No Purse Strings Attached

I received some crappy grant news several weeks ago. The update that shook me most was a declination of a competitive renewal. During the post mortem with the program manager, I was told that one issue was that the  productivity hadn’t been “outstanding enough.” Mind you, on the three-year grant I had one major code release and nine peer-reviewed papers.

What really grates my cheese is that one full year of the three-year period was the fucking pandemic. After all the hand-wringing and expressions of sympathy and understanding from various institutions, including the funding agencies, unsurprisingly, no one actually cares. Yes, please, drop the female PI with two school-aged kids who  spent the last 15 months sitting next to one of her kids in the shared office. Who got interrupted a million times each workday during virtual school. Who was expected to extend endless leniency to her graduate students as they battled fear, low motivation, and flare-ups of chronic mental health issues due to the pandemic.

The worst thing is I don’t know if the given reason is real. Maybe I was slated for the hatchet no matter what, likely because (I suspect) a retirement might be happening, but it’s easier to say it’s my fault. Or if it was really my fault, and I should have somehow done more, somehow squeezed out more from myself because I am apparently the only one who’s not supposed to be cut any slack, and can thus be squeezed further. I have to show not just good productivity, but outstanding productivity, even though 1/3 of the grant was during the global pandemic, and screw me for having  been affected by it like the loser that I am.

More than anything, I feel deeply ashamed for being a failure. Every time I get a grant rejection I feel like a worthless piece of incompetent shit, and this rejection just slayed me. Of course, I need to keep my chin up and stay cool in front of my group, and this also isn’t something to be shared with colleagues (as one put it the first and only time I brought up grant rejections with him, this is loser talk).

If you’re wondering what I am doing this summer, and this fall, and forever, it’s writing grants. I will always, always write grants, and will get most of them rejected, and will then write more grants, and it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t leave much time to actually do the work that gets funded, as long as I write, endlessly write, until I drop dead or retire,  whatever comes first. (Death. Death will come first.)

How’s your summer going, blogosphere? 


  1. I’m so sorry. I honestly don’t know how people publish while they are churning out grants unless they have teams of people to do the research and writing for them. But that isn’t exactly why any of us went into science, is it? I’m in the first year of my NIH K99 and am already getting told I need to get my R01 written and submitted. And I don’t even have a tenure track position yet?! I was also told I needed a JAMA/Nature/NEJM paper – and the chances of that in my field are pretty minimal (I’m a social scientist working on a medical campus). It all kind of makes me dread my next steps.

  2. That’s terrible, but it seems to sum up federal grant funding these days. I gave up on banging my head against the wall a few years ago, and switched my scholarship to developing a course and writing a textbook. No funding for grad students that way and no summer salary (but I rarely had enough grant money for both grad students and summer salary anyway), but the reduction in stress was enough to make it a win.

    As it turns out, the field I was in has since been turned upside down by deep learning, and all the accolades go to Deep Mind, rather than to academics—so maybe I got out just in time.

  3. You are catastrophizing. When you blogged last year, it sounded like you were doing really well, and honestly, you probably were. In the end in academics our employment, and our funding, is fundamentally up to the whims of whomever. One moment you’re hot shit, then next, you’re underperforming. Try not to let it get you down.

  4. About 45 min after reading this one of my friends messaged similarly because a paper had gotten rejected someplace it shouldn’t have been rejected with very positive reviews. I really hate the rejection part of research– it’s demoralizing and so often capricious.

  5. “Yes, please, drop the female PI with two school-aged kids who spent the last 15 months sitting next to one of her kids in the shared office. Who got interrupted a million times each workday during virtual school.”

    I think that affects both parents, not only the female PI.

  6. @Rodrigo– you obviously haven’t been keeping up on any of the research on this topic. I bet the NBER youtube channel has videos of the multiple multi-day conferences they’ve had on it.

  7. I am sorry to hear the news. I have been an avid follower of your blog and I share your sentiment on the expectations of productivity even over here where I am now based (in Hong Kong). We have had home based learning for the primary school kids for close to 18 months but we are still expected to keep up with the papers and grants. Grant applications are somewhat of a lottery. We try to stack the odds for us but alas, sometimes, all it takes is a reviewer or so to tank the application. Hopefully you have more positive news on other applications.

  8. I’m sorry to hear the bad news. But it happens to most people except a few super stars in the field. I’m really tired of writing grants to agencies like NSF, DoD, DoE, etc, and then got rejected… intense competitions… Female professors don’t have any advantages in this regards (perhaps except for Young Investigator type awards). It is still a “old white boys” club, at least in my field (engineering).

    I’ve decided it is not worth the time. I could use the time (write and polish proposals) to do something more meaningful (or with better return). Since I’m in the engineering field, I’ve started to look at industry funding. Not bad at all! Building relationships at the beginning is difficult. But once they trust you, money comes, and you become a partner. The downside is that my publications started to slow down. But that’s OK. I’m a full professor, having funding is more sustainable than without funding.

  9. Just curious, what do you mean by “a retirement might be happening”? Who is retiring?

    — “Maybe I was slated for the hatchet no matter what, likely because (I suspect) a retirement might be happening, but it’s easier to say it’s my fault.”

  10. Sara/grumpymidcareerprofessor, I think the program manager who’s been funding me might be retiring (the right age, brought on a second junior person recently, etc.) and when the program manager changes, usually big shifts in the program ensue. But that’s my guess, nothing was announced.

    Btw, very true about funding decisions remaining staunchly within an old boys’ club. It would be disheartening if I still had a heart and not a ball of scar tissue. Good for you that you were able to secure industry funding! I’ve never had much luck with that, in part b/c I do theory.

  11. @xykademiqz When a DoD program changes its PM, it can be an earthquake! The used-to-be-popular PIs can be thrown out of the portfolio like “trash”. And new blood will come in, most of whom are friends of the new PM. So much politics… This happens not very frequently, though, since the PM positions are permanent until the PM himself/herself wants to retire.

  12. re: what grumpymidcareerprofessor said– my DH might still be employed at his previous job if a DoD PM hadn’t changed and the new person assigned a hand-shake-but-not-written-promised stage 3 grant to a different company. It’s insane! DoD money is easier to get but also so dependent on the whims of one person (as opposed to the whims of a few people, I guess). I guess it’s more predictable than, say, NIH money generally, except when there’s these big changes.

  13. That’s BS, I’m sorry. I even wonder if it’s worth a clarifying conversation with the program officer about what “outstanding productivity” looks like if it’s not 3 pubs/year sustained during the pandemic. Maybe you don’t have the mental energy to push back, but it’s clearly a BS response and I think the program officer should admit it (preferably in writing, though I doubt that would ever happen).

    And you’re reminding me of how demoralized I felt just filling out our faculty annual reports for the merit raise process this year. It’s my first time being up for a merit raise (since I got tenure two years ago, and they didn’t have any raises last year because of COVID). We had to write not one but three COVID impact statements (one for research, one for teaching, one for service). It was hard to know what to write — I have no interest in competing in the misery Olympics, and I also don’t want to be all Pollyanna about the magical ways that I managed to stay modestly productive during a global pandemic with no childcare for my two kids under the age of 5.

    Want to take any bets about how for years to come women will get docked at proposal reviews for “not being productive enough” during the pandemic — and frankly during the multiple years post-pandemic during which we have to rebuild our research programs and deal with the fallout of being a crappy collaborator for 15 months? Not to mention how many of my students’ projects got scooped while my main research facility was shut down for a full year and everyone was mining the data archive for all it was worth? UGH.

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