Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

This past fall I submitted two NSF proposals within a few days of one another, to two different directorates. One proposal is better than the other.

So, today I log into Fastlane, and both proposals are still pending, but the worse one shows to have a status update, dated today.

I know this only means bad news. It most likely (well, I am going to say certainly) means that the proposal didn’t review well, and the program manager just got around to uploading all the reviews and possibly the panel summary, clicked on some button, and my proposal is now propagating through the NSF administration to whoever is in charge of issuing the notice of declination.

Why do I think the proposal will be rejected? Because I have never received an NSF grant where they didn’t first ask me to cut the budget. So, no budget-cutting phone call/email, no money. Also, funding rates are ridiculously low, so chances are high that anything will get rejected. And, as I said, this is not my best proposal ever.

I hate the two things that I simultaneously feel about the whole ordeal:

1. The unfounded hope. Objectively, everything points to rejection, yet my pathetic little self still holds a sliver of hope of funding. I hate how the granting game turns me (perhaps others, too) into this sad, slimy ball of neediness, who will imagine ridiculous scenarios of funding despite staggering evidence to the contrary. I feel uncomfortable seeing this about myself, looking worse than a lovestruck teenage girl whose object of affection doesn’t give half a $hit; you just want to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. “Tiffany, he doesn’t care about you, stop thinking about him and move on already.”

2. The shame. Objectively, I know that the funding rates are low and that many good projects don’t get funded. But some do. Very few, but some still do. So I am ashamed every time I get a rejection, because it means I was not good enough. And telling myself objectively that it happens to the best of us (literally) feels like I am just deluding myself, telling myself wild stories, when the true reason is that I just was not good enough and there is no escaping it. I am ashamed in front of my students, who I feel are disappointed in me, their supposedly fearless leader, for sucking as a grant writer.

Namnezia likens the soul-crushing nature of the grant-writing game to constantly putting your hand in hot oil. You throw proposals at the funding agency/agencies, in the hope that something will stick; but whom does it help? It doesn’t advance science. It just kills my will to do it because there is only so much feeling like $hit that one can take before not wanting to do it any more. The stuff I am most passionate about I end up doing anyway by creatively combining funds from different sources and  teaching assistantships for students. But there is a lot of other great stuff that just doesn’t get done.

Maybe  I am spoiled, but to be creative you have to have some bandwidth to think deeply about the problems at hand, as opposed to constantly fretting about what you will do when the money for the problem at hand runs out… And something is always running out.

I can’t wallow forever, so I will dust myself off soon enough. But the grant game just plain sucks.

17 comments

  1. I know exactly how you feel! I have no words of advice about how to make the grant process suck less. I left academia in part so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Just wanted to say that I have felt all the same feelings, I agree that all the grant fretting is not conducive to doing good work, and that I am sure you have nothing to feel ashamed about!

  2. Same here. Last rejection hurt and I knew it was coming, mostly because there was no criticism. Just one person tried to insinuate I am too junior to run a program of that size (insinuate I say, he was smart enough not to say it). Today it is my husband’s day to go through the pain of a rejection. I have one more grant that I am waiting on and I realize that if it would be funded somebody would have talked to me by now to complain about some part in the budget, but they didn’t. So while I still hold that teenage hope like you say, I know deep down, the grant doesn’t love be back. The worst part, it was an excellent proposal. The one that actually is getting funded is the weakest of my submissions …

  3. I totally hear you on the unfounded hope … but I don’t think it is a bad thing that we should try to kill off. For the same reason that I don’t beat myself up over occasionally day dreaming that Idris Elba will move to my small town and fall madly in love with me. Hope gives you a little flutter of happy.

    I got over any inklings of shame after seeing essentially the same grant get marks everywhere from high priority to not competitive from the same review panel (it finally got funded at 1/3 the initial ask with a score of medium priority). Write a good grant and you’re in the running, but the actual receipt of funding is completely arbitrary. I just get angry (which makes me fight harder, so that’s good, but also makes me a chronic bitch, which may or may not be good).

  4. I gave up on the grant game—I couldn’t take the high probability of rejection after months of effort writing the grant. That means I no longer have grad students and do only collaborative research where someone else does the grant writing. I upped my teaching and service load, so I don’t feel like I’m not doing my job, even though my research output has dropped.

    There are times when I believe that the entire bureaucratic grant-funding system is set up to slow the development of science and technology, to a pace where politicians can still control it.

  5. There is a sliver left. I got a grant from NSF last year with no budget cuts and there were status updates on Fastlane with no details. I fretted and whined and cursed the injustice and wrote it off. And then… ! Sorry to feed your unfounded hope, Tiffany. Fingers crossed.

    As for the shame, you’ve been on review panels! You know how this works. There is no absolute measure of the value of the proposal. There are so many parameters that you cannot control (reviewers, number of proposals that get funded, number of proposals in your field, that cranky dude on the review panel that likes to hear himself talk expressing deep concerns about the feasibility of some minor part of your proposal because he has tried something like that 30 years ago on a different system with different equipment and it was not easy). Writing an awesome proposal increases your chances. Writing a much better proposal than all your competitors on something that the funding agency is desperate to fund increases your chances a lot, but that is not trivial to do, and it still does not guarantee success. Thick skin and tenacity is practically a job requirement. I tell my students that it is not a failure if you have learned something useful (even if it is just things to avoid next time). That does not stop me from feeling the shame anyway, but it helps to dust off and move on faster.

  6. I don’t know that it makes you feel better, but I think that academic proposal writing is actually much less stressful than similar activities in industry.

    In academia, there are calls, with well defined deadlines and requirements, then you sit and wait until you receive a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ with some (often not useful) feedback. Of course, you want to be in contact with program managers, understand what calls and funding bodies are useful, the official and unofficial rules, etc. But it’s still a very very well defined system, even though the ‘yes’ rate is low.

    In industry, especially selling large, complex expensive things, there’s often no formal call per se. Part of the job is actually making contact with the right people in the target company and convincing the potential customer that they want to buy what you sell. And for a large complex product, there’s also a long expensive process actually spec-ing the system for the potential customer, trying to guess which competitors they might be talking to, etc. And, of course, the dance could go on for a long time before the customer decides that they don’t want what you sell, or that they will buy from a competitor, or that they can’t afford it. And it’s not necessarily going to be a firm decision – the dance may just sort of wind down. Similar for things like e.g. strategic partnerships etc.

    Or if you sell large numbers of small simple things, like maybe restaurant supplies, then you are constantly contacting huge numbers of customers, because each one is going to buy only a small amount – maybe making a dozen or more calls a day.

    Senior managers in industry also have to do a lot of politicking to ensure flow of resources to their activities; maybe fewer people inside a company have to do this, compared to every professor for him/herself. But OTOH, your job isn’t dependent on how well you play the game, but on how well some manager two or three steps up the chain does…

    It’s not that getting rejected doesn’t s—, everyone hates it and you do need to get a thick skin. It’s just that compared to industry sales, politicking for resources, or business partnership kinds of activities, academic grants have much less uncertainty and variability and so are in some ways less stressful.

  7. It is true that my job doesn’t depend on getting grants (although soft-money faculty would disagree with this one, too), but my students’ ability to eat and pay the rent does. Many are international students, who are legally prohibited from working anywhere but on campus. They can only be research assistants (paid on grants) or teaching assistants if there are enough TAs available (there are a few other options, like graders, but those pay very little). So securing grants (or not) is a real stressor, with real consequences on people’s livelihood.

  8. I both agree and disagree with commentariette. Those industrial jobs that involve selling one or two huge contracts in a decade (often to government agencies) are just as stressful as faculty grant proposals, and for much the same reason: huge up-front work with low probability of success.

    Those jobs that involve hundreds of smaller sales do not have the same stress associated with each sale (though there may be other stresses about the repetitiveness of explaining the product over and over—more like grading than like grant writing as a stressor).

    Almost all jobs that pay reasonably well have some high-stress components, but the stresses differ in different jobs, and some people thrive on the adrenaline just of some stressors. It is largely a matter of trying to find the job that best matches your reactions to different stresses and the rewards associated with the job. For me, being a professor is still the best match to my abilities and interests.

  9. Reading the comments, I’m wondering how many people we lose to science because of the stress of grant writing and associated rejection. I know it’s one of the reasons I’m leaving. I tie up too much of my worth in the grant and so rejection becomes too bad for my mental health.

    Also, the amount of time spent on the grants is just such a complete waste of time… With a 10% funding rate, it would be better for science for 90% of the applicants to spend their time doing science.

  10. One of the reasons I was attracted to jobs at smaller undergrad-focused schools with more teaching obligations (but still where I have a lab and get to do research) was that my and my students livelihoods are not tied up in the grant game. And yet, I can and will still try for funding and will be rewarded if I get it (rather than punished and marginalized if I don’t). I’m sure I’ll still be stressed, but seeing what the grant game did to my PhD adviser’s mental health really made me question whether R1 research would be the best job for me. Some people might think I’m part of the leaky pipeline I guess, since I probably could eventually have gotten such a job.

  11. Dont take it to your heart or take it personally. This is how I deal with it. Multiple rejections this year with 2 applications pending. I dont know what the toll is going to be in the coming years.

  12. Thanks, FR. I got the reviews; yeah, it was declined. It’s in the recommended category (for non-NSF folks, there are Highly Recommended, Recommended, and Do Not Recommend categories; they funded 10%, which is how many are in the Highly Recommended category). Of the reviews, one review took what is really a minor side issue (discussed somewhat in the proposal, but not too much because it’s minor) and blew it up to the point of making the proposal a no-go. I don’t know how you safeguard against that; I can’t predict every tangent that a random panelist can choose to go on, no matter how irrelevant. There were a couple of good feedback points and I will use them to improve for next fall.
    Time sure does fly when you are having fun churning out proposals all the time.

  13. I don’t feel that writing grant proposals is a waste of time – it is also part of doing science. It helps to organize your thoughts, take your current research further or expand into new areas, and forces you to focus your thinking and defend the idea against possible problems. This is really what you need to do anyway when you do research. I think about it as writing a paper that I want to write with almost ideal data (without being bogged down by reality of actual imperfect data :). Even if it does not get funded, you can find ways to work it into something that is funded, get some preliminary data, and write a stronger proposal next time. Rejection hurts, but it is usually not the end of the world. There are other grants around the corner, even if you can’t see them while you are wallowing in self-pity or self-righteous anger (been there plenty of times).

  14. It helps to organize your thoughts, take your current research further or expand into new areas, and forces you to focus your thinking and defend the idea against possible problems.

    Oh, definitely. I have written a bunch of times that grant writing would be one of the most intellectually satisfying parts of doing science, if only it weren’t so damn important and so ridiculously hard to actually get them funded. (And I’m neck-deep in anger and self-pity right now, so be patient with me. 🙂 )

  15. So sorry, xykademiqz…just saw your post. It’s always that random dude going on a tangent. I try to predict this by visualizing actual dudes that did that to other proposal on various panels that I was on. But you can’t cover everything. Don’t beat yourself up. I think this calls for some chocolate ice-cream, stat. Or a beer.

  16. My shoe is still dangling at the 6 month mark. Usually that’s bad. At this point I hope to be part of the problem, making the bar higher for the person whose shoe did not drop.

  17. Helpful to know I’m not the only one who feels a wave of shame. My most recent rejection came on a day when multiple research projects were hitting snags, and my grad students and postdocs were complaining about all the things that weren’t working. (I still take such complaints pretty personally, although I know it’s how research goes–but maybe if I had my intellectual and managerial s#@! together a bit more, we wouldn’t have them.) With the grant rejection too, I wondered what the hell I was doing. It’s sheer stubbornness that keeps me going sometimes: well, I’m here, and I might as well try to figure out what’s going on in my system because it’s cool. It might take me 5x longer than it “should,” but whatevs.

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