How many grant proposals?

Mar 26 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One thing that is really hard to figure out, especially as a n00b, is how many grant proposals is the "right" amount to be submitting. One has a tendency to ask those slightly more senior and that's when you get an interaction like this:

Here' the thing, junior peeps. You can't just start a lab and fling out grant aps left, right and center. Those first few aps take a very long time to develop. You're first ones on a new topic will probably be crap (at least mine were), and you'll use the feedback to make them competitive.

In my first 4 years I had three different proposals I developed. The first one got the shit kicked out of it for years before it finally got through. I got it funded on the... eighth submission. Yes, I just checked in FastLane. Eight. To say that what was submitted initially was what eventually got funded would be wildly untrue, but the proposal evolved and eventually persistence paid off. Either that or my PO just couldn't take it anymore (a.k.a. the Andy Dufresne approach).


In the mean time, I developed two additional proposals. One miraculously got funded on the second submission (almost yr 4 on the job) in what I think was some form of pity for my FastLane portfolio and my growing sense of panic at dwindling start-up funds. The third one never went anywhere and I eventually tabled it, even though we recently published a lot of the "preliminary data" for that project. I sprinkled a couple of ill-fated proposals to special calls in there as well.

So how many proposals was that? Remember that this was still in the era of two annual calls for DEB and IOS. * indicates years we were awarded.

2008 - 1
2009 - 3
2010 - 4
2011 - 4
2012* - 3 (first year of preproposals)
2013* - 2 (2 more to NIH, 1 to state)
2014 - 7
2015 - 4 so far

So you can see that things took a bit to build and years we landed a grant meant that one proposal got taken off the shelf. In 2010 and 2011, at least one of the January submissions was turned around for the summer deadline (a practice POs will tell you the hated), but you can't do that anymore.

So what's caused the recent uptick? Well, for one our NSF money is starting to run thin. But more than that, I have built up a program that can now take on more offshoots. I am now applying outside the Bio directorate and branching out a bit. Also, the more you get your science out there, the more you get requests for collaborations. Three recent proposals have been the result of colleagues coming to me to help build a stronger proposal. Momentum catches eventually and you find yourself contributing to more projects.

So, my advice to junior people is always the same: Try not to miss a deadline that you can put a well constructed proposal in for. Don't over-reach too early in some blind panic to get more applications out there, shotgun fashion, but be thinking about a couple projects that can go to different panels. Get one solid core proposal and then develop another one or two that can go to other panels. In my case, the "side" project was the first to get funded and it took a huge load off as we kept plugging away at the core work.

But be persistent. You will get punched in the nose a lot, but don't get deflated, listen to the criticism and fix your proposal accordingly. Stay in the game.

7 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    I think there's a lot of value in learning to take rejection well. Becoming dejected when we are denied is ordinary and natural. But however we learn to deal with it individually, whatever works, I think you're dead on when you say "[D]on't get deflated."

    Finding internal resilience is one key to survival in a world of constant, ruthless rejection.

  • Dr Becca says:

    As the rejections pile up, the startup funds hit fume levels, and the panic sets in, I have gone from 1 NIH proposal per cycle last year to 2 per cycle this year. Not all R01s and usually 1 A0 and 1 A1, but still. 4 months in between panel meetings is too long not to have a couple of things up for consideration.

  • Yeah, when the vice tightens it's incredibly hard not to just go into panic submit mode. Considering I'll hit 8 proposals (at least) by mid-summer, I'm totally with you. It's gotten relentless.

  • eeke says:

    I thought I was the only one who needed 8 tries to get funded by NSF!!! My PO said that I was her "record". As a noobie, I was easily submitting about one grant application per month (about 10-12 per year) and doing horribly. I was under tremendous pressure to get funded immediately, and it was at a time when support for junior faculty plummeted, the concept of ESI did not exist, and identifying yourself as a "new investigator" was the kiss of death. Maybe it still is. Anyway, that clearly was not the way to do things.

  • Morgan Price says:

    Writing 7 proposals in one year?! To a non PI, this sounds crazy. And also like a huge misallocation of scientific effort. (For society, not for your career -- I'm sure you know what you're doing.) Why are NIH and NSF so intent on having all their PIs play negative-sum games?

  • Holly Bik says:

    I think it's also important to start laying the foundations for PI grant writing during your time as a postdoc. I started a faculty position in September 2015, and I've already submitted 3 proposals - two of these were led by collaborators (where I budgeted for a postdoc in my lab), but the third required a significant time investment on my part (since it was a single PI new investigator proposal). I think in this funding climate it's SO important to start building up a solid network of collaborators as early in your career as possible--especially those that are willing to pull you into a proposal as Co-I when the appropriate RFP comes out.

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