New year, new strategy

Jan 03 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I guess this is the post where I admit to being a little naive when I first stated this job. See, I didn't do my PhD or a postdoc in the US, so applying to US funding agencies wasn't something I had a chance to get involved in during my training. I wrote my fair share of proposals and read dozens more, but not for NSF. I did get my hands on some successful proposals from friends in the US when I got my job, but all of them were from people a few years ahead of me and who already had a funding track record, so in retrospect they may not have been the best choices.

Nevertheless, I made a number of classic rookie mistakes in writing my first proposals. I had people read them over and tried to make adjustments based on their feedback, but there were still issues that I didn't have a proper feel for. Scope, methodological details, proper sell, "preliminary" data, etc. But honestly, the only way to learn this stuff is to bang your head against the funding agency wall for a while.

The biggest mistake I made (so far) was in the last round. I had gotten the reviews back from one of my grants and the issue that the panel had fixated on was completely absurd and a non-factor that I would not even have imagined that the someone might dream up. I talked to the PO and he basically told me if I could explain that away I should send the proposal back in. And so I did, with minor changes. Big Mistake.

The proposal needed more than that, but I didn't look closely enough or think about it hard enough because I had too much going on and I got the false impression from the PO that the proposal was solid except for the issue in question. Although I think the science is solid, the proposal needed help before being thrown back in the ring and instead I patched it up and sent it back out there to get the shit kicked out of it again. While I'm not happy about that, it's forced me to take a good hard look at the proposal for the first time in a year and I don't like what I see. I should have done this last round, but I thought there was an easy fix and that if I changed too much I would open it up to new criticisms. Even though that may have been true, the proposal needed a serious overhaul and I didn't do it justice last round.

This time I know better. I think. I have more data, but more importantly, I have a new spin. And truthfully, it's a better project now. I went through all the reviews from two rounds and thought hard about the changes I could make. I also read through the whole thing and slashed and burned in a big way. I got rid of unnecessary background and expanded the project in one way while removing a couple major elements that I now think are weak. If I can get it done in the next day or so I might even have the time to get some feedback on it. If I get the data I am waiting on this week, this thing is going to have more hooks than a grade school coat rack.

I'm excited about the revamped proposal and it's chances. I'm sending it to a new program this time and hoping for a fresh start for the whole thing. It took me a while, but I'm finally feeling comfortable with what I need to do to get projects funded and 2010 is the year it'll happen.

11 responses so far

  • Alyssa says:

    I've always wondered why there isn't specific training for new professors. I guess because most figure it out for themselves anyway, and that's the best way to learn.Sounds like you've learned a lot during this process, and I'm sure it will really help with future applications. Good luck in 2010!

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    You made a common mistake, which is to assume that if concerns are not stated, then they don't exist. Bottom line is that reviewers come to an overall conclusion about their enthusiasm for an application, and then find a handful of reasons that justify that level of enthusiasm. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of other reasons that could have just as easily been used instead.The fact that a PO didn't understand--or give a shit--about this is unfortunate.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    The fact that a PO didn't understand--or give a shit--about this is unfortunate.Unfortunate, yes, but I don't think it's a PO's responsibility to coach the new kids. I'm sure many do and it can be very helpful but I'm not sure I can lay any blame there. It's my proposal, not his.

  • AsstProf says:

    Sounds good, PLS. I had an early proposal that got some strong reviews and a couple skeptical ones, too. Barely tweaked it, resubmitted, same response- main critique was lack of "preliminary" data. I still think it's a good idea, but I didn't have the guts to hire someone on my startup package to work on it full time (plus purchase about 50k in necessary equipment). That's when I realized- if the science looks pretty promising but I am not enthusiastic enough to risk some serious cash collecting data, why am I even proposing it? So I set that particular project aside. Obviously that's not the case with your current project, so I'm looking forward to hearing how your next submission goes. Good luck.

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    It sounds like this is definitely moving in the right direction - best of luck! Your comment about deleting unnecessary background while better developing the aims is particularly salient in my world at the moment; thank you for the reminder!

  • Anonymous says:

    Yes, but POs at NSF (temporary appointments) are different from those at NIH (who are more or less full time.) So chances are that they may not even have sat on the panel which reviewed your grant. If that were the case, they will not have much insight into the discussion during the review. It is the PO's job to foster good science. So while coaching newbies is not their responsibility, providing feedback (even in code) about perceived weaknesses of the proposal certainly is their job.

  • Professor in Training says:

    I've had all of my proposals torn to shreds so I feel your pain. Getting honest and objective feedback on reviewers' comments and your proposal(s) from mentors, colleagues and/or friends who are in your general field but who haven't already seen your grants can be a good way to go - it hurts to hear their critiques but ultimately it's beneficial.

  • Odyssey says:

    Anon @ 6:09pm:I'm not sure where you're getting your info from. Some NSF PO's are temporary, but at least as many are permanent. And they sit through all of their review panels in their entirety. Both temps and career PO's. And if one of their assigned proosals is being reviewed by a panel they are not in charge of, they will sit in on the discussion of that proposal. It's all carefully choreographed. It's disappointing to hear this particular PO wasn't helpful. That's not typical in my experience.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    It's true that we learn best from our mistakes. You'll do better this year. You're a *winner*!!!11!! 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Odyssey,I am aware that the POs at NSF sit through the entire panel and drop in on other panels where a particular grant might be discussed. However, if their term ends between the original and resubmission, then they may not have much insight into the panel discussion.

  • [...] Jan – I guess this is the post where I admit to being a little naive when I first stated this job. See, I didn’t do my PhD or a postdoc in the US, so applying to US funding agencies wasn’t something I had a chance to get involved in during my training. [...]

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