Grant Newbie: A guide to NSF site visits

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgI mentioned that one of the things I've been doing for the last little while is preparing for ADVANCE-Purdue's first-year site visit, which we had on Friday March 27. This is the first year NSF has been doing first year site visits for ADVANCE, and considering we've only been funded since October 2008 it seemed a little early to me. However, I think it went off fairly well, and I thought I would share with you some of the details below the fold.

The site visit was 1 day; the NSF program officers flew in to town the night before, and flew out again by 7 pm the next day.

The structure of these things can probably be considered pretty generic, although others are welcome to weigh in with different experiences.

We started first thing in the morning with a welcome from our provost and my dean. My dean is serving on the grant as substitute negotiator because our PI (the university president) was recently appointed to the National Science Board and can no longer oversee the budget as this is considered a conflict of interest. After both the provost's and the dean's remarks, the program officers asked questions, including the health of the institution's budget,

Our first "two" sessions were to be focused on giving the program officers an up-to-the-minute overview of what we had been doing, from the 10,000 ft perspective. Really what we focused our time on was answering the program managers' questions, which were excellent -- perceptive and holistic at the same time. In particular, they focused their questions on policy -- in particular, how was ADVANCE-Purdue situating itself to impact the policies of the institution, as the purpose of this grant is to influence institutional change?

For this portion, we should have prepared an information sheet -- as the grant is focused on women, particularly women of color, it would have been helpful for the program officers to know the populations we're working with here at Purdue. Oops. Next time for sure.

We had a short break at about 10:15, and then the program officers had closed meetings with the Affirmative Action Office director and the financial people. Something useful that came out of this latter meeting and which seems useful to share was that ADVANCE programs should be trying to influence the use of their indirect costs to supporting women's participation in STEM. In other words, our business managers were open to the possibility that we could lobby the institution to provide childcare at ADVANCE events, paid for from our indirect costs. Intriguing....

Then I was up -- my job was to report on the progress of the integrated research that we've taken on. I gave a short overview of the people involved, how all the parts fit together, and then some specifics on the progress and short-term goals of the different research projects. Here's my presentation:

I was asked some very good but pointed questions about our grant's focus on women of color. One massive problem with research on women in STEM is that the experiences of women of color get obscured -- we find that research on "women" tends to report the experiences of white women more explicitly than those of women of color, and part of this is because of the methodological Problem of The Small N. I'm going to write a post on this explicitly -- but for now, it is enough to realize that there is a lot of research out there saying that women of color's experiences in academia are not the same as those of white women, and that across underrepresented ethnic groups, women's experiences aren't the same either.

Anyway. I gave some not-very-satisfying (to me either) answers, and expected that this topic come up again at the end of the visit; I was right.

We then moved on to lunch, where a group of women faculty from across the STEM disciplines on campus were invited to come have lunch together and chat. The assessment folks, staff folks, & student folks were banished from the room for this conversation, which focused on trying to find some needs of women faculty at Purdue. The program officer asked attendees to try to answer the question, "I really wish that ADVANCE would...", and we had a whole host of answers. I was pretty amazed at how forthcoming attendees were, although I also know that some folks didn't feel comfortable sharing their wishes and concerns because of other folks in the room. While I was inspired to hold another one of these gatherings in the near future, I think they will have to be organized in such a way to focus on the needs of pre-tenure women one time, and post-tenure women another time.

After lunch, the program officers met with our internal assessment team, and then our external assessment team who had driven in from Ohio for the visit. I understand the two teams met with the program officers at the same time, and the rest of the day almost the two sets of folks made use of this face-to-face time to get themselves on the same page for who was going to cover which part of the overall evaluation of the project.

Then the program officers sequestered themselves for a little while (15 min?) and then came back to the main room for a report-out to the leadership team, and the internal evaluators and external evaluators were present also. We actually wrapped up the day a little early, which was good because I was completely exhausted from listening so intently and taking notes so vigorously. Note to self: a voice recorder is a good idea to bring next time.

The report-out at the end of the day was really significant for me -- this site visit was supposed to be a way to help us do our work, rather than evaluate the successes we had had so far. In the report-out, one of the things that the program officers pointed out was that we should maybe put some of the data collection and reporting on the back burner and focus on doing some really good marketing of our project, developing a communication strategy, and holding a bunch of relationship-building events for women faculty on campus. I felt these latter two points were things I had recognized were important for us to do.

In addition, they pointed out that I had been doing a lot of grunt work and other folks on the grant should be helping out. I just about cried at that point. No kidding. But I didn't quite. Focused on my obsessive notetaking rather than looking at anyone, least of all the program officers.

The next step is that they write us a report, although I'm not sure when it should arrive.

So, some suggestions of things to think about when planning your site visit schedule, from an n of 1:

  • Draft a schedule at least month in advance (if possible), getting on your upper administration's schedule asap; then run it past your visitor for their comments. We weren't all that timely with this task, but it seemed to work out okay.
  • Don't forget to invite people to the meeting! We had mentioned the date to our external evaluators a long time ago, and to our external consultant; but then I goofed and forgot to close the email/schedule loop with the external consultant so we never got confirmed on her calendar. This was a really big faux pas. :-S
  • Place on meals and breaks, and then your day is broken up into chunks that you can schedule.
  • Breaks allow for you to get your schedule back on track if sessions run long; however, plan for coffee, juice and muffins in the morning, cold drinks or tea and cookies in the afternoon even if your breaks are likely to disappear. People can help themselves when they need, and you don't want people to be cranky because they're getting peckish.
  • Plan to get a digital projector, computer, and screen, in case anyone will need it; however, it's better to have informal Q&A, I think.
  • Plan for a bunch of scribes to help capture the ideas that come up. Then think about how you'll compile all the notes and what you're going to do with them. (We've got to do that next.)
  • It was helpful for us to have a big room for the public sessions, and a smaller room for the closed meetings.
  • Send thank-you notes to your visitors -- the program officers, the business office folks, the faculty visitors, your administration, and the staff who worked to put your program together. Even better if your thank-you notes can have your logo on it.

Now, the caveat to all this is that I understand 3rd year site visits are much more stressful and significant than this first-year visit. The 3rd year site visit is 6 people rather than 2, and the visitors are sometimes ADVANCE PIs, NSF program officers, provosts from other universities, organizational theorists, top-tier administrators and so on. You're expected to prepare a 6 page summary of accomplishments to submit to the site visitors in advance, then they report back to us on site (they'll even need a room with computers and printers and such to start preparing that for your project before they leave campus).

Anyone else out there have advice for hosting site visits? Leave 'em in the comments; even better if you blog about your experiences -- then leave the permalink below.

All I can say is - the whole day had lots of fascinating conversation, but I was just zonked afterwards. It was great to meet the program officers face to face, as now I can see who I'm talking with; but I'm also really glad the whole thing is past. Now to actually *do* what they recommended...

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I know it must have been stressful, but I think first year site visits are a great idea. It would have been very helpful for us to have that opportunity to clarify expectations and build relationships early on in the grant. Our third year site visit was incredibly hectic due to the large number of visitors on the team - we had to schedule three parallel sets of interviews over a day and a half with just about every possible constituency (junior faculty, senior faculty, women, men, department heads, deans, people who had no involvement with Advance... you name it). We had someone (usually a grad student) assigned to each of the three sub-teams of visitors to keep things on schedule, and of course the scheduling itself was quite an accomplishment. All in all, though, it forced our team to really think about what we had been doing and collect lots of documentation, which was very helpful. Lots of it is on our website at… .

Thanks for the pointers, Peggy. We will be sure to call you for more advice for next time. ;-) There's *lots* of good information on your site.

Alice, you continue to amaze me. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and insights. Congrats on a productive site visit (and of course recognition of your hard work during the report out at the end)!