To paraphrase what a senior colleague said years ago, when I was just starting out, I never have a shortage of ideas, only of time and money.

I got a declination on one of my NSF proposals submitted last fall (so far got 1 award out of 2 that received decisions; btw, have you noticed that NSF emails notices of declination at 10 PM their time?). This proposal was very polished, and was actually placed in the recommended category. But. One reviewer basically thought the proposal was important with (and I quote) “many excellent aspects,” yet gave it a “fair” after a weirdly lengthy (note I didn’t say detailed, more like circular and repetitive) review because, in summary, there was one aspect that he simply didn’t believe I could do the way I said I could, despite me having published on it and despite me having specifically addressed this issue in the revised proposal (I suspect this person reviewed the proposal last year as well and gave a “fair” for pretty much the same reason). It seems that there simply is no persuading this person that I can do the things I can do; or, as DH says, this is someone who’s competition.

I vented over email to my former postdoc and then talked over the phone with a colleague from another institution, and now I feel better. So this post is (shockingly) not going to be me venting. At least not right away.

I remember a recent conversation with another colleague who said he was grateful that he’s still in the game; that there were a number of senior folks who had given up and whom ever-shrinking paylines had brought from being flush, with a big lab, down to completely broke. The colleague believes that, as long as you can keep fighting, submitting various grants left and right, and you have your good health and energy, things are as good as one can expect.

There has been a fairly heated conversation in the Twitterverse, which then spilled over to the blogosphere, where I caught a whiff of it through Potnia Theron’s blog. In a nutshell, there are assistant professors in the biomedical sciences– excellent, hard-working junior folks who’ve given their all to the quest for an NIH R01 — but who were unable to land an R01 and will now be denied tenure and kicked out despite having the papers, the talks, the ideas… Everything but the money.  I really feel for Dr Becca and anyone else who might be facing this fate.

What’s interesting are the comments at Potnia’s blog (presumably the Twitter conversation, too, but I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole). Basically, there are some people who say “Well, it must be the applicant’s fault, they must have missed something.” This is obviously totally infuriating, because a smart person on the tenure track can do everything right, and take to heart (and the keyboard) all the input and all the well-meaning comments he or she can, and it still can just not work out.

That’s what is so terrifying that people don’t want to admit it to themselves. If the paylines are 10%, that doesn’t mean everyone gets 1 grant in 10. That means many people never get a grant and completely run out of money, and some others get a 50% or perhaps even higher hit rate. That means you — yes, you who’s currently funded! — can at some point completely run out of money and then never recover.

I cannot tell you how often I have been “on the bubble” with the NSF, e.g., grant ranked 3 when only 2 are highly recommended (i.e., basically guaranteed funding). When I write grants by myself (again, this is mostly an NSF ailment for me), I often don’t seem to possess whatever the magic dust is that makes someone want to go to bat for a proposal. Mine is a painfully, painfully male-dominated field; in such a field, based on what I have seen on panels, unless a female applicant is a veritable superstar (think a household name), she is unlikely to be prioritized for the coveted 1 or 2 spots. On the other hand, my experience with playing second fiddle to (male) experimentalists  has resulted in NSF funding with a very high percentage (close to 100% in two-person collaborations). So maybe I suck and my collaborators are all geniuses, or maybe my work is greatly appreciated as a means to make the experimental project more shiny and complete. Not sure how important gender is here; the fact that many experimentalists think theory is useless also plays a role. But, regarding gender, and this was on a computation-friendly panel, I will tell you that the guy who gave me a “fair” above noted that I am a woman and that I advise many female students (having one female student at a time through most of my career is  apparently a lot), and that my many female students and I constitute our own broader impact. *eyeroll* Which is apparently not important enough to result in funding. Whatever.

Running completely out of money is a clear and present danger in all STEM fields. The real dread that you might not be able to have any students or postdocs (if you are in one of the departments that don’t have many TAs and everyone is supposed to be paid off grants) or pay for any supplies to even do the work yourself. Constantly worrying about grants is by far the worst part of the faculty job. I never thought I would retire, but now I catch myself thinking “30 more years, that’s 10 consecutive grant renewal cycles.” And I don’t even dislike writing grants — coming up with new ideas is fun! If only it weren’t for the futility of it all — so many ideas that had nothing wrong with them, that were interesting and important and doable, but will never be realized…




  1. Ugh, I feel you. This summer is all about writing grants for me. Like you, I love developing the ideas — I get a little bit giddy thinking about all the cool stuff I’d like to do! There’s real beauty in seeing an idea come together and thinking about its plausibility. But the rejection rate is just so high that it’s a real bummer and hardly seems worth it in the end. The other bummer is that my main research facility also has an extremely high oversubscription rate (like 7:1), so I have to compete over and over again for not only money, but data. And it’s especially hard at a place where I don’t have PhD students generating their own ideas and proposals for data.

    That said, as the funding rates have stagnated, I have been more and more relieved that I chose the PUI route for my career. If I don’t get a grant for a few years, I’m a little more limited in what I can do, but I’m not dead in the water. If I had chosen the R1 offer that I received at the same time, I’d be sweating like crazy right now. It’s not *why* I chose a PUI, but it is a side benefit that’s not touted enough.

  2. I wonder if reviewers should only see the first initial of the applicant so as to not be able to let the sex/gender of the applicant affect their perceptions of it.

    I replied for both an NSF and NIH fellowship – and the differences in the comments for each were really interesting. One NSF reviewer complained that my study had nothing to do with basic science (and it was submitted to the behavioral and social section – so not sure why that would count against me). Basically, one reviewer saw no value in it whatsoever – the other two were more mixed. I got an almost perfect score with the NIH for that app.

  3. I reached the point of giving up on grant applications about five years ago, and the situation has not gotten better in recent years. Part of the problem is too many people chasing too few dollars—a couple of decades ago only the R1 institutions put much weight on research, with the rest of colleges and universities concentrating on teaching. Now every Directional State University wants to pretend to be R1 and forces all of its faculty into the grant-funding lottery. The problem is partly aspirations of university administration and partly legislatures deciding to defund public education, making research appear to be a funding source for universities (though research actually costs more the university gets in grant funds—the overhead rates are low-balled).

  4. “so many ideas that had nothing wrong with them, that were interesting and important and doable, but will never be realized”

    I’m curious: do you typically do exactly what you say you will do when you do receive a grant? I was under the impression that, at least with NSF and NIH, nobody is following up to see how closely your actual research matches what you proposed. In that case it seems like you could just do your favorite things once the money is in the index account.

    This is what I have been doing so far, but I haven’t been around long enough to find out if I will get burned by it…

  5. Grumpy, I certainly don’t follow the proposal to the letter, but generally stay topically close enough with the work that it makes sense to claim it on said funding. We probably end up doing 50-60% of what was in the proposal, and the rest is interesting stuff that naturally arose from the project. Usually when I bring in a new student, I have them read the proposal they’re supposed to be funded on to get the wheels turning and see what strikes their fancy to get started on.

    The problem with NSF is that the budget is so lean that you can’t fit more than one student or so, and then if that student is game and capable, you can get lots of cool stuff done beyond the original project, but with an average student you get that one project worth at the most, there isn’t much financial slack for other stuff.

    Re doing what you want: There’s one subfield in which I have been working slowly, for years, always with fringe money (e.g., students funded on partial TA, department fellowship, internal funds) and now I have a large body of good and well-cited publications in the subfield that I can claim to be an expert and have become quite competitive for funding.

    Also, there was my grand-vision project that I tried to get funded some 4-5 years ago. I wrote probably 5-6 versions of the grant and was trying NSF and another agency and was close but no cigar several times. And then eventually it hit big time and it’s been glorious ever since (knock on wood). I’d say most people find a way to do the stuff that they are most excited/passionate about. But as you wrote elsewhere, as an applicant it is critical to diversify — not all projects are your special babies and that’s fine. Money is money, and having current money is definitely important for getting future money. I am always impressed when I look at people’s current and pending document, and they have a number of current and pending grants, all on clearly disparate topics — this shows me a breath of ideas and scientific vitality and positively predisposes me towards the applicant. These people also tend to write compelling grants.

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