So noob, you put in one grant, it didn't get funded and you feel mopey?

Mar 20 2013 Published by under Careerism, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

from a self described newProf at doc becca's digs.

Last week, the first NIH proposal I wrote with PI status was rejected... I knew things were bad, but it still hurts...Problem is, I don't know how to allocate my time between generating more preliminary data/pubs and applying for more grants. How many grants does the typical NIH- and/or NSF-funded (or wannabe-funded) TT prof write per year before getting funded?

It is not about what anyone else or the "typical" person has done.

It is about doing whatever you possibly can do until that Notice of Grant Award arrives.

My stock advice right now is that you need to have at least one proposal going in to the NIH for each standard receipt date. If you aren't hitting it at least that hard, before you have a major award, you aren't trying. If you think you can't get out one per round.... you don't really understand your job yet. Your job is to propose studies until someone decides to give your lab some support.

My other stock advice is take a look at the payline and assume those odds apply to you. Yes, special snoflake, you.

If the payline is 10%, then you need to expect that you will have to submit at least 10 apps to have a fighting chance. Apply the noob-discount and you are probably better off hitting twice that number. It is no guarantee and sure, the PI just down the hall struck it lucky with her first Asst Prof submission to the NIH. But these are the kinds of numbers you need to start with.

Once you get rolling, one new grant and one revised grant per round should be doable. They are a month apart and a revision should be way easier. After the first few, you can start taking advantage of cutting and pasting a lot of the grant text together to get a start on the next one.

Stop whining about preliminary data. Base it on feasibility and work from there. Most figures support at least a half dozen distinct grant applications. Maybe more.

I never know for sure how hard my colleagues are working when it comes to grant submissions. I know what I do...and it is a lot. I know what a subset of my other colleagues do and let me tell you, success is better correlated with effort (grants out the door) than it is with career rank. That has an effect, sure, but I know relatively older investigators who struggle to maintain stable funding and ones who enjoy multi-grant stability. They are distinguished to some extent by how many apps they get out the door. Same thing for junior colleagues. They are trying to launch their programs and all. I get this. They have to do a lot of setup, training and even spend time at the bench. But they also tend to have a very wait-and-see approach to grants. Put one in. Wait for the result. Sigh. "Well maybe I'll resubmit it next round". Don't do this, my noob friends. Turn that app around for the next possible date for submission.

You'll have another app to write for the following round, silly.

64 responses so far

  • AnonPI says:

    This is 100% correct. In 3.5 years of PI-ship, including 3 mo maternity leave, I have put in 23 single PI and collaborative grants to NSF, NIH, and foundations while building an entirely new research system from scratch. Exactly 1 NSF grant has been funded. Currently I have 3 pending NSF preproposals and an NIH R01 that scored 36% in the A0 submission that I am revising to resubmit. With NSF rates for some divisions hovering around 5% you better believe it could take 20 apps for one success. Whether that's a sustainable career path is another question.

  • Ola says:

    The scariest comment from the noob, was the study section being mostly people who don't interact with their field. That's a sure sign that they didn't send it to the right study section!

    The other thing that comes across, is the idea that grant prelim' data and grant-writing and publications are somehow separate things that don't cross over. If you're not getting papers out of the prelim' data you make for grants then you're doing it wrong. If you're not turning around the intro' sections of your grants and publishing them as review articles then you're doing it wrong.

    This stuff should all mesh efficiently. By the time you get the actual money, the first couple of papers "funded" by that proposal should be ready to submit (or even in review or provisionally accepted). That way your first year's progress report is already in the bag and you can go have some fun in the lab doing the cool new stuff.

  • Joe says:

    "I don't know how to allocate my time between generating more preliminary data/pubs and applying for more grants."
    All the advice on putting in the multiple applications is good. The newProf also needs to be publishing to demonstrate productivity as an independent investigator. It will really help the applications.

  • But sending in wretched grants will never get you funded. Or will get you never funded. Make sure what you send in is good.

  • Most figures support at least a half dozen distinct grant applications.

    I have been going on about this fucken shitte for *years*. And n00bs are *still* shocked when I tell them that the exact same preliminary data can support an infinite number of distinct grants with distinct aims.

  • anonymous says:

    Ola's first point is all very well and good, but sometimes you can request a study section, or even just an institute, and be assigned differently, or even have the PO at your preferred institute and study section request reassignment of your proposal, and have them be unsuccessful, with the grant remaining at its original assignment.

    What's that about? Asking for a friend.

  • Dave says:

    The newProf also needs to be publishing to demonstrate productivity as an independent investigator

    This. My feeling is that if you are on the TT and you have a start-up with people working in the lab for you, then yes you need to be putting in grants every cycle. If you have no staff and the only data you generate comes from your own hands, you need to be a little more careful.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Make sure what you send in is good.

    I condition all of my advice on the presumption that you can put together a semi-credible application. That part isn't hard. I also warn not to let perfect be the enemy of good....but opinions vary on that and I can't say I can prove better/worse success either way.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What's that about? Asking for a friend.

    shit happens. another reason you need to put up as many shots at the hoop as possible.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Being on a study section has caused me to change my attitude toward proposals somewhat. My initial strategy was to make sure I had f*cktons of preliminary data for every aim. That's what got me my first RO1.

    Now, having seen which proposals did well, it looks like people can be impressed by a really good idea and some proof of principle data.

    I'm trying to back off from my my "don't even think about submitting until you've practically done all the work" attitude. Especially since it's not a very viable approach these days given how often you have to submit.

  • Morgan Price says:

    So if everyone follows DrugMonkey's advice, then submissions increase 2x and success rates drop another 2x? I'm glad I'm not a PI...

  • drugmonkey says:

    My Readership is not as large as you think MP.

  • mikka says:

    Since study sections are likely to be the same, won't that cause some raised eyebrows and accusations of spray and pray application clusterbombing?
    I mean, if as I've been told they frown upon immediate resubmission if they are asking for more preliminary data because "a month is not long enough, he/she didn't take our critiques seriously", then a similar effect should occur if you submit eleventy applications with the same prelim data to the same study section, amiwrong? It seems to me like study section "perception of quality" is what ultimately gets you the award, and multiple applications on different stuff round after round may annoy study section and give them the feeling of lower quality, or at least give them the excuse to use that critique. Anyone with actual study section experience care to share?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Different study sections should be targeted.

  • Different study sections should be targeted.

    And if you are convinced there is only one study section with the "expertise" to review your proposals, then your entire thought process about not only grant-writing, but science in general, needs massive overhaul.

  • Grumble says:

    "Whether that's a sustainable career path is another question."

    And the answer is "No."

    "Now, having seen which proposals did well, it looks like people can be impressed by a really good idea and some proof of principle data."

    This applies under two conditions:
    1) The PI is a well-known, well-established scientist who publishes lots of gee-whiz, look0-how-clever-my-new-technique-is papers, typically in Glam journals
    2) The PI has a >1 buddy on the study section reviewing the grant.

    Otherwise, for the rest of us, we have to do the damn experiment before writing the grant. That is a RULE.

  • Dave says:

    Agree with Grumble. Am I the only one that is looking at AnonPIs stats and thinking that the system cannot continue like this? Soon the number of grants you need to submit in order to land a grant will surely be so high that you physically won't be able to do it on a yearly basis.

  • kevin. says:

    Can you send essentially the same grant simultaneously to different study sections/institutes or is that considered 'bad form?'

  • drugmonkey says:

    This applies under two conditions:
    1) The PI is a well-known, well-established scientist who publishes lots of gee-whiz, look0-how-clever-my-new-technique-is papers, typically in Glam journals
    2) The PI has a >1 buddy on the study section reviewing the grant.

    Neither have been true of me when I received some fundable scores with feasibility but not directly related (do the damn experiment) type preliminary data.

    (unless you mean that anyone advocating for a grant has to be a "buddy"....but that is circular)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Can you send essentially the same grant simultaneously to different study sections/institutes or is that considered 'bad form?'

    It is not mere bad form it is illegal* under NIH rules.

    *there are some special exceptions, for example a component of a Center or Program Project may be under simultaneous consideration as a separately submitted R01. I am not entirely clear how it is handled if both receive a fundable score but I imagine you have to choose. Obviously you'd go with the P mech one so as to avoid blowing that whole shebang out of the water...

  • Carlos Fonsi says:

    I am so glad that the NIH, NSF, etc are taking a funding hit. The less money they waste on you, the better. I'll make sure to keep pressuring my Senators and House Representative. We certainly have too many of you scientist constantly begging for money. Beggars and indigents have more honor than many of you. But as more and more of you are unable to get grants, academia will shrink and the begging should decrease.
    Oh well, don't mind me, please go back to your "my grant got thrashed" whining--it's SO fun!

  • GAATTC says:

    "Stop whining about preliminary data. Base it on feasibility and work from there. Most figures support at least a half dozen distinct grant applications. Maybe more."

    I don't know if this holds true for all disciplines. I might be able to use a set of control data and propose to look at how this changes in x treatment or y condition, which may give me two different aims, but still part of one application. So 6 applications might be a reach, but your point is valid, especially in terms of crafting multiple applications to different study sections.

  • Grumble says:

    "Neither have been true of me when I received some fundable scores with feasibility but not directly related (do the damn experiment) type preliminary data. "

    In my case, I haven't gotten a single fundable score without extensive prelim data, and the fundable scores have all been on grants with such data. That applies even to an R21.

    Oh, and Carlos Fonsi, I'm pretty sure the House and Senate will be able to keep us in perpetual penury even without your advice. So you can crawl back under your bridge and sleep soundly.

  • mikka says:

    So here's a big question: If my research line (remote disease relatedness, model organism) restricts me to NIGMS, and within it to a very small number of programs, and the PO always sends my applications to the same study section (despite my pleading for a less gruesome study section, he invariably goes "Nope. MGA."), does that mean that my line of research is too limited to survive? Am I a small town grocer?

    If so, how can I expand my lines of research with my limited resources (startup funds+some foundation money) at the same time that I try to publish something, anything, asap, presumably on what I'm already doing? and do it with enough depth that my applications in these new fields will be taken seriously?

    Maybe for more health related fields (physio?) more institutes and study sections are available than for hardcore fundamental molecular biology, where it's NIGMS or if not then NSF (which as we all know is for amateurs)?

    I'm not whining, if this is what i need to do to stay in the NIH racket I'll do it. But I think it would be hugely risky.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Collaborations? Throw some cocaine on it?

    Look, it's hard to say without better specifics. Colleagues can help though.

  • qaz says:

    Mikka - You may have to think outside the box a little to find the connection to other programs, but it can make the difference between the no-longer-tenable "one-grant-and-renewed" career (which we've all said is living on the edge) and the "multiple-grants-in-the-pipeline" career (that you need to survive).

    I found that the key (for me) was going to talks from people outside my immediate discipline. At those talks, ask yourself, "is there a way my research capabilities can answer a question they haven't thought of yet"? Or better yet, a question they've thought of, but can't answer.

    Also, I don't know what your environment is like, but if you've got colleagues who you can talk to, try asking them directly about whether there are questions that you can tune your research capabilities towards answering.

    Also, if you are in a non-disease-related model organism, try NSF.

  • qaz says:

    Can you send essentially the same grant simultaneously to different study sections/institutes or is that considered 'bad form?'

    Actually, there is one case that I know of where it is OK and legal - if you are a new investigator who has never had federal funding, you can send your proposal to both NSF and NIH.

    PS. I know that this used to be true. I looked for it on NSF's current website and was unable to find out if it was still OK. I suggest talking to your program officer before trying it.

  • odyssey says:

    qaz,
    I believe it is still true, but it only holds for NSF's BIO directorate. You can't send something to NIH and, for example, NSF's MPS directorate (where chemistry is funded).

  • Industry Scientist says:

    "If the payline is 10%, then you need to expect that you will have to submit at least 10 apps to have a fighting chance. Apply the noob-discount and you are probably better off hitting twice that number."

    Regardless of the odds and what one has to do to secure funding, shouldn't the conversation be more about how crazy and inefficient this is? What percentage of an academic's time actually goes into doing science as opposed to securing funding?

    On the one hand, proposing and designing experiments is doing science. On the other hand, having to propose the experiment 10-20 times in order to get funding to do the experiment seems like an incredible waste of time and energy. Not to mention, all these submissions need to be reviewed as well. Yeek.

  • drugmonkey says:

    On this blog we pursue both advice for success under the system as it exists *and* complaining about how it sucks. Not to mention identifying the RealProblemTM and the ObviousFixes(R)

  • AnonPI says:

    In my experience the bar to getting things funded with low preliminary data is higher if you are coming from outside the mainstream of a given field. If reviewers don't know you, or your postdoc lab, and you are suggesting non-standard approaches, you essentially have to present a completed experiment to convince people it's possible. So beware if you think it's easy to get $$ to do interdisciplinary work because everyone talks about how great that is. YMMV but so far it seems to me interdisciplinary work is much easier to sell if you are already well known in a specific, well-established field.

  • " 'This applies under two conditions:
    1) The PI is a well-known, well-established scientist who publishes lots of gee-whiz, look0-how-clever-my-new-technique-is papers, typically in Glam journals
    2) The PI has a >1 buddy on the study section reviewing the grant.'

    Neither have been true of me when I received some fundable scores with feasibility but not directly related (do the damn experiment) type preliminary data. "

    I know, it's total hearsay, but I was told a quite influential grant reviewer stated he would not actually read proposals, only the CV. Good pedigree = good project.

    This is ridiculous. Being mentored by a smart, creative person doesn't make you a genius - more over, for all one knows, you could have been the lab's measure monkey. This made me really angry.

    I can only hope, this kind of 'reviewer' is not found too often.

  • Joe says:

    "I was told a quite influential grant reviewer stated he would not actually read proposals, only the CV."
    I don't find this to be the case generally in the study sections I've served on. We spend most of the time arguing over significance and approach, things you wouldn't get from reading the biosketch. Although this might explain why I sometimes find myself pointing out to another reviewer that the experiment that they are asking for is right there in sub-aim 1c of the experimental plan.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The thing is, formally Investigator and Environment are as important as Approach. Since reviewers are free to weight as they see fit this CV myopia is no worse than focusing on Approach to the exclusion of all else, right?

  • Dr Becca says:

    My impression is that the need for preliminary data varies by study section. My R21 was funded on its first submission (although based on its score, it was a clear "pick-up") with no preliminary data--hell, my lab was still being built at the time it went in. But I put in a bunch of feasibility figures from my post-doc work to show that I knew what I was talking about, which I think helped. My colleague across the hall, on the other hand, was asked for a ton of prelim data for her R21 (diff study section), which was eventually funded as well.

    I'll be getting the score in a couple of weeks for my first R01 submission, and I'll be very interested to see what the comments are like, and whether I get dinged this time for lack of prelim data. Again, I had none for the proposal's actual experiments, but put in as much feasibility stuff as I could to show that the lab is up and running and that we're ready to conduct this TOTALLY BRILLIANT project if we could only get funded.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    DE- would you likewise be enraged to learn a postdoc wrote the experimental plan? Or that a professional grant writer did? How do you know the PI even came up with the idea?

    ....it's a rabbit hole of distrust you are headed down

  • Dave says:

    The thing is, formally Investigator and Environment are as important as Approach. Since reviewers are free to weight as they see fit this CV myopia is no worse than focusing on Approach to the exclusion of all else, right?

    Exactly. Pick your poison. For the noobs, investigator is obviously a little more important and for major career awards (which I am intimately familiar with) it seems to be much more important than the actual research.

  • Grumble says:

    OK, that's it. Next time I get grants to review, I am going to judge them SOLELY based on investigator, except for those from nooBs.

    Of course, my favorite grants will inevitably get trashed at study section, and all I'll be able to do is sputter "but... but.. the PI publishes truly awesome papers!".

  • crystaldoc says:

    My stock advice right now is that you need to have at least one proposal going in to the NIH for each standard receipt date. If you aren't hitting it at least that hard, before you have a major award, you aren't trying.

    I think that this is good advice ONLY if you can keep it up for the long haul (and maintain your sanity) while simultaneously managing to publish papers on which you are senior author to establish your track record as an independent scientist. However, inspiring as DM's careerism and grantsmanship posts have been to me over the years, this specific assertion has periodically contributed to misplaced feelings of failure. I have chosen to make my family a priority despite unavoidable negative repercussions on my career and research program. I am willing to give only so many hours per week over to my work, and at various times I have made choices to prioritize manuscripts and skip a grant deadline, or to prioritize applications for foundation grants or internal institutional funding opportunities (which I judged to have a much higher probability of success) over an R01 application (which, let's face it, with paylines below 10% is a long shot). Money is money, and I kept my lab of 4-8 trainees running for 7 years on grants of 1-3 year duration from foundations, the state where I reside, the DoD, and institutional centers and programs before ever landing an R01. Looking back, I calculate that I have a success rate of 3/15 for NIH grants and 12/21 for all other grant sources combined, so I would have to say in hindsight it paid off to prioritize non-NIH mechanisms because even though the dollars were less, the expected value (taking success rates into consideration) was greater.

    In study sections for which I have first (limited) or second hand knowledge, I'd say new investigators have a 12-18 month window of opportunity in which investigator scores can rest on good pedigrees and high impact postdoc publications. Beyond that window, the promise of the fresh new up-and-comer starts to wear off without research publications as senior author to bolster confidence in future productivity. So you do need to balance time spent on grant applications with time spent driving projects forward, writing, and shepherding papers through the publication process.

  • newProf says:

    OP here. It is useful to read these perspectives. I'm taking from this that (1) it's not worth optimizing one or two proposals, (2) preliminary data might be required, (3) (per CPP and others) I should plan to leverage everything, (4) it's reasonable to aim to submit every cycle, and (5) pubs become increasingly important as my newness wears off.

    Unfortunately, I have ethical obligations to finish several projects that do not relate to future proposals. This was bad planning.

    @Ola: Re "The scariest comment from the noob, was the study section being mostly people who don't interact with their field. That's a sure sign that they didn't send it to the right study section!" -- It was an umbrella SEP under the NIH Director's Office. The work was definitely under the purview of the RFA.

  • drugmonkey says:

    all I'll be able to do is sputter "but... but.. the PI publishes truly awesome papers!".

    I've frequently heard this advanced for why the panel should vote a good score for what is clearly a tortured and densely packed research plan. It, to all appearances, is a reasonably successful tack.

  • drugmonkey says:

    However, inspiring as DM's careerism and grantsmanship posts have been to me over the years, this specific assertion has periodically contributed to misplaced feelings of failure.

    My apologies.

    I have chosen to make my family a priority despite unavoidable negative repercussions on my career and research program. I am willing to give only so many hours per week over to my work, and at various times I have made choices to prioritize manuscripts and skip a grant deadline,

    As have I. I do mention this now and again. Also that you have to make your own compromises and be willing to risk failing at your job as a consequence.

    prioritize applications for foundation grants or internal institutional funding opportunities (which I judged to have a much higher probability of success) over an R01 application (which, let's face it, with paylines below 10% is a long shot). Money is money

    oh, I agree. Save that some places want to see NIH grants, but yeah, take the higher probability ones where on offer. Thing is, they often have deadlines that are offset from NIH so... 🙂

    I'd say new investigators have a 12-18 month window of opportunity in which investigator scores can rest on good pedigrees and high impact postdoc publications. Beyond that window, the promise of the fresh new up-and-comer starts to wear off without research publications as senior author to bolster confidence in future productivity.

    That is important advice. The expectations shift along the timeline of the first years of the career.

  • mikka says:

    Thanks for the advice. I will embrace this approach, that I now call "Grant Stakhanovism", and dig around for new frontiers in the thick jungle of NIH bureaucracy, looking for a home.

  • TwoYellowsMakeRed says:

    the PO always sends my applications to the same study section

    The PO does not make the study section assignments. The Center for Scientific Review does. Research the study sections and ask for one, by name, in your cover letter. If you don't get it, call the SRO and ask for a reassignment. The PO has nothing to do with this part of the process.

  • mikka says:

    Thanks for the correction, TYMR. I get lost in the NIH acronym salad.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Given the limitations on resubmissions, best advice is to go with your second best idea on the first proposal to gauge the water and certainly don't use something that you have a ton of preliminary data cause trivialities could sink it.

  • Noob says:

    So is one pub as corresponding author 1.5 yrs into the game good enough to fill the 12-18 month noob PI buffer of productivity?

  • Noob says:

    2.75 yrs into the game ...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Depends on subfield expectations

  • jw says:

    i gotta say, while i hear you all (i'm a new postdoc, considering going for faculty) i also think everyone here is contributing to the overload. seriously, publishing your intro as a review article? that's just flooding the journals with secondhand crap. i know that everyone needs pubs but this whole system seems completely stupid to me. i don't want to read another article spouting the same old crap. if i was a grant reviewer i sure as hell wouldn't want to read your recycled proposals over and over again either.

    something is wrong with how we do this, how we do science funding and science publishing. everyone's just running ever faster, the wrong way up the escalator, trying to stay in place. guess i am not cut out to be faculty.

  • [...] to keep in mind is that writing a grant by no means indicates that you’ll get funded. Even R1 researchers are used to writing a ton of grants in order keep funding rolling, as most submissions aren’t funded. Check out the comments in [...]

  • newPI says:

    so I put in my first NIH grant (DP2) and got a number back today. "Impact Score" of 35. No percentile given. What does this mean? Will it get funded? I read somewhere that overall/impact scores of <30 are highly likely to get funded, and between 30-40 may get funded. Considering that funds are tight I am thinking it probably wont get funded. They haven't given reviewer comments back (probably arrive in the next month) so I dont have a sense of how they reacted. Why has the NIH given me one number without telling me what it means (for chances of funding)? Doesn't make too much sense - or am I missing something?

    Does anyone have experience with DP2 and can shed light on what this Overall/Impact score might mean for my chances of getting funded? Thanks!

  • drugmonkey says:

    The chances of grants getting funded are a fuzzy affair with you very rarely getting any useful information. the DP2 is a funny mechanism (there are many) so the usual rules (derived mostly from the way R01s are handled) don't apply.

    You'll want to try writedit.wordpress.com for bench racing scores/percentiles and chances of funding. we don't do so much of that around here.

    with that said, 35 doesn't seem anywhere in the money to me. It wouldn't be for an R01, in most cases. unless it was some unusally hardass study section and that was related to a good percentile (sub10). seems unlikely though. Dunno what your ESI (presumably?) status would get you in terms of the DP2 mechanism....

  • newPI says:

    thanks, drugmonkey - I'll ask there. yeah all DP2 applicants are probably ESIs I'm guessing. Well. on to the next grant application...(great blog, btw, just discovered it today)

  • newPI says:

    actually, one more question - would you recommend talking to the PO/SRO at this stage to get some feedback (for resubmission as R01/R21/DP2) or to wait until I get reviewer comments or no point talking?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Since you got a score, you were discussed. The PO can tell you some generalities about how it went so go ahead and call and see what they thought.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And you don't talk to the SRO post review, generally. Out of that person's hands (until you put in a revision....can't remember if DP2s are amendable?)

  • newPI says:

    DP2s are one-shot things per my understanding. I'll talk to the PO - thanks!

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    A 35 on a DP2 has zero chance of being funded.

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