Research Program Management: What Better Job Could There Be Than Giving Money Away?


Grants management is the third career Gail Pesyna has embarked on since earning her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. Career number 1 involved working on science and technology policy for the U.S. Congress. Career number 2 was in sales, marketing, and business management at both DuPont ("about the closest I ever came to chemistry," she says) and the Department of Energy.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK--There's an old television show called "The Millionaire" (ask your grandparents about it), which was a weekly drama (think "E.R." or "Law and Order") about a wealthy man named John Beresford Tipton. Every week he anonymously gave a "cashier's check for one million dollars" to some lucky person--or to some not-so-lucky person, since the real story was always about how getting money could change someone's life for better or for worse.

I often think about "The Millionaire" now that I work for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and I wonder whether Steven Bochco or David Milch might consider doing a remake of it 40 years later based on the work of a foundation program director!

In many respects, this is a wonderful job. It's a rare privilege to be entrusted to help give someone else's money away, and to be able to have a really direct impact and make a difference in other people's lives.

But it's not quite as glamorous as you might think. The decisions, for example, are never made by program directors alone: ours are ultimately made by Sloan's board of trustees, following lengthy and rigorous internal and external reviews. Proposals have to fit very closely with Sloan's objectives and programmatic directions, and they have to be super-high quality. But I will admit that there's almost nothing better than being the one who calls somebody up and says, "Congratulations: the board has approved your grant!"

The other thing that people fail to mention, though, when they talk about this job is that saying, "Congratulations," is a very small part of it. Mostly you're saying, "No."

People are never happy when they hear "no." Some of them have put enormous amounts of time and energy into preparing a proposal. Many have a lot of themselves--their egos and self esteem--tied up in that proposal. Sometimes the program director herself has invested huge amounts of time helping the prospective grantee put his proposal together and getting it reviewed. She may even think it's a great proposal, believe it deserves funding, and has a good chance of success.

But then something happens and the answer is "no." Most of the time, in fact, the answer is "no." So if you don't like giving people "the bad news," read no further--this job is not for you.

Jobs in grants management differ depending on where you work. Sloan is different from other foundations, including many of the government funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, in several ways. First, there are no "junior people" at the Sloan Foundation, although there are at other foundations, particularly the larger ones. Second, we mostly support work in just two areas: science and technology and business and industrial studies. (Traditionally, private foundations support projects that are more socially oriented, like poverty, education, children's health, or the arts.) The third big difference is that we fund very few of the proposals that come in "over the transom"--or unsolicited, if you will. Nor do we often issue formal "requests for proposals" like government funding agencies do.

I mainly work on the business-and-industry side of things, but all of us get involved in everything. Most of our grants are for academic research, and so I generally work with people in business and law schools and departments of economics. But I also interact with people in sociology, anthropology, political science, business history, public policy and engineering--but not very often in chemistry.

Working in policy and business management before coming to Sloan, I've had a very nontraditional career path, and I've loved it. Since program directors have to make critical judgments on a wide variety of subject matter areas, my diverse background is not unusual at the Sloan Foundation. Almost all of us (eight people) have Ph.D.'s in some scientific field or another, and all have had very broad careers before coming here.

A lot of the job of a program director at Sloan (since we do not fund many unsolicited proposals) is trying to figure out who's doing some of the best work in the country on topics that can help us meet our objectives. Then, we encourage and work with these people to submit a proposal to us.

And once in a while, you get to say, "Congratulations!" And feel like a reincarnated John Beresford Tipton, if only for an instant.

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