What happens if your plans change?
Question from a reader: I’m worried about trying to plan out work that happens in the future. What happens if data collection doesn’t work out like you hoped? Or what if plans change after you submit a grant application?
Answer: This is a reasonable and common concern. Let’s consider this question from two angles: before and after submission:
A. Before submission. At this stage, make the best possible guess for what could happen in the future. You don’t know exactly what could happen. But you can anticipate problems and offer solutions.
Ex: What if recruitment doesn’t go well? Is there an alternative plan? Or do you have data you can show that will help reviewers and funders understand that this is highly unlikely (e.g., show your past recruitment data from the same site, show power analyses for the lower recruitment numbers).
Ex: What if you get results that are hard to understand? Could you add an advisory board to help you in case this happens? Either in interpreting results for practice and policy, or perhaps adding an expert in your approach who may have insight into problem solving around your design? Could you put in a plan for regular team meetings to anticipate issues and troubleshoot?
Ex: What if other factors might influence your results? I’m working on a grant where we are assessing the influence of exposure to a hurricane on youth outcomes. But youth could experience other disasters. I’m anticipating this as an issue by saying: We will review FEMA disaster declaration areas, conducting analyses with and without youth residing in these areas. If additional disasters impact analyses, we will include additional disaster exposures as covariates in analyses.
Bottom line. Don’t write grants in a vacuum. Ask mentors and colleagues for feedback while you are writing. They will help you identify weak spots and troubleshoot potential problems before they happen. And for funders where reviewers give you feedback, reviewers often comment on the feasibility of your plan and how to revise it for better success. In this sense, reviewers can be a great ally for strengthening your work.
B. After your grant is awarded. Funders understand that problems happen. And most funders have a way for you to communicate with them if plans change. Funders understand that you can't anticipate everything (e.g., think of what COVID-19 did for everyone's work). So be proactive and reach out when you have problems. It’s much better to communicate openly if you run into major problems.
Ex: I had a colleague who had to change her whole design because she couldn't recruit enough participants. She kept in good contact with her program officer, who helped her troubleshoot this problem by connecting her with others who experienced similar problems.
Ex: When I was about to move institutions, I reached out to my funders to let them know about the move, and they helped me get started on the transfer process.
Bottom line. If you’re not sure if it’s OK to reach out to your funder, check with your institution’s grants and/or foundation staff. They are experts who can help you think through best approaches. Don’t struggle on your own.
If you know someone who’s worried about planning grants for the future, would you mind forwarding this email to them? Worries seem more manageable when you know others are rooting for you. We all do better when we help each other. Thank you for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.
P.S. Check out this cool trick for serving grapes at a party. I learned it from a former graduate student. You snip the grapes in small bunches. Makes it easy for people to take and carry the grapes. (Maybe you already knew this, but I thought it was revolutionary.)
A small bunch of grapes.