Some suggestions for revising rejected grant proposals

Getting grants for research projects is hugely important for all active investigators.  In universities where research is emphasized, pre-tenure faculty will be evaluated a couple of times before the tenure decision and grant activity is an important element in that decision. Tenured faculty who aspire to be promoted to full professor must provide evidence that their work is valued nationally or internationally and one of the indicators is the grant awards. Additionally, external funding allows faculty to collect summer salary, travel to conferences, pay for collaborators’ visits, and support students. In institutions mostly dedicated to teaching mathematics, research or training grants are also important for student projects and course development.

This blog post is not about how to write a successful proposal, for which there are many resources available (see below). This post is about what to do after you are notified that your proposal did not get funded.

A brief overview of the NSF review process

Your NSF proposal is evaluated by 3-4 reviewers independently. Each reviewer evaluates a dozen proposals or so. Then all reviewers meet as a panel with the NSF program officer (PO) in charge to discuss and rank the top proposals. Typically, the amount of funds available within the specific program limits the number of awards to 10%-20% of the proposals submitted, so the panel recommends some of them for funding, others are rated as non-fundable and others fall in between. The latter are proposals worthy of funding but which are not likely to get funded due to budget limitations. The PO makes the final decisions.

Your decision notification includes the independent reviews and a summary of the panel discussion regarding your proposal and it is common for all of us to go through phases after receiving a rejection (See blog post by Adriana Salerno).

Initially we might feel a combination of dismay, disappointment and anger. It is natural to take rejection personally, get a feeling of disappointment and end up cursing the reviewers for not getting the value of what you proposed. While this is a typical reaction, it is important to get passed it quickly. After a few days we are able to read the reviews with more objectivity.

Definitely resubmit. Read the reviews carefully and note any trends in reviewers’ comments. Positive comments (usually tagged as “strengths” of the proposal) give you an indication of which sections worked well and you should try to replicate those strengths in other sections.  Negative comments (“weaknesses” of the proposal) often come from sections that were not clearly described. Perhaps the larger context of where the work fits was unclear. Maybe the expected significance of the proposed work did not come through and you can emphasize the favorable implications of your proposed work once it is done.

Aim to please a large group of experts. Remember that panels change every time (as opposed to journal article referees) so that even if you take care of all the comments made by one panel, a different group of people will review your resubmission. So, the goal is not to please the fist panel but to make your proposal excellent in the eyes of many experts.

Ask a senior mentor to read your proposal. It is always a good idea to show your proposal to someone you trust and who has served on NSF panels. This mentor can give you ideas on how to phrase your ideas in a way that leads to success.

Resources for writing successful proposals

Resources for proposal resubmission

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