Advice for Planning PhD Students: Writing a Grant Budget and Budget Justification

Image: Scrooge McDuck getting his first NIH grant

Image: Scrooge McDuck getting his first NIH grant

Grants are an interesting topic in the planning academy. For some, grants are relatively unimportant, because their scholarship doesn’t cost a whole lot of money to produce or they have sufficient internal resources to support their research activities. For others, grants are an absolute necessity, whether to support their own salary (so-called “soft money” positions) or to pay for expensive research costs like graduate assistants, travel, or data collection. Some of the most highly productive planning faculty operate research centers that employ staff members and receive millions of dollars in grant money each year. I think it is fair to say that for most planning faculty, and especially younger faculty, grant writing occupies a relatively large part of our research time and receiving grants is essential to our productivity. One result of having such diversity in our discipline (versus, say, the natural sciences where most research faculty members are expected to raise funds to fund their lab) is that PhD students receive wildly different training on grantsmanship, from no training at all (my experience) to active mentoring and inclusion in research center activities and large grant proposals.

As I’ve written before, I think that every PhD student should learn how to write competitive grant proposals. Besides paying for useful stuff like travel and data collection, preparing grant proposals exposes your ideas to external scrutiny, provides validation (of a kind) of your research agenda, and sets useful deadlines for productivity. Plus, as state support for higher education continues to decline, grants are an increasingly important part of faculty’s overall funding picture.

This essay is intended to help you become a successful grant writer, and is specially targeted at those students who are not receiving hands-on training in grantsmanship.* ** It will be published in three parts. This first entry focuses on the grant budget.*** Part II will discuss writing effective grant proposals or narratives, and part III will discuss common sources of grant funding for planning researchers.

Part I: Writing a Grant Budget

Grant budgets are a detailed description of 1) how much money you are asking for and 2) your reasons for asking for the money. How much money should you request in a grant proposal? Like all good academic questions, the answer is it depends. Some grantors and grant programs will give you clear guidelines like the average grant amount or the maximum amount that you may apply for. Others provide a set amount that you will fully account for in your budget. And still others give you very little guidance, with the assumption that you will ask for the right amount of money to achieve your project goals and objectives. It is important that you carefully review the grant guidelines to establish how much your proposal should ask for. Even if the guidelines do not specify a set amount, it is very likely that there is an average range that you will want to aim for. For example, one of my grants is from the National Science Foundation. While the particular program I applied to does not give you set limits on grant amounts, looking at past recipients shows that most awards fall between $200,000-$600,000, meaning that a proposal for $5,000 or $5,000,000 would probably be unsuccessful. This all points to a broad guideline: choose grants that are the right “fit” to your project. Need a small amount of money to develop a limited case study and generate theories for later testing? A smaller, internal grant might be the right choice. Need the resources to support a research team working over several years? Then a large funder or foundation will be your likely funding source.

Once you have identified a grant “target,” you will then need to write your proposal and budget. Grant budgets are typically made up of two parts: the detailed budget and the budget justification.

The detailed budget is a numerical description of your proposed spending that is broken down into categories. While the categories will vary, they generally include:

  • Personnel: who are the people that you need to accomplish your research goals and objectives, and how will you pay for their time? For faculty members, this might include summer salary (the salary that tenure track faculty get paid when not on their 9 month contract, i.e. the summer months), academic year salary (sometimes called salary savings, or money that gets returned to a tenure track faculty member’s department/college because the grant is paying for it), or regular salary (for soft-money funded positions). You might also budget for a course buyout, which provides funds to reduce your mandatory teaching load, thereby freeing up time to work on your grant-funded project.

    This personnel category also includes the cost of research assistance, typically from undergraduate or graduate students. If you work at a PhD granting institution, you might include the cost of a PhD student (i.e. tuition, benefits and stipend). At professional programs like mine, we mostly hire Masters-level students and pay them hourly. In some cases, you might hire research assistants external to your university through a subcontract.

    For both faculty and students, you will also need to budget for fringe benefits (i.e. the cost of insurance, retirement plans, etc.). Most universities have established benefits rates. At CU Denver, faculty benefits are 27% of salary, meaning that one month of faculty time = one month of salary + 27% of that salary for benefits.

  • Travel: where will you or your research team need to go to successfully conduct your research? These costs should be included under the travel category. In general, there are three types of travel that grants might support. First is the travel to conduct the actual research, i.e. collect data. Second (and usually only included in large grants) is travel to support the research team, i.e. getting together in-person to conduct project business. Third is travel for research dissemination, i.e. traveling to conferences, workshops or communities to present your results and gather feedback.

    Estimating travel costs is pretty straightforward. First, you need to get there. For airline travel, you should use a travel website like Google Flights or Kayak to estimate the cost of a round-trip ticket in economy class. Remember to be reasonable in your request - you shouldn’t quote the absolute lowest cost ticket you can find, because it might not be available when it comes time to actually spend the money. Neither should you go with the absolute most expensive option. Use your best judgement on what a reasonable ticket will likely cost and use that number. For car travel, you can either estimate the cost of a rental car (with appropriate insurance and gas) or the cost to reimburse you for using your own vehicle using IRS mileage rates.

    Next, you have the costs incurred while traveling. For travel in the United States, the GSA per-diem (literally, “for each day”) rates are the go-to reference for daily travel costs related to lodging, meals and incidentals. Lodging is the average cost of a hotel room in that particular area, while meals & incidentals describes a daily budget for food and other small cash-based expenses like tipping hotel staff. For international travel, the U.S. State Department provides per-diem rates for most countries and cities around the world. Please note that these rates can be outrageously high for many international destinations. For example, the State Department per-diem for Kolkata, India (where I do much of my research) is a $376 per day, an amount that would normally last me a full week. For many grantors this international rate will be seen as excessive, and you would be wise to request a more reasonable amount that will cover decent lodging and meals and expressed as a percentage of the state department rate (e.g. I am requesting $75 per-diem costs per day, which is 30% of the maximum allowable rate).

    Lastly, you need to account for local transportation. How will you get from the office to the airport? From the airport to your work site? Around to collect data? Costs like taxis, public transportation, and rental cars fit under this heading.

    If you are applying for travel funds to support research dissemination (which most large grantors will expect), you can include the cost of conference registration in addition to the travel costs associated with the conference.

    For many of my grant applications I find it useful to estimate the above costs for a generic data collection trip (see Figure 2 below). So, a 3-day research trip might budget out to $1200, when all of the above items are estimated and included. A conference trip might be more expensive, when the cost of registration is included. After I figure out what a generic trip costs, I can then justify the the budget based on my number of expected trips (see the budget justification discussion below).

  • Computers or Equipment: Some grants allow you to request the purchase of computers or equipment necessary to complete your research project. For example, one of my colleagues recently purchased a drone using grant monies, to help her conduct post-disaster damage reconnaissance. These type of expenses will go in this category. Be aware that most grantors will expect that your university will provide the basic computing and software resources necessary to complete your work. But, in some instances more specialized or capable equipment is necessary and justifiable.

  • Materials and Supplies: This category includes the costs associated with activities like printing survey forms, renting meeting spaces, or producing research outputs (e.g. printed reports) for dissemination.

  • Consultant Services: For some projects, you may need the specialized skills of a consultant to achieve your research objectives. For example, in one of my previous projects we needed teaching materials translated into an indigenous language. We hired a local translation firm to consult on this task, since we did not have that capacity at our university.

  • Publication Costs: Some grantors allow you to request funds to pay for publication costs, or open-access fees that are (sadly) required by many major journals to make our work openly and easily accessible to the public.

  • Facilities and Administration (F&A): F&A, sometimes called indirect costs or overhead, is the amount of money your university requires that you charge a grant for the resources they provide to you generally. For example, I work in a very plain but nice office building in downtown Denver, have a university issued computer, visit the library regularly and rely on staff members to accomplish my work. While these costs can’t be individually assigned to any one grant (I use my computer for everything, for example), the university requires that I include F&A as part of my grant budgets. This offsets their costs of providing me with all these resources.

    If you have never applied for a large federal grant before, you might be shocked by how much F&A can be. The University of Colorado Denver, for example, charges 55.5% on sponsored research, meaning that for every $1 I budget on project costs, I also have to budget .55¢ for F&A. Suddenly a $500,000 budget looks a lot more like $250,000. For some funders, like the NSF or NIH, these costs are negotiated and expected. Others might not be as excited about paying such high F&A charges. The good news is that most universities have a tiered F&A policy, meaning that they charge different rates to different types of funders. If I am applying for money from a non-profit organization, for example, my F&A rate can go as low as 10%.

This covers most of the common categories of budget costs that I write into my grants. What do budgets actually look like? Following are two examples of budgets I wrote for grants in the past 18 months. The first is a simple, 1-year internal grant budget. The second is a multi-year budget supplement to a federal grant. As you will see, they include different types of expenses and different levels of detail, depending on the grant requirements:

Figure 1: Internal grant budget

Figure 1: Internal grant budget

Figure 2: Multi-year federal grant budget

Figure 2: Multi-year federal grant budget

Part II: The Budget Justification

The second important component of most grant application budgets is the budget justification. A budget justification is a written narrative of your grant request, describing the amount you are requesting and your reasoning or rationale for requesting it. It also includes information on how you arrived at your budget numbers. The budget narrative should be straightforward, comprehensive and efficient. You should describe each cost in terms of 1) how it helps you to achieve your project goals/objectives and 2) how you arrived at the amount. Your budget justification does not need to be verbose or eloquent - just stick to the facts and provide all of them. For example, here is a simple budget justification that corresponds to the internal grant detailed budget (Figure 1) above:

Figure 3: Budget Justification for Internal Grant

Figure 3: Budget Justification for Internal Grant

And here is a snippet of our budget justification for the multi-year federal grant (Figure 2):

Figure 4: Travel portion of budget justification for multi-year federal grant

Figure 4: Travel portion of budget justification for multi-year federal grant

A few last thoughts or pieces of advice on writing your grant budget:

  • Different grants have different restrictions on what you can and cannot apply for. Some may require that you keep F&A rates below a certain amount, or do not allow F&A costs at all. Some grants specify that faculty salary is not allowed, or will not support the purchase of software or equipment. Again, make sure you read the grant guidelines carefully to understand what budget items are “allowable” and which are not.

  • Some grants require in-kind matches from your university or other entities as part of the grant agreement. An in-kind match is a cost of conducting a research project that is borne by the university or faculty rather than the grant itself, thus “leveraging” the grant dollars. For example, I am currently preparing a grant application that requires a 25% match from the university. That means that my $100,000 request will need to be “matched” by $25,000, in cash or by something worth the equivalent of $25,000. More than likely we will match this with faculty research time (additional time not being paid for by the grant, like academic-year time), a graduate research assistant (paid by our department and not the grant), and the use of a specialized computer facility not normally covered under university F&A rates. What counts as a “match” and what doesn’t varies by grantor, and so you will need to dig into their policies and your university’s typical approach to in-kind matching.

  • It is important to use grant money carefully and appropriately, and to only budget for what you need. It is also important to budget for what you need. A common mistake I see (and have made myself) is to think that a hyper-economical budget will positively stand out. In fact, many grantors might question whether you can really accomplish what you are saying, and whether you are overpromising based on your budget amount. So, before you propose to travel on $4 a day by eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I would urge you to budget reasonably based on project goals and objectives. A successful grant proposal means that the grantor is bought into your project idea and objectives, and wants to give you adequate resources to succeed.

  • When in doubt, ask! At the college, university and grantor level, there are people whose job it is to help faculty understand the guidelines for grant programs and give you advice on how to effectively apply for them. Hopefully these basic guidelines will help you understand all the questions you have, and you can reach out to your staff or the grant officer to answer them.

Stay tuned for future posts on writing the grant narrative and how to search for grantors who might support your planning research.

*As with all of my blog posts, I am writing from the position of a tenure-track faculty member at a U.S. public research university. Depending on your location and position, this information might be more or less useful.

**Is there a gender neutral way of saying “grantsmanship?” Grantspersonship? Grantship?

***It is important to note that I write this entry to be broadly useful during your PhD studies and into your research career. Some of the specific points I discuss below (like summer salary or F&A rates) may not apply to the grants you are seeking as a PhD candidate, but should be helpful after you secure your first faculty position.