New Investigator Woes

Professor in Training has a post up this morning about her woes as a new investigator on federal grant proposals, go over there and read. She asks three important questions- which I could answer as a comment on her site- but I fear it would become post length- so in the interest of efficiency I’ll just write a post and get it over with!

First PiT, I feel for you, having been through several years of continuous submitting and resubmitting- I get it. It’s frustrating, it’s low pay off, it kinda hurts at times when it feels like someone made a judgment on your work …. without really reading it… and screwing up important details in their summary. But- remember, reviewers are people too- and as a wise colleague told me recently- let’s make sure we write it so a tired and overworked reviewer will understand it.  I fear there will be quite a bit of this tired/overworked reviewer business going around with the current round of challenge/ARRA/Obama-grants. But overall my point to you is- don’t take it personally- and now pick yourself up and get back on the darn horse!

But now on to your three questions- which I approach with the qualifier that I have only been on your end- and not on the reviewing end.

1.  Evidence of prior funding, does this matter and how?

Who knows (Drugmonkey, and C PP, this one’s for you to answer). I know that this appeared in my grant reviews. I don’t think that pre-doctoral funding matters- I never mentioned it in my grant proposal anywhere (not on my CV), but for post-doctoral funding I think it does matter. How it matters- I would say- depends. It seems like it should count FOR you, but I think it can count against you if you sucked up a bunch of federal money and have nothing to show for it (i.e., you didn’t publish).

2.  Quantity of preliminary data, how much is enough?

This is the perpetual question- and the answer is- you need enough preliminary data so that the reviewers that this project is completely doable by YOU.  My most successful applications have been ones where I had a piece of credible preliminary data to support every single experimental aim and technique. That seems like huge overkill, after all- if you’ve used one macrophage cell line the chances that you can successfully cultivate another don’t seem all that remote … such that you would need a figure to convince someone… but that’s not reality. Another avenue is to find collaborators that have published in a particular area that you need (if you don’t have the data yourself), and get them to write you a letter saying that they will provide expertise, train you etc- then you can cite their seminal papers in that particular area …

I will also note that we are on shifting ground here because we will shortly (although I’m not sure exactly when) get 13 fewer pages for our proposals…. so everything, including preliminary data will have to be cut back. Turn in as many proposals as you can while the 25 page limit is in effect.

3.  Pedigree of grad school/postdoc lab/TT school

Shouldn’t matter in a perfect world, but we don’t do science (or anything for that matter) in a perfect world. So it matters, whether people openly say it or not. Not fair, really sucks, brilliant person should be given a grant on their brilliant proposal, not based on pedigree etc- I TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY AGREE- but that’s not really reality, I think. You can, however, get around some of this by effective (and sincere) networking at meetings … making sure you give as many posters and presentations as possible to get your brilliant work higher visibility with the people who review papers, edit journals, and review grants…

Just my 2 cents worth…


5 thoughts on “New Investigator Woes

  1. I’ll add the caveat that preliminary data, #2, doesn’t seem to play as great a role in fellowship grant applications (i.e from private foundations). But, whether this benefits you depends on #3, because, they rely more heavily on pedigree. If you have the right pedigree you should be applying when you’re eligible.

    Also, waiting too long to submit because you’re waiting for preliminary data can be a useless delay, because you won’t know what preliminary data your particular study section is looking for. I think DM has pointed that out at his blog. But, I don’t know how this logic changes now that only 2 submissions are allowed.

  2. Thanks for the pep talk and the advice 🙂 It’s just frustrating when you see wildly different reviews and scores between review cycles for (essentially) the same proposal (3 re/submissions yielding 35%ile and then 25%ile followed by a 50 … WTF?) and you know that this particularly agency is mostly MDs reviewing the proposals who mostly prefer to fund junior MDs. Just makes me mad.

    That being said though, I agree that most of it was likely due to me not writing clearly enough and that was addressed when the proposal was beefed up and submitted as an R01. These are all valuable learning experiences but the mounting rejections get a little tiresome after a while. Gotta catch a break eventually, surely!

  3. PiT- It is my pleasure, and keep your chin up! I mostly want you to know we’ve all been through some version of this or another lately- and it is survivable. Do you have a volunteer outside your immediate area of expertise to take a look at your grants and give you some hints on how to make it more easily understandable to the outsider? If not, send me an email.

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