Strike One for the PI

Sara’s post last week about applying for grants hit me right in the middle of, of course, applying for a grant. I found Sara’s tips very useful and loved the advice from the Chronicle on how not to get a grant. I also enjoyed Adriana’s take on not getting grants, as well as the excellent comments.  This week I thought I’d add my own (really great) experience with not getting a grant.

There was a time when I thought I’d never apply for a grant to do math. I mean, I’m a number theorist. What do I need money for? Numbers? Paper? I thought that only professors at R1 institutions needed to apply for grants, to support PhD students or strengthen their tenure cases. How incredibly wrong I was. I feel lucky that I don’t need a lab or to buy any expensive machinery for my research, but I do need time to work, to stay connected through conferences, and to travel to work with my collaborators, all of which cost plenty of money. For this year I have start-up funds and a yearly allowance from my department, but I’m also applying for the second time for the AMS-NSA Young Investigator grant. Last year I thought it would be nice to apply so I plunged in and spent a few weeks working up a research proposal. I didn’t get it (strike one). However, I present:

Four reasons it was worth applying for the grant I didn’t get

1) Writing this grant forced me to let go of old plans.

I have always been interested in lots of varied problems and had picked up several different projects since the beginning of graduate school. In my earlier research statements, I had included all my projects in an attempt to demonstrate breadth and adaptability. However, I could tell that a proposal that included all of these would seem scattershot and poorly focused. The separate background sections alone would take up most of the length I was allowed. So I had to choose one area where I was most interested in going, at least for these first few years. I decided to focus on curves over the rational numbers and finite fields, topics where I had active and exciting projects, instead of some other topics where my work was older or my questions weren’t as well developed. It was hard to cut those topics loose in my mind, but also liberating, because after consciously laying them aside (for now!), I have more energy for the ones I have chosen.

2) Writing this grant made me ask better questions, and gave me ideas on how to start answering them.

My previous (mostly job application) research statements were focused on explaining the research I had already done, with a few questions for future study. When I wrote those other statements, my goal was to show that I was an accomplished researcher with plans to keep my research moving. The grant’s research proposal had a different goal—I was asking for money and concretely stating exactly what questions I would answer with that money. First I had to ask myself what problems were really interesting, then sell those problems as being worthwhile. Second, I had to show I could solve them. I wanted to showcase my accomplishments, but only to demonstrate that I had the background, skills, and good ideas to address my stated questions. It seemed important to show that I had convincing plans of how to take at least the first steps. Of course that meant I had to really think about these first steps, and I found that I had ideas I’d never bothered to organize before. I thought I didn’t know how to start, but that was because I hadn’t honestly thought about how to start. Now I have.

Also, in the process of solving a problem I tend to get tunnel vision and ignore all diverging paths. I want to know this one thing!!! Who cares what else I know? Who cares about anything else?!?   And then it’s on to the next thing. In writing this proposal, I found that looking back on the work that I have done and thinking from a little distance about where I would like to go revealed the landscape very differently. I can see how one project might relate to another, and how this approach might apply in this other situation. It made me really excited about my research, and gave me more ideas I probably wouldn’t have had if hadn’t taken this time to reflect and try to create a narrative.

3) I will never again underestimate the amount of time it takes to apply for a grant.

After applying once, I have now done everything wrong once. With all this excitement about my research proposal, I didn’t spend much time last year thinking ahead about any of the other parts of the grant application. I assumed that the major part of the proposal was the research plan, and didn’t even think about the other parts carefully until a few days before the deadline when I logged in and started submitting my application. If you’re a beginner at writing grants, as I was, let me save you some pain and tell you right now that there are many more parts to the application. There’s the short summary, the budget, the biographical details and time commitments, the indirect rates agreement from the University, and the approval of the research office at the University. And also several other things that I’ve forgotten at the moment. Of course, I’d read the website and skimmed over the list of requirements, but they all seemed minor compared to the research proposal. When it came time to submit, I was somehow totally surprised by the fact that I needed to be in contact with my own University’s research office to get their approval and deal with indirect costs. The short summary sounds like no big deal, but it needs to do a lot of what the research proposal does, but in ONE PAGE! Holy cow. That is hard. Each supporting document took approximately 2 to 10 times longer to prepare than I’d anticipated. I wrote panicked emails to my university’s research office—“Help, this grant is due tomorrow and I need your approval!” They very kindly stepped up to help me at the last minute.

This application didn't take as long as building La Sagrada Familia, but it did take most of my trip to Barcelona.

Did Gaudi apply for grants?  This application didn’t take as long as building La Sagrada Familia, but it did take most of my trip to Barcelona.

And let me also mention that the last minute was happening for me in Barcelona, where I had gone on my fall break. This was really exciting, my first ever non-mathematical trip overseas. I thought I would just finish up the details on the plane and then submit my application from the airport when I arrived. Then off to enjoy my vacation! Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I was completely preoccupied and stressed for the first 4 days of my trip—trying to find wifi in Barcelona cafes, figuring out what time in Spain I could expect to get a reply from someone in Philadelphia, and what time exactly was the cut off for application submission. In the end, my proposal had several embarrassing typos, because of time pressure and because I wasn’t able to print for a final proofread on paper. By the time I hit “submit” I was exhausted, and felt really awful for spending the trip glued to my laptop. This doesn’t sound like much of a positive about applying for the grant, but I would never have imagined it could take so much time and now I know. I will never make such a ludicrous plan again.

4) The reviews from my rejected grant may be the most valuable feedback I have ever gotten on my research.

When I received an email last summer letting me know that I didn’t get the grant, I was disappointed. The next email, with the reviewer’s responses, sat in my inbox unopened for a couple weeks. I was steeling myself for some tough reading. When I finally read the reviews I was shocked. The reviewers were unbelievably nice, generous people who gave me a lot of encouragement and very helpful feedback on my application. They took the time to read it carefully, make thoughtful comments on the content, and very kindly suggest ways to improve it. These were clearly people who knew the area well, and they offered additional references and pointed out applications that I had not emphasized.  This was perhaps the most extensive feedback I had received on any document since my thesis.  I have to say that some reviewers of my papers have also offered excellent feedback, but the grant reviewers discussed my whole research program–it was a little like having the opportunity to explain my research without nervousness to four experts in my field, then hearing their considered responses.  Far from being painful, reading my reviews was one of the most positive experiences I have had in sharing my research with the larger world. I was so excited that I wanted to revise and resubmit right then! Unfortunately the portal didn’t open again until September.


This year has been much better. I went in really knowing what was required and started my application online over a month before the deadline. I had time to let the University’s research office know what I was up to, and to ask my wonderful PhD advisor some questions about my research proposal. I have printed, proofread, and fixed scores of errors. I have revised the proposal to use the strange but appropriately formal language of “the PI” (and I do picture myself with a mustache every time I say that, in case you were wondering).  Of course, my application may not be funded this year either. But a) it might, b) there’s no way I will ever get funding without applying, so I’m not giving up, and c) if nothing else, round 2 will make the round 3 just that much better.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any great grant advice, or have made any of the grant mistakes that I did.  Good luck!

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One Response to Strike One for the PI

  1. smalec says:

    I’m so glad you posted this! One of the other points I wanted to cover in my last point was “make it worthwhile even if you don’t get the grant.” I cut it for length, but you obviously read my mind.

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