The grant game: Momma said there'de be days like this

Dec 11 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Lot of NSF BIO folks are getting feedback on their grants right now. As expected, most of it is bad news.

Merry Christmas.

But lest we forget, those of you getting rejections are in great company. We're slogging through a historically lean time and this shit is just hard right now. We hear about people's successes, often without seeing the trail of rejections that got them there.

The reason I started this blog way back when I was bright-eyed and bushy tailed, rather than the jaded dough ball I am today, was to provide an unvarnished view of (hopefully) getting to tenure. Even in the worst of times, when I really thought I was never going to make it, I tried to be honest. I did that because, at the time, I didn't see a resources out there that told the whole story and not just what shows up on the CV. Success is visible to everyone, failure remains in the shadows.

Making it as a research scientist right now requires persistence. The ONLY reason I've been semi-successful is because I got back up every. damn. time. I don't have better ideas than my colleagues. I'm not smarter than they are. I don't have the pedigree or awards many of them have. But it turns out I can take a punch pretty well. I'm not alone.

So if you're getting bad news right now, scream, cry, drive around listening to country ballads, or whatever else you need to do. But turn that thing back around. If you have to change the focus, do it. If you have to add a section to make a case for feasibility, dig in. Sulk for a day or two, then figure out what you need to fix and get it back in.

You're only knocked out when you don't get off the mat.

19 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I often claim my sole demonstrable talent for this job is the ability to take a punch. I have no idea why and I'd rather I didn't have to. I suppose there are those that escape the gauntlet un-pummeled.

    What concerns me is twofold. First, I have no idea how to mentor so as to increase resilience in trainees. Two, if this stupid career arc selects for this dubious personality trait, we may be systematically excluding those who would be excellent contributors but don't happen to have the resilience factor.

  • I totally agree with your concerns. I've watched it. I've had people tell me they changed their career path after following my blog and seeing the struggle. That sucks and I don't see a way around it in the current environment.

  • Meghan Duffy says:

    I feel like being resilient in the face of rejection has helped me a lot -- I bounce back well from punches. And, over time, I've been knocked back less and less by those punches (even if they still hurt):
    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/are-you-resistant-or-resilient-in-the-face-of-rejection/

  • babyattachmode says:

    I agree with Meghan that it is something you can learn and get better at from experiencing it and realizing that you can bounce back and try again. Just today a colleague was really concerned that I would be upset by a bunch of comments on a thing that I wrote. My response: HAHAHAHA I've had worse comments on almost everything I wrote before this.

    But at the same time, deciding that you are happier at a place where your cool plans aren't constantly rejected in a crappy way via impersonal emails that you receive at the worst time in your life is also a good outcome IMO.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And I will note that resilience is not one thing. PP's post you linked hints at his way which appears to be overweening ebullient self-confidence and enthusiasm. I am, to be honest, the angsty, depressive, days of funk type.

  • Established PI says:

    I teach my trainees to think of it as a game that they need to learn how to play. Most important is not to take each grant rejection as a personal rejection (been there), but rather as a sign that the application was deficient in one or more ways. After the weeping and gnashing of teeth subside, they need to take a cold hard look at what they sent in to the study section and how the application failed to either present a fundable case, address an important problem, or make the case in a way that is clear and compelling. Virtually all applications that aren't funded are deficient in the latter category, at least in my experience.

    One thing that just amazes me is how many of my junior faculty colleagues fail to take the most simple and obvious step to prepare a good grant: they do not take advantage of the willingness of their senior colleagues to critique multiple rounds of a grant application. People, don't let the study section be the first to critique your grant! Start at least two months in advance (three would be better), get feedback on multiple versions of your specific aims and get several senior faculty to read at least one version of your grant (preferably more). If your colleagues won't do it, contact your friends from graduate school or postdoc days. And be sure to identify people willing to give you tough criticism - better before the grant submission than on the summary statement.

  • AScientist says:

    I've been shocked to talk to junior (postdoc) people who got their postdoc fellowship application rejected and thought (literally), "Oh well, that's it then" without any awareness that they can and should revise and resubmit! Like they just didn't understand rejection was part of the process. Mentoring fail.

  • qaz says:

    Are there other fields that don't require this kind of resilience?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Qaz- of course there are.

  • DJMH says:

    There may be other fields that don't require resilience, but life as a whole surely requires some. Maybe it's good to be in a field that teaches it to you.

  • qaz says:

    In comparable fields? In any sports competition, at least half the players lose. An actors' life is one of auditions and rejection. I know for a fact that writers get most of their poetry/plays/novels rejected. How many startups fail? The data I've seen says that 60% of restaurants fail in their first year and 80% in their first five. Given the number of times contractors come by my door asking if I have work I want them to do (more than weekly), I'm pretty sure that any such sales operation is going to have a lot of ask-and-rejection cycles. In any legal trial, half the lawyers lose. How many job applicants are there for any given job (even flipping burgers and working retail)? Life is about resilience and the ability to pick oneself up off the ground, dust off the dust, and get back on the horse.

    That being said, there is a lot to be done about training for that resilience, giving trainees (and PIs!) the confidence to pick oneself up. Resilience does not have to be accomplished alone. One role for coaches, mentors, and colleagues, is to help restore confidence and to help one back up.

    This is the human condition. We need networks of friends and colleagues (and blogs!) to help support us through the dark times.

  • LincolnX says:

    @qaz, I think the difference is that in science the stakes are high for each proposal and at the same time the safety net has eroded. That feels different than applying for a job (there's frequently another job out there, even if it's not exactly the one you want) or playing a sport (always the game next week - so it's how you are on average for the season rather than how you are today).

    "Taking a punch" seems too mild somehow - more like tolerating acid being dripped into your eyes.

    But yes, persistence.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    "dubious personality trait"

    You're probably just trolling, because even you can't be as stupid as it would take to think of resilience/persistence as dubious. Obviously, it is the personality trait without which none of the others (for better or worse) can manifest. Without resilience/persistence, you are totally at the mercy of which way the wind is blowing at every moment in time. With resilience, you can tack and jibe, and ride the long-term trends.

  • qaz says:

    @LincolnX - I agree 100%. I have been arguing for years that we need a safety net that can enable labs to survive the variability in the tides of funding, but have been shot down regularly as "wanting sinecures" (competition makes you strong!) and for not "appreciating that labs exist in research-only situations" (teaching? who cares about teaching?).

    As has been said on this and other blogs for many years, the trick is to submit so many grants so often that the stakes are not as high for each proposal. Of course that means a lot of wasted work writing grants.

    YMMV, but I do better science when I'm not fighting for survival in the thunderdome.

  • drugmonkey says:

    CPP- it's called "self-deprecation". I realize it is a foreign concept to you but it is pretty common.

    qaz- a Professor who is mostly employed to instruct undergraduates in a topic area is by no means under this sort of constant-failure represented by the grant game. All paper get in eventually so even if they have a publication requirement it is mostly via just putting their feet in front of the other. This aspect of being a grant-funded scientist is radically different from the sort of quotidian need to accomplish minimum standards in other job sectors. The plumber just has to go out and fix the toilet. The company owner is the one that faces the scenario of not getting the contract after bidding on it.

  • Margaret says:

    @qaz Most typical office desk jobs do not require hardly any resilience to rejection. Those are good jobs to have when you're getting plenty of punches in your personal life.

  • new PI says:

    Resilience to extreme environments is arguably a dubious personality trait because it often linked to less desirable traits. It doesn't have to be, but it often is. Lack of resilience comes from fear; fear is correlated with risk aversion, accurate risk assessments, and emotional sensitivity. Even people with identical philosophies of science and equivalent abilities will differ in their ability to withstand the accompanying b.s. There are notorious differences between people, especially genders, in their ability to accurately assess their own abilities. There are also consistent differences between people in their propensity for risk. The environments that foster the most drive and creativity in some people cause others to wilt. DM is right to think about selection pressures while these traits are linked.

  • Anonymous Kibitzer says:

    DM said "First, I have no idea how to mentor so as to increase resilience in trainees."

    Some people think they do. They throw the punches at the trainees, and those that get back up succeed in their labs.

    The 'tough love', 'this is what the real world is like' "training" environments. We've all seen them, and maybe lived through them. Some people can take the punches because they get back up, or the wobble and they don't fall down. Some people can take the punches because they're just hardened, or started out stone cold.

  • TreeHugger says:

    One of the dubious personality traits that I have seen proliferate in this hyper-competitive atmosphere is over-selling. I have seen many people submit proposals for very ambitious projects they have absolutely no idea how to do. To survive this, those PIs end up getting other to do the job for them, whilst taking credit themselves. As a young researcher, I have to be very careful not to get dragged into such collaborations, because I know I will end up doing most of the work, only to be a middle author in the papers.

Leave a Reply