Julia started Wise Investigator to help researchers get funding for their research
I had this picture of what getting research funding looks like in my head. I had sought small grants and travel funding in grad school. But never the big funding proposals my online presence clients write. I know that research funding might be integral to your career. It may also be something you’ve never attempted before, and has recently become a goal for you.
I learned so much about getting your research funded the 1st time I met Dr. Julia Barzyk.
After 10 years at a major United States funding organization, geoscientist Dr. Julia Barzyk left to start Wise Investigator. She helps Principal Investigators (PIs) get funding for their research to grow their careers.
I’m delighted to feature Julia here on The Social Academic. Let’s uncover some of the hidden curriculum together to get your research funded.
Before we get started…
Subscribe to The Social Academic blog.
Jennifer: Hello, everyone. I am Jennifer van Alstyne. Welcome to The Social Academic. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Julia Barzyk of the Wise Investigator LLC. We’re gonna be talking about research funding.
Save this for later, because you’re gonna wanna come back to it.
Julia, I’m so glad you joined us today. Would you please introduce yourself?
Julia: Thanks, Jennifer.
I’m Julia Barzyk. I’m speaking to you from my home in Durham, North Carolina. I spent most of my career as a geoscientist.
Right now I’m working full-time helping university researchers get funding for their research, and by doing so, grow their careers more generally.
Jennifer: Why is this something that’s important to you? Why did you decide to do this full-time?
Julia: I’m gonna tell you a little bit about my responsibilities that I had in the position that I was in prior to what I’m doing now, because I think that answers a good bit of the question.
“I’m a geoscientist. I spent many years working at a major United States funding organization managing a portfolio of research in geoscience and civil engineering.”
These are projects that researchers at universities, otherwise known as professors, or principal investigators, or PIs, are performing on university campuses. They’re conducting their research with these funds, they’re supporting students with these funds, and they’re supporting themselves in terms of some salary with these funds.
My duties involved going out into the academic and the scientific community and letting people know about the opportunities through the organization I was with.
I had a lot of interactions with people as part of this outreach. Then we would have conversations that would go to the actual research topics that people were interested in pursuing, discuss and refine those topics.
Some of these people would then submit proposals. I was in charge of managing the proposal evaluation process. I directed that by sending these out for review, getting the comments from those evaluators, synthesizing all of that, and making recommendations on what was gonna be funded.
Some of these proposals were funded, and after that, I followed the work. I managed certain aspects of it. I was also responsible for connecting those university researchers with government scientists and engineers who wanted to collaborate with them. The government only has the capacity that it has in its labs with the staff that it has, and so they can extend that capacity by partnering with extramural researchers, otherwise known as university researchers.
The reason why I went into all of that was because as I was going through this process, year after year…
“I realized that the vast majority of these PIs, or professors, that I was working with were not prepared to know how to engage to their full advantage with this process.”
Generally, the advice that they’re given and the support that they’re given centers around the preparation of the proposal itself. Now, proposal preparation is very important, so I don’t wanna diminish that. This is one of those things where you’ve gotta check all the boxes. So I’m not saying don’t worry about the proposal. Get all of the support that you can on the proposal is my advice to anyone.
But, all those other steps that I described were aspects of the process that principal investigators didn’t even really know existed. By learning about the broader process, they can have a lot more success and not waste time writing proposals for an opportunity that may not even be a great fit because it’s a huge effort to write that proposal. Even if someone is not interested in funding your work, I feel like you would much rather know that before you put in those dozens of hours on writing a proposal. I decided the best way I could fix the situation was to resign from that position to dedicate myself fully to doing what I’m doing now, which is teaching this hidden curriculum to these principal investigators (PIs).
Subscribe to The Social Academic blog.
The hidden curriculum of funding
Jennifer: Tell me a little bit more about this hidden curriculum. It sounds like universities are providing some support for researchers, especially when it comes to preparing that proposal, but there’s a lot of things that researchers don’t know about that process.
Can you give me an example of some part of the hidden curriculum that your work supports?
Julia: Just one example of all of these pieces of information that piece together to form this hidden curriculum is when you’re interacting with someone from one of these organizations, is it a community-driven organization like National Science Foundation, or is it a mission-driven organization like something maybe with the Department of Defense?
Because while they’re both gonna be supporting basic research and they may also be supporting more applied research, that is just one thing that can really help guide somebody’s understanding and decisions and the questions they ask and the way they pursue that opportunity because there may be more that an organization wants to get out of a relationship with an investigator than only supporting the science or the research itself.
These are the kinds of things I talk about with clients so they can kind of wrap their heads around the bigger picture and then know how to use that to their advantage and know where the best places for them to engage are or the best places for them to say, “I’m gonna pass on that.”
Jennifer: Yeah, actually, just the word that you said, “relationship,” like it’s an ongoing relationship. It’s not just a proposal that’s going to be funded or not funded, it’s a longer journey.
That’s something that I did not recognize when I was still applying for research funds. I am so happy that someone like you exists because universities just aren’t providing the kind of support that researchers actually need to launch themselves into the world into this more funded reality. I want that for researchers. And so I’m so glad that we’re talking today.
Now, one thing that I wanted to ask you about specifically was a LinkedIn video that you had posted in the last couple of weeks. And you talked about how important it is to ask open-ended questions when you first connect with someone at a funding agency. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Julia: The short answer is that there are so many opportunities and by that I mean funding opportunities that are available that any one representative will know about. Even if this person at the funding organization is responsible primarily for one program or one opportunity, they are going to know about many, many other opportunities within their organization and even at other organizations.
At the same time, the researcher is going to have many different ideas for research that they would like to pursue. They may go into a conversation thinking, “Oh, I think this topic would be a good fit for this opportunity based on something I read.”
But if you go in with that narrow focus, you could get a “no” or even if you got a “yes,” you could still be missing out on more information.
It’s the open-ended conversation is for both parties to say kind of, here’s an overview of the opportunities and someone to say, here’s an overview of my interests and what I do. And even beyond the research topic, are they engaged with the community? Are there other aspects of what they do that are important and could be relevant to that funder? But with a yes or no question, you may not get to that.
Jennifer: Oh, that’s fascinating. So it really is a conversation starter. And it’s because both of you as the person submitting the proposal and the research funder are able to bring information to that conversation that can help you both get closer to your goals. I really like that. I really have never thought about it this way before.
Can I ask, do you get pushback from people who are coming to work with you? Are they like, wait, this is how it works? Like, I had no idea. Is there a lot of shock?
Julia: Really, their reaction is really one of relief. Because it’s like they know that there’s more to the picture. Because these are very bright people. And they’ve seen aspects of this manifest here and there. But to have somebody put all of those pieces together, it does provide a relief.
It’s not so much that they’re shocked, but that it’s like, “Oh, okay, now I see it.” And then once you see it, it’s one of those things you don’t really unsee it.
And that’s why we talk about a kind of a transformation because once you know this stuff, you know it, you don’t have to relearn it. You just really are getting to that next stage of your career where the relationship building is important and not in a way, sometimes people would have a feeling of, oh, if it’s a relationship, you know, that can go the wrong way.
If you have a closed network and you’re calling on the same people for opportunities all the time, it’s not letting other people into that circle, into those opportunities. And that’s the way we don’t wanna go where people say, “Oh, it’s an old boys club,” or something like that.
At the same time, we all are building relationships with each other. So we wanna take the positive and the good and the productive aspects of building relationships and sharing opportunities, not the kind of relationship building that closes the opportunities for other people.
Subscribe to The Social Academic blog.
Research as a remote-first environment
Jennifer: I like that. When we first met, one of the things that I pointed out was how much I liked your bookcase behind you. I really like all the things that are on your bookcase and it tells me something about you. You actually talked about how that was like a conscious decision, isn’t that right?
Julia: Yeah, I think definitely you want to, if we’re talking about the remote-first environment, you really want to be setting yourself up with the tools that you need, with the environment that makes you feel good.
That way, when you have an opportunity to be on a podcast, or to have a meeting with a potential collaborator or a client that you can just get right to it. Just like if you met in a coffee shop and you were just set. You got your cup of tea or got your cup of coffee and you sat down and you got right to it.
And so that’s something that’s overlooked, especially now. I mean, if we’re talking about the funding environment, where I believe we can consider the funding environment or the funding landscape to be remote-first. I feel like a lot of professors, they definitely had to adapt to a lot with the pandemic and teaching on Zoom. Fortunately, they’ve really restarted the campus life environment and that’s wonderful. But it could be the case that they start thinking, “Oh, I’m back here all in real life again and I have this dynamic environment in my lab, in my building, in my office.”
“But the funding environment, I believe we should think about that as remote first. I think everybody should set themselves up to be able to thrive in that remote environment.”
Jennifer: I love that, remote-first. That’s definitely a new idea for a lot of researchers. I mean, at least when I talk to the professors who I work with on their online presence, a lot of them say, “I don’t network online. I network in person when I’m at conferences. I network at these in-person events,” but when you think about research funding as a remote-first environment, it means that you also need to reconsider how you are able to and want to network. I really love that you brought that insight to us.
Subscribe to The Social Academic blog.
You need an online presence for your research
Jennifer: Now, the professors that I work with at least have anxiety about talking about their work, about talking about their research online. And I really help them with that process and build their confidence.
Why is that helpful for research funders to see? Why is having an online presence helpful for people who are actually funding that research?
Julia: First of all, the most practical reason would be just to be findable. If you have something online that has some ability to show up in a search engine and a LinkedIn page is good for that because search engines like that, website can be optimized to show up in a search engine. And that’s a way that when people at a funding organization are looking for experts…
And of course we think, “Oh, they’re looking at me so I can review proposals. Well, that’s more work.” And that is true. They may be looking for you so that you can hopefully do some work for them, or let’s just say for the community. And that’s something that comes to mind first.
But there are other reasons why people in the government or at funding organizations will be looking for experts:
- to serve on a panel
- to serve on a committee
- to speak at a workshop
- or participate in a workshop
And so you do want to be findable. Then maybe you’re findable and that does lead being fundable.
Then beyond that, you do wanna stay top of mind. That’s a spaced repetition type thing. It’s that if you keep seeing somebody, then when you are in a conversation with a colleague, I need an expert in this, or who could I talk to about that? That’s the person that’s going to pop to mind as well as building this know, like, and trust, which is important for relationships, especially in the virtual environment.
Beyond that, I would say it moves into being supporting inclusivity, because like I was saying before, I definitely know that people at these organizations want to bring out and bring new people into the conversation. They can do that most easily if people are findable.
“Beyond that, moving into can it bring you any kind of advantage to a proposal, to a funding decision? Well, decisions are going to be made based on strict evaluation criteria. And that’s the way that they should be made. That said, I think very much a picture is worth a thousand words in this case.”
Julia: Because when you are writing a proposal, there is either a strict page limit on the project description, or there’s an effective page limit because evaluators don’t want to read, more than a certain number of pages.
But if you can show that you’ve engaged in the community, people know that about you because there’s some information that demonstrates that, be it photos, or a press release, or something like that on the internet they may have seen. Then it’s demonstrating, “Oh, this person has done this community-based work that they’re talking about doing in the proposal.” Or, “Oh, we’re really hoping that these researchers could maybe collaborate with some of our government scientists and engineers. Here is some evidence that they did that in years past with another group of collaborators.”
These are things that anyone can demonstrate about themselves online. It kind of proves the point more than just writing a few sentences saying, “Oh, we’ve got these great ideas. We promise we’re gonna do all this stuff.”
Subscribe to The Social Academic blog.
Where to find research funding
Jennifer: I love that. It’s like more social proof, more engaging places that those research funders can explore about you. Now, I am curious. Let’s say I’m a researcher who’s ready to start finding some research funding. Where do I start? It sounds like it’s not with the proposal. I need to have a conversation. So where do I start?
Julia: The first place to start would be to go to, and now I’m gonna speak mostly about federal government opportunities, but it would be to go to Grants.gov and to search by keyword for funding opportunities that you may be able to submit to. You’re gonna see a lot of stuff come up from all different agencies and organizations. It’s a lot to start working your way through.
If you’re at a university, your institution may have, or probably does have a subscription to commercial tools that will help you do these kinds of searches too. I would say, sure, do that. And that’s something most people think to do because they know that that’s available. That’s kind of what I’m calling like a bottom-up approach.
They should also be doing a top-down, which is to actually go to the websites of these various organizations. It’s time-consuming and it’s cumbersome because many of these websites are not easy to navigate. Some of them may say clearly, oh, “Find funding” or “Grants”, and you can go there. And even if you go there, you may get a little tripped out because it may be kind of a dead end or something. But if you’re persistent, try to find it on the website because then you’re getting the big picture view of what is this organization broadly.
“What you wanna do is when you’re going top-down or going from the bottom up is look for the names of actual people. These are your program officers, or program directors, program managers, technical points of contact that could be called or other points of contact. And you want to reach out to them because there is so much information out there.”
Julia: There is no hope. I mean, I don’t mean to sound too pessimistic, but there’s very little hope of being able to sort through it all on your own. And you don’t wanna find yourself behind your computer, just scrolling PDF after PDF hundreds of pages of this stuff, trying to think where your research could fit when it’s a much better option to
- send the email
- a video call
- an audio call
Get on the phone with someone who works at one of these organizations and ask them “What would be the best opportunity for me?” Have that back and forth conversation. I encourage people to reach out because I worked with many of these folks for many years and they are friendly people.
Their email inboxes do get very full. So if you don’t get a response at first, just write back, but they wanna hear from you and they want to help you. I promise that. So don’t hesitate to reach out.
Jennifer: I love that. They wanna hear from you and they want to help you and follow up if you don’t hear back because they do wanna hear from you. That’s so important for people to know. Thank you for sharing that.
Subscribe to The Social Academic blog.
Wise Investigator, a program for researchers like you
Jennifer: Tell me more about your program. I wanna hear all about it because I think some people listening are gonna wanna join.
Julia: When we start out in this 10-week program, which they’re able to participate in by asynchronously in terms of watching some recorded classes, but then also each week have a one-on-one meeting with me so that we can then talk about how they’re getting their materials and their situation aligned with the material that we’re focusing on that week, if that makes sense. They do have some assignments week to week and we go over that each week so they get that one-on-one feedback and support.
We start off talking about a research vision and getting clear on that. And that aligns with the focus on the online presence and really up-leveling that because your online presence should be guided by your overall career and even life vision.
From there, we break down the mechanics of the funding process. And that’s some of the stuff I was talking about when we started the call about what are actually all of the steps that occur for something to go from a conversation to a funded research project and then after, what happens after it’s funded. By pulling back the curtain on this, then that really helps clients start to see, “Oh, how can I help move this process forward? How can I be a more active participant in these various steps and build these win-win-win relationships?”
“It should be a win for the person performing the research or the Principal Investigator, a win for the individual that you’re working with, that program officer, and a win for the broader organization.”
Julia: By learning what goes on behind the scenes, that helps support achieving these outcomes.
From there, we go into framing research questions effectively. This is something that it’s pretty spotty in terms of, some faculty have had some training in this previously, but many of them have had no training in it whatsoever.
This is very much an iterative process in terms of looking at their ideas. They get ideas out on paper and we iterate on that to get those framed in a way that’s going to be most advantageous for them to be able to present this material to a general audience, to an audience of scientists who are maybe not in their specialty, but just have general technical knowledge. And then of course, they still have to explain it down in the weeds to the technical experts who will eventually do the evaluations on the proposal.
From there, we talk about the approaches of actually getting in contact with these program officers so that they can have the most productive conversations possible. That really provides a lot of relief for clients because that’s something that they hear a lot, kind of like what I was just saying about, just talk to them, just reach out, just talk to them. And they don’t necessarily know, “Well, what should I say in the email? How should I start the conversation?” And so we go over all of that and I provide that information, which is helps people get started on those conversations.
Jennifer: Oh, this feels like such a supportive process. I really like that. What is the thing that you say people are getting most from your work together?
Julia: You know, it’s been interesting that the feedback that I’ve gotten in terms of what has been most valuable has really varied from client to client. Some of them definitely, that framing of the research question where people have said, “No one has ever sat down with me and gone through this before.” And these are people who are Assistant Professor positions at top programs and they’ve accomplished so much in their careers, yet they never had that helping hand to just take the time to work through a one-page document and pull out the parts that are kind of most important and need to be emphasized and reorder them and draw out the impact. That’s an exercise that many of them have never been through before.
Others have appreciated the fact that this provides a broader framework for them to approach the entire process. And many of them have really had a reaction that they weren’t expecting to have about how good they felt about starting that online presence.
In fact, one of my clients, just six weeks into working with me, using what she learned in the program, and it wasn’t even something that I had coached her to do specifically, but she took the information she was learning, she hadn’t finished the program, but she came in and said that she had actually gotten additional funding just by sending an email.
So while you’re not going to get a $300,000 reward by asking for it in an email, and that’s not the way we want things to run, she had a situation where she was able to take some beautiful photos that had been taken of her working with a student in the lab, attach those with the description of the progress that she had made to an internal funding body within her organization, and said, “Hey, look at this, look at this great work.” And they said, “Yeah, just here’s the funding to support this person over the summer,” just like that.
Those are those quick wins, which of course it’s great to get that support for the summer. But also just how she was beaming with excitement to say, “Oh yeah, it doesn’t always have to be so hard because now I know I should just ask for it, and I’ve got these great photos, and I know what to say on the email.” And that’s a quick win. So that’s a really great outcome.
Jennifer: Oh, that made me feel so warm, I love that, like an email with photos of her working with the students. That’s great.
Julia, it has been wonderful to talk with you about Wise Investigator and your program and all of the amazing work that you’re doing. How can people keep in touch with you after this call?
Julia: Please go to my website and look for me there. I’d love to connect with anybody and everybody.
I think you understand just how much of a privilege it is to work with the clients that we work with because we work with such talented people. I don’t know if a person can really take credit for a gift of talent, but they can take credit for the hard work and dedication on top of the talent that these folks put in.
We’re so fortunate here in the United States that we have people coming from all over the world to continue their studies here and make lives here, and not only to do the research that they’re doing, which is what I support them with, but the contribution they make in teaching, which is enormous.
I’m just inspired by my clients every day, and just a shout out to them because that’s why I’m doing this. I’m here to serve them. I just wanted to give them the credit they deserve for all of the hard work they’ve done to get to the point that they’re at, and what I’m able to do with them is really a small, give them a small helping hand just to get to this mid-career stage after all of the years and years that they have put in. It’s a privilege to be able to do that.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for joining me on The Social Academic. This has been a conversation with Dr. Julia Barzyk of Wise Investigator. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the next interview.
Julia: Thanks, Jennifer!
Subscribe to The Social Academic blog.
Bio for Dr. Julia Barzyk
Julia Barzyk founded Wise Investigator LLC to help U.S.-based university researchers get funded so they can grow their careers with the intention and resources they need to thrive. Prior to starting Wise Investigator, she managed a portfolio of basic research in geoscience and civil engineering at the U.S. Army Research Office. She received her Ph.D. in Geophysical Sciences from the University of Chicago. Julia lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her husband and two teenagers.
Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and communications consultant. She founded The Academic Designer LLC to help professors build a strong online presence for their research, teaching, and leadership. Jennifer’s goal is to help people feel confident sharing their work with the world.
Jennifer’s personal website
The Academic Designer LLC