It seems peculiarly symmetric that just a week after my post on saying no to things to have more time to do research I would hear a “no” from a grant I applied to so that I can do research. Don’t worry about me, it was not a huge deal and I’m already over it (well, mostly). Also peculiar, and the reason for this post, is that all of this coincided with an article that came out last week by Michael J. Spires on the Chronicle of Higher Education about dealing with rejection from grants. I thought this was a sign from the math gods (Gauss? Euler?) that I should use this space to muse for a bit about the article and my own experience with rejection.
The first thing that the article states made me feel a lot better about myself: most of us get rejected from a grant at least once. For one, they are very competitive, as there are many of us who need money for research and there’s not a lot of money to give (especially these days). Secondly, and this is especially true for us newbies, we have to learn to write for grants, and a lot of this learning comes from experience.
I like that the article goes through the common reasons why a grant proposal might get rejected, and advice on how to fix it. Spires, a proposal-development specialist at the Smithsonian, writes very clearly and gives a lot of good tips. For example: “First, if you’ve gotten comments back from the grantor, read them over once. Then stick them in a drawer and go out for your favorite adult beverage.” But seriously, the article is worth a read so go ahead and read it.
From this last experience, I’m not sure what I have learned. First of all, I have not applied to any “big” grants (like NSF), so even though I have gotten rejected (and accepted!) before, it wasn’t a “make or break” kind of situation. But a rejection does make you think about what you could have done differently, and how you could be more competitive for the grant. Especially when you don’t get comments back, you need to figure this out on your own.
So after some reflection, I think that one thing that’s holding me back is that I haven’t published as much as some of my peers (especially four years after graduating). I have it good in that I landed a (pretty great) tenure-track job right after grad school, but some of the people I’m competing against have had two-year postdocs with very little teaching and a lot of mentoring. Of course they have done a lot more research! I am aware that this may be a “grass is greener” fantasy. The other side of this argument is that I am tenure-track at a (pretty great) college that has internal grants and support that these other (bigger, public) schools don’t have, I am now finishing a year-long pre-tenure sabbatical during which I have been living my post-doc dream without the stress of applying for jobs at the end, and the money from these grants is better used by people who don’t have as much internal support and stability as I do. So I guess what I’m saying is that I have a feeling that I am at a slight disadvantage when applying for grants, because I haven’t been able to do much research. But maybe I should be at a disadvantage! Anyway, this doesn’t help anyone with dealing with rejection, except that maybe I expect rejection a little more (at least for now). There are probably other reasons my proposal got rejected (as outlined in the Spires article), and I have my suspicions on things I need to work on. I just wanted to comment on one of them.
The only thing I know is that a surefire way to not get grant money is not applying for any. So I will keep applying for grants even if I get rejected more than I get accepted. There is no reason not to apply. I think that when I feel ready to apply for the “big” grants, I will get more outside help: from senior colleagues in my area, colleagues in other areas (in the cases that your proposal needs to appeal to the broader mathematical community), and our own Office for External Grants (your school has one too, I’m sure). I still think I have much to learn about selling myself and my research. “Grants are persuasive, need the good parts up front, have strict limits on length, and frequently need to be accessible to lay readers,” says Spires. I think other perspectives will help make my proposals more persuasive.
Finally, because I have both gotten rejected and accepted, I have learned to quickly move on. For example, my feeling is that I need to have a stronger research portfolio to be more competitive. This only gets fixed by doing more research. So, instead of wallowing in my misery for too long (you should always wallow just a little bit, it’s healthy) I have just gone back to my computations so that maybe I have something interesting to say before my sabbatical officially ends in September.
So, it’s your turn, dear readers. Any advice on dealing with rejection from grants? What do you do when you hear “no”? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
I now leave you with this great comic which is apropos.