Grants 101 Careers

What kind of help can you ask for?

Aug 03, 2023

Last year, I sent my youngest to school with a hard boiled egg. I was excited. I’d been searching for months for a protein she’d actually eat. Over the weekend, she declared hard boiled eggs to be “delicious!” So I happily packed one into her Monday lunch. As soon as I picked her up from school, I asked her how she liked her egg.

“I didn’t eat it. Nobody opened it for me.”

Perplexed, I couldn’t figure out what she meant. I’d given her a peeled egg. After discussion, it turns out she’d never seen a whole egg. She’d only eaten eggs cut in half. She thought her whole egg was “closed.” And she didn’t know she could ask an adult for help.

Grant writing is a lot like getting a hard boiled egg in your lunch for the first time. It’s not clear how to gain access (to funds or egg yolks). And it’s not clear when you can ask for help. In fact, I have a reader question on this topic (paraphrased for brevity):

Question: I’m working on a K. Sometimes it feels awkward to ask mentors for things. What’s typical? For example, should I be drafting the letters of support?

If you’re not familiar with K grants, they’re a type of career development grant at NIH. I haven’t been a mentor on a K grant, so I asked Twitter this question. Here’s the range of what people said mentors helped them with (thank you to the scholars who shared their experiences!):

  • Guidance at every step, including weekly or regular meetings.
  • Feedback on the application.
  • Conceptualization.
  • Securing examples.
  • Advice on a mentoring team.
  • Connecting you with a program officer and/or additional mentors.
  • Help with letters of support.
  • Convening a red team to give you feedback (see more on red teams on p. 182 in The Grant Writing Guide).
  • Encouragement.

But here’s the thing. It’s hard to define “typical” because this is a range. Not every mentor will offer all of this support. And I’ve heard plenty of horror stories of mentors who offer no support at all.

As a psychologist, I encourage you to ask mentors and collaborators about their preferences. You could show them this list above and ask them if there are things on the list they enjoy doing or might be able to commit to doing for you. Then say what you want. Healthy relationships are two-sided. They include conversations about needs and wants.

You may be wary of this approach. Maybe you’ve had or seen a mentor punish people for asking for “too much” or being a “burden.” First, let me say I’m sorry. It’s never OK to treat anyone like this. Second, I hope you are able to find places where it is safe to ask questions and voice your needs. This is the foundation for healthier academic environments.

In closing, if you think someone might benefit from today’s newsletter, would you mind forwarding it to them? Thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


Stay in touch: The Newsletter, Twitter, TikTok, and The Grant Writing Guide book.

P.S. You can learn more about how to talk to a program officer here.

P.P.S. Speaking of packing lunch, check out the assembly line we’ve got going on over here.