Wait two years to submit an R01? What the physioproffian physioproffity prof is this guy smoking?

Apr 29 2009 Published by under Careerism, Mailbag, Mentoring, NIH

Opening the DM mailbag over my coffee this morning I noticed the following query from a loyal friend of the blog:

I am working on getting [my first] R01 submitted [soon]. This is in keeping with many people saying that I need to get going as fast as possible with R01 (including yourself and cPP). Guest speaker, who is on a study section (not the one I am going to) said I should definitely wait two years so I can get things rolling before applying. hmmm.

Here's the answer you need to give to such people:

"Dude, WTF are you smoking and where can I get some o dat???"

Seriously though, you send them right over to this blog so that they can explain their thinking. I'll take that comment on any handy post.

This advice is absolutely nonsensical to me.

The only possible conditions that would make that right would be a near complete and utter lack of preliminary data and a very healthy startup package and/or local developmental grants to be obtained for the asking. And even then I'd have to question it.


First and foremost, you need R01 level funding for the long term health of your lab and career. For those of us in the NIH game, this is obligatory. So the earlier the better. Everything is easier with serious levels of funding and many things only possible with such funding.

Second, waiting is not going to magically jump you over the vast majority of hurdles the n00b PI has to overcome when it comes to getting a grant funded. That extra bit of preliminary data is not going to force the study section to see the inevitable brilliance, it is no guarantee of funding. Getting a few papers "from your new lab" helps to stave off one StockCritique, but it is not panacea; some smartacre is going to ask for even more papers. You can work and slave and bounce your application off of senior colleagues for a year-- and you still might get criticisms over grantsmanship.

Third, a lack of perfection when it comes to grant preparation, preliminary data, etc is not an automatic death knell. This is because the random factors that work against you also work in your favor. If someone is really charged up about a certain aspect of your ideas/work, then they will overlook many tasty bits of StockCritique bait that you have left hanging.
Fourth, multiple grant review cycles are probably going to be necessary. Statistically speaking. We're cutting into the revision cycle a little bit with the new limit to a single revision of a given proposal. But let's not be dense. It will still take a number of submissions (including new and revisions) to have a decent chance at funding an R01. This takes time. Waiting for two years is not magically going to make this better.

Fifth, the advice from sitting members of study sections may reflect a certain culture and an admission of the bias against new investigators. This certainly exists. There are people that think that n00b PIs need to show they can do it with smaller awards first before they should be "allowed" to have an R01. I think this is crap and I am not alone. Strategically, I would say that if you just give up and accept this, there is zero chance of getting your award. If you submit anyway, at least you have a nonzero chance of someone like me being on the panel and arguing against this unjustified bias/tradition. On my section, for example, we have at least as many people who lean more toward my direction when it comes to new PIs as we do that express the "calm down and wait your turn young'un" phenotype (there is also an unexplored middle for whom I do not have a distinct read).

So to wrap up, ignore that "go slow" advice about R01 submission. Even better, ask the person bloviating just what they mean, why and what evidence they have to support their case. ...and then send them over to this blog to 'splain it to me, would ya?

21 responses so far

  • Denis Alexander says:

    Indeed, waiting is not recommended. But remember -- there are no more A2s. So you better work hard on those proposals!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am betting we will still have plenty of A2's in "new proposal" guise....
    Of course they will have the rough edges hammered down so that they will do better. NIH stats will collapse these in with genuinely new proposals to show that their policy is working.
    but then I'm a cynic...

  • Luigi says:

    When I got my first faculty position, a colleague told me to submit my first R01 BEFORE even starting. He said it'd never be funded anyway, but at least I'd have a head start on the process. I took his advice, submitted in the summer before I started, and by some miracle got it. On reviewer said it was best proposal from a new investigator he'd ever read. I have never ever gotten a better score on a proposal since then, despite umpteen zillion tons more preliminary data, a growing reputation for independent excellent science, and supposed wisdom regarding the whole grant-writing game. So waiting and prepping doesn't necessarily make a difference anyway. I can think of no downsides to submitting early. Do it. As it turns out, I had R01 funding within 3 months of starting my lab, and that did wonders for my career. I am poised for full professorship and still have substantial start up left! Even if you burn through your two allowed submissions doing stupid stuff, you are learning and can easily make a 'new grant'. Of course you don't want to embarrass yourself or waste reviewer's time by submitting stupidity. But...
    Submit submit submit. Early and often.
    I have yet to see grant advice from DM or CPP that isn't on target.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    I am not a constant R01 submitter however I have had consistent funding over the last decade from the NIH. I am also on at least 5 other NIH grants of other people as a Co-I. I am not a fan of submit often, but I am an advocate of submit early.
    I was refused a K01 after 3 rounds because they said I had so much awesome data and was so productive that I should apply for an R01. My response was FUCK YOU!!!! But then I applied for an R01 like they said, and I got it. It was way better than a K anyhoo.
    I am not a fan of shotgunning applications hoping one will stick. I usually concentrate on two areas and go deep in data generation and then overwhelm reviewers with preliminary data.
    The section I sit on looks down on cheesy apps from the same PI boneheads who sometimes even submit two per round! They generally get half credit for each which aint great. So be parsimonious with your apps but be consistent and fabulous.
    I also agree with DM regarding new investigators. My section is half and half, meaning half douchebags and half junior advocates. It really depends on your SRO and whether they know how to assign apps.
    Doc F

  • Of course dumbfuck asshole senior faculty give this kind of advice. They don't know how to get out of their own fucking way. Listen to the scientists who have been forced to survive in the current reality of 10%ile paylines, not these soft lazy motherfucking geezers whose grants all got funded at 25-30.

  • qaz says:

    There's a common misconception among many new PIs that the two-year gap (*) between starting and getting one's first R01 is due to something real in the lab (writing papers, getting preliminary data) and thus can be solved by waiting for two years before submitting. But that's not why it takes two years. It takes two years from the first time you try to the first success because you have to learn how to write a successful grant.
    The real problem is that no one (and I mean no one) knows what it is going to take for you to hit your grant-getting stride. Yes, there's lots of good advice from this blog and others and you'll get lots of good advice from your senior investigator friends, but until you try, you'll never know what it takes for YOU to get funded.
    Doc F - shotgunning works for some, but not most. Slow and careful works for some and not most. But the main point made by our dear Comrade is key: if you don't submit, you have a 0% chance of getting funded. And you won't learn what works and what doesn't. That's all there is to it.
    * I'm quoting two-years because that's what this post is. Obviously there's a range. And I don't actually know what the typical numbers are. But the argument remains valid.

  • whimple says:

    It may also take time to find a good study section "home" for your grant. It doesn't matter how great your grant is if it goes to the wrong study section: it's still DOA. It is not necessarily obvious that any given study section is the wrong choice for any given grant, until you get the comments back. That cycle takes at least half a year best-case, or more realistically 1.5 years after the resubmit and subsequent re-smackdown to get the message across that "you can't get there from here" (and therefore your grant should be going somewhere else).

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Hey Qaz,
    You sound like a lotto commercial. You can't win if you dont play!
    Oh lotto and NIH...so similar.....
    Doc F

  • qaz says:

    Doc F #8 - During the dark days of my first years (trying to figure out the system), I once worked out what the likelihood of winning the lottery would have been if I had spent my entire startup on lottery tickets. It's frighteningly not so far off of one's chance of getting an NIH grant. If I remember right, it was a few orders of magnitude different (like lottery was 1 in X, while NIH was 100 in X [for the same X]).
    Of course, I spent my startup doing good science, so I got other stuff from it beyond a chance at more money. I guess that's part of the problem with looking at this job just in terms of grants. If your only goal is to get grants, then there's not much difference between NIH and the lottery. If your goal is to do science in spite of the difficulty in getting grants, well, then, they're not equivalent at all.
    But yeah, you can't win if you don't play.

  • Pinus says:

    Brilliant idea qaz...I am headed to vegas with my startup...I can triple it in a day!

  • msphd says:

    Yeah, well. There is something you might not have mentioned here, which is how much time it takes to write a good grant. If this person doesn't have their lab set up yet, maybe they should get going on that and get some people working in there, and in the meantime they can submit something half-assed that might make them look stupid to the study section.
    In the old days, when you had unlimited resubmits allowed, sure then it made sense to submit early and often.
    But people, that rule is going away! Or did you forget amidst all the ARRA nonsense??
    Might be better to submit something high-quality, and yes the sooner the better, but I'm not sure how many wannabe faculty have a completely finished R01 sitting around waiting to be sent in the minute their paperwork is signed off on. That might be an interesting poll to take.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Nothing I say recommends putting in a lame grant that is going to insult and tick off the reviewers. My suggestions are gated on the presumption that when you submit a proposal, it is reasonably decent.
    In the present context, the advice was to simply wait for no reason other than (from what I can tell) study section bias against n00bs getting too big for their britches.
    In the old days, when you had unlimited resubmits allowed,...But people, that rule is going away!
    The unlimited resubmits has not been with us for a very long time. One thing people need to get through their heads though is that this limit to one revision is a red herring. Ideas don't go away, you just bring them back in new guise. I predict this is what is going to increase in the new era of only-A1s, not an improvement in the treatment of the first version of the grant.
    with respect to "high quality", just depends on your threshold. I certainly see less that perfect proposals being scored very well and funded because the ideas are great and timely. I worry that n00bs overvalue the idea of perfection and high quality when it comes to deciding when to submit.
    as far as the time to develop it? look, grant writing isn't some magical distant skill. You learn by doing- sitting down, clearing your distractions and writing. One or two months really should be plenty for a complete beginner PI. Another reason why earlier is better is precisely because things haven't spooled up for the n00b yet. No trainees yet, no fleets of ongoing critical experiments, no teaching, etc.

  • anon4this says:

    Several points.
    1) Thanks DM for posting this...I am the noob investigator who told him about this interaction. And for what it isworth, my impression was that the 'no rush' comment was mediated partially by the 'show you can do something 1st' but also the 'don't rush to submit something bad'. At least I think.
    2) I have no intention of submitting something that I don't think is excellent, I don't want to get a rep for submitting crap.
    3) One of the things that I have going for me, is that I have been working on this grant for about a year, in various forms. In terms of the ideas, the preliminary results, the background, etc. So I am not trying to cram everything in to a month. Sure, I am tweaking it some, adding or subtracting things that will ultimately make me more or less likely to be funded, but that is how it works (at least for me).
    4) One of the wonderful things that I discovered about being a PI at my new institution is that I have to do a bunch of boring administrative stuff before I can do experiments. Well, forms are submitted and awaiting approval. I don't have much to do right now other than write grants, or work in a neighbor's lab. I decided that writing grants would be more effective use of my time, plus it allows me to multi-task on all the other (relatively minimal) non-scientific stuff that I have to do to get things going. Maybe I am going about it wrong, but to me, it seems to make the most sense right now, because exactly like DM says, this might be one of the few times that I have free time.

  • becca says:

    It occurs to me, in my naivete, that junior investigators getting around the limited submission rule might actually be doing so more legitimately than senior investigators, in the sense a junior investigator's grant is more likely to need a massive overhaul. That wouldn't necessarily be because the science proposed was poorer, either. I just imagine that predicting the short term trajectory of a field is a skill that gets better with practice. But perhaps most starting investigators are more clever than I would be, and tend to submit ideas that will not need to be revised after 6 more months worth data trickles in*?
    *Note- this assumption probably depends on the pace of work in your field; I get the impression most areas of science I'm most intimately familiar with are fairly rapid.

  • Luigi says:

    I'm not sure how many wannabe faculty have a completely finished R01 sitting around waiting to be sent in the minute their paperwork is signed off on. That might be an interesting poll to take.

    If you don't have a framework for a good R01 already in mind, then you shouldn't be looking for a job. Or if you already have a job but don't have your first R01 already planned, then your department made a mistake in hiring you.
    I am not saying this because I have a dopey 'you ain't nothing unless you got an R01' mentality. I just think that it's silly to ask for a lab of your own unless you have a need. If you have no plan, then don't ask for something you don't need.

  • msphd says:

    Had an interesting chat with someone about this today. He's a self-taught computer programmer: in other words, someone who learned by reading existing code from other people's successful projects.
    He pointed out that if this isn't true for funded grants, then you don't learn just by writing. In other words, the missing part in the feedback loop is... the feedback. This is why science is a closed system and not an open one, and part of why it's so very hard for anyone to move up who is not part of the club.
    But you're absolutely right, new A1s will be old A1s just repackaged/renamed. That's what happens with everything in academe- there is never real change.

  • anon4this says:

    Update, I am the noobPI: I submitted, got a good score in round 1, great score in round 2, waiting for official funding decisions, but looks very good.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Aren't you glad you didn't wait two years just to *submit* that puppy?

  • whimple says:

    I'm not sure how many wannabe faculty have a completely finished R01 sitting around waiting to be sent in the minute their paperwork is signed off on.
    You know, this is almost exactly what we are looking for in new tenure-track faculty hires when we interview candidates. We don't always get it, but this is what we really want.

  • anon4this says:

    I am sure as schist glad I didn't wait! My chair loves me right now, I need to ask for something while I am in favor!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    great job anon4this. and hopefully, if there was any lingering "wait your turn youngster" sentiment around your parts you have put that to rest.

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