work. Of course, don’t be wasteful, but don’t be afraid to spend project money to get the work done. Remember that NSF has awarded you a grant to use the money, not save it. And don’t stress when things—from professional development workshops to technology development—cost more than you expected. Simply adjust, proceed, and aim for the best work possible.

6. Be flexible

Make a plan (see #1 above), but don’t overplan. Budget time (and resources) for some wiggle room for things to go wrong. Because they inevitably will. You hoped to create eight curriculum modules, but only created six? You thought 400 teachers would sign up, but got half that number? Sometimes you have to pivot. Just because you started heading in one direction doesn’t mean that you can’t change course. The project is a grant, not a contract, and you have considerable flexibility in how you complete your work. But it’s also important to keep your program officer informed and have a clear rationale for important changes. More on that below in #10.

7. Do your research

Start the research strand of your project as early as possible. Collect and analyze your data. But don’t be afraid to admit—first to yourself, then to others—if the research isn’t going well or is producing unexpected results. Corollary: Don’t be afraid to follow interesting leads as you proceed. Remember that in research, the most valuable projects are often the ones that discover new nuances (or entire new directions) along the way. To ensure that you’re prepared to make the most of these, remember to document your learnings consistently along the way so you can publish about them to inform the field.

8. Develop your technology and/or curriculum

Communicate about your technology needs with your software engineers, Scrum Master, technology manager, or others early and often. Their input at the early stages can help ensure you have productive development time when scheduled. But also know that development takes time, and remember that you may not get all the bells and whistles you had imagined when you first dreamed up your new thingamajig / whozeewhatzit. Pilot prototypes of your technology and any associated curriculum with scientists and colleagues before testing them with teachers and students. And, if you plan to log user interactions with your technology or curriculum, make sure you can access any reports before trying to collect a lot of data. You don’t want to be in the position of having to run an analysis and realizing that you don’t have (and can’t get) the data that you thought you had. (Not that that’s ever happened to anyone before…)

9. Get advice from your advisory board

Most projects include a group of smartypants (like really, really smart people!). They’re experts in their respective fields. By all means, take advantage of that fount of knowledge. Hold regular advisory board meetings, and be prepared to do more listening than talking. To ensure even more success, learn how to host a successful virtual advisory board meeting.

10. Contact your program officer

Communicate with your program officer regularly. They’re available to help. Check out NSF’s own tips for working with a program officer. Send your PO updates about your progress and publications. They may be able to help you mobilize knowledge about your project. Your program officer is also the one to approve your annual reports as well as any significant changes. Keep copious notes throughout each year of your accomplishments, results, and outcomes, so you have all the information at your fingertips when it’s time to write your report.

11. Bonus: What comes next?

As you proceed through your project, and particularly as you near the end of it, be thinking about how your findings could lead to the next proposal. Nothing bolsters a proposal like a rationale based on prior research even if—maybe especially if—that research didn’t pan out the way you expected. When you thought you’d find x but instead found y, that’s exciting. Now you need to understand why y. Which means it’s time to write your next proposal!

The Concord Consortium is dedicated to innovating and inspiring equitable, large-scale improvements in STEM teaching and learning through technology. If you have knowledge, skills, and abilities to help us achieve our mission or have a proposal idea, we’d love to hear from you.

* Fun fact: The NSF doesn’t distinguish between PIs and Co-PIs.