How to Deal with Critical Grant Reviews: Advice for Students and Early Career Addiction Scientists
James G. Murphy, PhD
The University of Memphis
It is fitting that I am writing this column on Valentine’s Day Eve, because much like the search for a dating partner entails opening yourself up to the possibility of painful rejection, writing grants also involves the possibility (more precisely strong likelihood) of rejection. It can be soul crushing to be rejected after months of hard work on a grant proposal, and particularly for early career scientists, our first grant proposal is often the embodiment of our central research passion and what we, at the time, believe will launch our career. I can still remember my experience as a postdoc when I received a good but not fundable score on an R21 that I had submitted for the 3rd time. To compound my angst and insecurity several of my postdoc classmates had grants funded in the same cycle. I was crushed by that score 15 years ago and convinced that my best chance at ever receiving funding was gone.
Since then I have had multiple grants funded, and many more unfunded, and now review grants for NIAAA. I am happy to share some advice about how to cope with critical grant reviews in a manner that maximizes both your wellness and your likelihood of future funding. First, in terms of wellness, this is a key time to practice your adaptive coping responses. Seek out social support, exercise and eat well, and lean into other aspects of your professional (and personal) identity that are less capricious than grant funding: savor your successes with publications, clinical work, and/or teaching. Remind yourself that success with grants requires persistence, experience, the ability to tolerate rejection, AND LUCK. As a grant reviewer, I am struck by how many strong applications, from exceptional researchers, are not funded – there is literally no shame in not being funded. Work on being completely non-defensive to the feedback from the grant reviewers. Take a pragmatic approach and try to maximize your efforts by systematically modifying and resubmitting a proposal that is not funded (vary the population, methods, funding agency etc.). Try to be as responsive as possible to reviewers – it is almost never a good idea to disagree with reviewers in a revision, unless there was a clear mistake (e.g., they missed something that was in your application or misrepresented other published literature). In that case talk with your program officer and respond in a manner that allows the reviewer to save face. Keep in mind that many applications are eventually funded that are initially not discussed. At the same time, many excellent applications are not funded because they may be lacking in one area (e.g., innovation, or in the case of a training grant, not proposing training that extends your existing training in a meaningful and practical way). Don’t be overly wedded to your unsuccessful proposal and accept the fact that you may need to move on to a new proposal. It is also helpful to consider that your most personally meaningful, and perhaps even most professionally significant contributions may come from studies that are not grant funded. Finally, keep in mind that an unfunded grant is never a total waste of time. You can use sections of the proposal as a review paper or as an element of another grant application.