Repost: Don't tense up

Aug 07 2015 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

I've been in need of this reminder myself in the past year or so. This originally went up on the blog 25 September, 2011.


If you've been going through a run of disappointing grant reviews punctuated by nasty Third Reviewer comments, you tend to tense up.

Your next proposals are stiff...and jam packed with what is supposed to be ammunition to ward off the criticisms you've been receiving lately. Excessive citation of the lit to defend your hypotheses...and buffer concentrations. Review paper level exposition of your logical chain. Kitchen sink of preliminary data. Exhaustive detail of your alternate approaches.

The trouble is, then your grant is wall to wall text and nearly unreadable.

Also, all that nitpicky stuff? Sometimes it is just post hoc justification by reviewers who don't like the whole thing for reasons only tangentially related to the nits they are picking.

So your defensive crouch isn't actually helping. If you hook the reviewer hard with your big picture stuff they will often put up with a lot of seeming StockCritique bait.

25 responses so far

  • Yeah, it's just like hitting a baseball.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    So don't get the yips, is what you're saying.

    Can I ask a tangential question here, since we're on the topic of grants and this is a repost?

    Does anyone know if program officers, when going to council, really care about/take into consideration manuscripts that haven't been accepted (e.g. under review or submitted)?

    I'm currently being pressured to (in my opinion) rush out a manuscript to a low IF journal in order to bolster a grants chances at committee. There's no way it will be in press by committee meeting time, but the idea is to email the PO and tell him that there's a manuscript under submission. Is it likely that he will care?

    Does it matter if the lack of publication was a specific concern in the study section review?

    I'm asking cause I think I have a shot at turning it into a glam publication, which will help a lot when I go job hunting. But it'll probably take a couple more months (and then the extra review time), and I don't want to ship it out just yet.

  • Established PI says:

    @jmz4gtu My guess is that it won't make any difference if the paper hasn't been accepted, but why don't you ask the program officer? You don't specify what kind of grant this is and how critical it is that you get it. If getting a job is more important than getting the grant, then go for the glam pub (with apologies to Michael Eisen) - they count hugely, alas.

    DM's point regarding the nitpicky stuff is worth emphasizing. Reviewers often list tangential reasons to justify their lack of overall enthusiasm for a grant. Fixing the little stuff won't address the core problem, which is that the grant fails to get the reviewers excited about problem or approach.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "You don't specify what kind of grant this is and how critical it is that you get it."
    -Oops, sorry. It's a K99, so pretty critical.

  • Established PI says:

    @jmz4gtu Was lack of publications mentioned in the resume and summary of discussion, or just in one of the reviews? You should enlist the PO to help you read the tea leaves. You need to know how publications factored into the overall score. But even if you figure that out, it is not clear that a submitted paper will do anything for you at council. I hope you have a sympathetic and helpful PO who can guide you on this one.

    I don't know your field, but some departments (e.g. mine) care more about glam pubs than K99s. I presume you have gotten advice on what you will need to be competitive on the job market from your PI and people in the know. One of my postdocs faced this issue and decided to go for a high-impact pub instead of a K99. The pub part is paying off, fortunately, but it's always a bit of a risk.

  • E rook says:

    I hate this part about grant review. If the real reason is the big picture of the problem, then why not hit hard on the significance and ease up on the buffers in the approach? The result is the same, not funded, but the applicant has a better idea of what's wrong. Kill the career quickly, don't make it suffer.

  • Pippso says:

    @jmz4gtu didn't you declare in a previous post to have all glam pubs? Even if those are not strictly related, what is one more gonna do?

  • LIZR says:

    I really doubt a submitted paper would anything for you, but ask your PO.

  • Draino says:

    Glam pub. The K99 will be gone in 4-5 years but the glam pub will last for ever until it gets retracted.

  • kalevala says:

    Papers submitted/in press won't do anything at council.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Papers submitted don't do anything unless a) they really are terrific and b) they can be read on line (arXiv or similar) In press is a different ball game because they have gotten through peer review, but again, to have any effect the need to be on line somewhere.

  • Philapodia says:

    Are there really people getting reviews saying that the applicants publications are not in high enough glam journals? In all of the years I've written grants and served on review panels I have never heard this once. I wonder how much of this incessant glam-humping is self-imposed...

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Philapodia, I have never seen that. However, I have commented myself about applicants having only/many publications in dump journals. I mean the scam journals that print without real review. I may give a junior person a pass on one of these, but regular use for senior people is a bad indicator.

  • Philapodia says:

    I guess the question should be what constitutes a dump journal to the wider community? Some people view society-level (IF~5) as dump journals, whereas others strive for these. I've found that the quality of science in IF~5 journals is just fine, whereas you hear and see a lot more shenanigans in IF8+ journals. I personally am more likely to trust the data presented in a IF~5 journal than a higher IF journal since there isn't the competition to get published there and less incentive to cheat.

  • MoBio says:

    @Philapodia and JL: Have only once seen/heard that sort of comment -- and it was applied to me as a young Asst Prof--and this was quite a few years ago. I've not seen/heard it since.

    My sense is that J Neurosci (if one is a neuroscientist) has considerable cred based on recent experience. Same with other society journals.

    Where this does come up though is on TT search committees here where the only ones who seem to be interviewed have such pubs.

  • Newbie PI says:

    @ Philapodia, JL and MoBio

    Cut and Paste from recent Summary Statement

    Investigator(s): 3

    2. Investigator(s)

    Strengths Acceptable publication productivity for level of training.

    Weakness Most publications are in low impact journals.

    Context, grant going to not my native study sections due to avenue of interest with a clinical collaborator. Grant absolutely failed to get 2/3 reviewers on to the idea, so ended up with 2x3-7 and then a set of 1-3 resulting in a well-deserved triage. Project looks to be funded now by an outside foundation (awaiting budget review).

    I think society papers have value (and reproducible/reliability) but may not translate to outside reviewers. Easier critique when you are early investigator with a more limited literature base.

  • Newbie PI says:

    jmz4gtu -- You're going to have a pretty tough time on the job market if you don't have the glam pub, regardless of the K99. I also think you'll just be annoying the PO if you email to say you submitted a paper. The instructions for the info you're allowed to submit prior to grant review specifically says that you can only list things that have been accepted for publication.

  • Lurkette says:

    Newbie PI - i think jmz4gtu has said that he/she/it has other glam pubs, unclear if PD or grad school. But the point re annoying PO is spot on. Submitted/in review is at best meaningless, at worst will get points off.

    jmz4gtu - get that extra glam pub, all ze TT jobz, bigger startup than if you scored K99, and then start collecting foundation glam awards. way better deal.

  • Philapodia says:

    "You're going to have a pretty tough time on the job market if you don't have the glam pub, regardless of the K99."

    Having independent funding, being a programmatic fit, and not being a complete asshole are the golden keys to success with job searches, not glam humping. With post-docs applying for TT positions, glam pubs count more for what your PD adviser could do rather than what you can do as a potential new independent faculty member. It's the rare PD who actually came up with the ideas and drove the entire project that results in the glam pub, and most PDs coming out of BSD labs with these high-profile pubs are viewed by search committees as glorified technicians rather than up-and-coming BSDs. If the search committee is at all serious about their job they will look more at potential for funding (which brings in indirects to the department) and independent ideas rather than the impact factors of your previous papers. Of course, if you're looking at ILAFs you're fuckked unless you have never published in less than CNS and have a couple of R01s already, but fortunately most of us riff-raff are spared that.

  • Lurkette says:

    "most PDs coming out of BSD labs with these high-profile pubs are viewed by search committees as glorified technicians rather than up-and-coming BSDs"

    A subset of them are each, and unfortunately, it can be hard to tell without the interview. That is why many interviews go to these people, even in highly conscientious panels.

    Having independent funding is far more important for soft-money jobs, but really doesn't matter much for the big names. What matters more I think is a strong history of previous fellowship funding, preferably as both grad student and postdoc.

  • Rheophile says:

    "You're going to have a pretty tough time on the job market if you don't have the glam pub, regardless of the K99."

    Everything depends on department, of course, but here's my anecdote: I'm at a state flagship (say top 20-30 department), and I think essentially 100% of our last shortlist had some measure of glam publication - even one of the theorists had published in Nature. Though this may be unique to a somewhat dysfunctional or arrogant committee, it has nonetheless changed my behavior about choosing fancy vs society journals.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "Was lack of publications mentioned in the resume and summary of discussion, or just in one of the reviews?"
    -In the summary.

    Pippso
    @jmz4gtu didn't you declare in a previous post to have all glam pubs? What is one more going to do?"
    - Yeah, but as result, I have very few of them. They seem to have very outsized importance, so I think it's probably helping me on the balance, but it was definitely an issue on the K99 review ("applicant has published very well, but record is skimpy"). I assume that will continue into the TT application process.

    It is somewhat disheartening to hear that the glam-pubs matter so much for the job hunt. I kind of hoped the advice I heard was a bit overblown.

  • Established PI says:

    @jmz4gtu If the comment was in the summary, the low pubs issue factored into the overall score and it won't help at council simply to have submitted something. We all have papers that languish because of multiple revisions and rejections, so a submission doesn't necessarily mean the paper will be published any time soon.

    If you indeed already have glam pubs, just focus on continuing to publish well (i.e. very good journals, don't need to be C/N/S). In the end, what will count is your publication record plus what your letters say about your contribution to those pubs. Great pub record, plus letters that say "breakthrough X and paper Y would never had happened without Dr. Z," are what get interviews. It is then up to you to get the job.

  • MoBio says:

    @jmz4gtu and others

    "It is somewhat disheartening to hear that the glam-pubs matter so much for the job hunt. I kind of hoped the advice I heard was a bit overblown."

    Here's a bit more texture to this:

    Here we get perhaps as many as 200 applicants for a single position. Individuals with multiple CNS papers together with the other items (outstanding letters, fellowships, awards and so on) will naturally stand out from those without.

  • DJMH says:

    If you've already got a couple of glam pubs, but thin on anything else, then try to get this paper into a respectable, but not necessarily glam, journal. Committees will care about seeing you're capable of putting out papers on a regular basis.

    This goes back to DM's advice from a while ago, look at your CV and see what's missing, and focus on that. A K99 is a boost, but it sounds as though you can't change the outcome of this one either way, so don't worry about it.

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