A Pep Talk for Struggling Jr. Faculty

Dear Struggling Jr. Faculty-

Let’s talk openly about your major worry, getting funding for your laboratory. I’m sure this elephant is keeping you up nights, so talk to me.  I know you may not have been getting the advice or the help that you need, and you may not even know what or who are the right thing/person to ask for the best advice. Furthermore, the advice that you do get many times echoes what you already know- you need to get grants- so hearing this over and over not super helpful in the procedural sense.

Now, I’m not giving you this pep talk because I think you are incapable of meeting your goals of getting external funding of your lab on your own- let’s get that baggage out of the way right now. You were hired because the faculty had confidence in you- and they still do!  But we all know that successfully getting funding in this funding climate  (and just the climate in academia in general) is far from easy right now, and I don’t see why you shouldn’t have the benefit of all the experience that I have gone through myself to make this happen. I’m trying to help you, not because I think you are doing it wrong, but because I see that you are stressed out about this and I may have ‘tools’ that will make the process easier for you.

I know this sounds obvious, but you need to submit grants to get grants. Sometimes we get caught up in waiting for the perfect set of preliminary data before we submit a grant and this can lead to delay (and delay and further delay). Furthermore, in grad school and postdoc- when we weren’t applying for these things- it seemed like we always had rolling deadlines for important milestones.  Grant writing doesn’t work like that at all- grant writing is all about submitting that massive pile of paperwork by 5 pm on a due date. These due dates are set in stone, barring natural disaster.  Sometimes this process feels hugely daunting- and it is easy to put off getting the whole process rolling.

I like to get started by doing the following things. This process helps me to organize myself, know the firm deadlines and really stick to them.

1.  Look up the grant deadlines. Let’s look at the NIH listing for the standard due dates for competing applications. You can scroll down to R01 and see that the deadlines for new proposals are October 5, February 5, and June 5. The re-submission deadlines for proposals that are on their second submission, are typically one month later than the new proposal submissions

Maybe you are planning for an R21- and the deadlines for new R21 applications are the 16th of the same months (October, February, and June). Now that we have done this for NIH, look at the deadlines for the other agencies you might apply to (like NSF, or USDA [most of their deadlines for the year have passed, but keep checking the site for updates]). And don’t forget about the foundations either- like the American Heart Association (has both national and regional awards), and smaller $ or specialist foundation awards.

2. Take the grant application deadlines and put them on a list. This way you can see all the dates  That will look something like this for me for a year, just for example:

new R01 October 5, 2009

new R01 January 5, 2010

new R01 June 5, 2010

(resubmitted R01) July 5, 2010

new R01 October 5, 2010

new R21 October 16, 2010

(resubmitted R01 November 5, 2010)

Now, don’t be intimidated by that schedule, this isn’t what it is going to end up looking like in the end-  this is just a first step to get you thinking about actual deadlines, and to allow you to logically order the projects you have to be submitted on the deadlines available.

3.  Make an inventory of the project (or projects) that you currently have going. Just a simple list nothing more.  Right now is not the moment to say that you don’t have enough data to submit this or that. Just make a list of projects that you have going, how much data you do or don’t have right now will determine which deadlines you are going to apply on for each of these projects.

4.  Order your projects from those most ready to submit, to those least ready to submit. Now is the time to make some decisions about what your strongest projects are. Where do you have the most preliminary data, where do you have all the ‘tools’ and techniques set up, and where do you have collaborations and so forth already in the mix. And for those projects that may not yet be very far along, generate a detailed list of what preliminary data you think you will need to make your application fundable. Making this list will allow you to determine how much time you should allow for the gathering of that preliminary data- and how far down the calendar those particular grants should fall in the submission order.

5.  Now fit your ordered list of project onto your list of grant deadlines.  Remember that as a new investigator you can submit the same proposal to different agencies (you will withdraw one application if both get funded). This means that if two agencies have closely overlapping deadlines- you can plan to submit the same proposal to both places at the same time. Also, don’t forget to leave a couple of dates for re-submissions. It is tough to get stuff funded on the first try (although I’m sure your work is genius!), so plan ahead for a second round. If you submit your first grant to NIH in October 2009, it will be reviewed in February or early March- and so you should know by then how it faired. If it needs resubmitting- and you need a little extra preliminary data, you should be able to hit the July 5 deadline for the resubmission- it all depends what you read in the reviews.

6.  Print out the plan and hang it on your bulletin board. Or leave it on your computer desktop, or in whatever place you will look at it frequently. I put mine up at eye level on the bulletin board behind my computer monitor. That way I’m continuously reminded that I set some deadlines and goals for myself. Once you get a few grants in the pipeline, this whole thing becomes easier and you just plan time for revisions on different versions.

Having a firm set of deadlines that you hold yourself to is really important. I can’t promise that you will get a grant. What I can promise you though, is that you certainly won’t get a grant if you don’t apply, and you increase your chances by applying as frequently as possible.

Hang in there,



9 thoughts on “A Pep Talk for Struggling Jr. Faculty

  1. Even though I’m not a professor (yet?), I love this post. It is an action plan for what seems like a hazy and unguided time in ones career. Maybe I’ll be coming back to it in a few years.

  2. Good pep talk. It is so hard NOT to get caught in the ‘if I just got this piece of data, it would make the grant so much better’. I have a white board in my office that has all of the grants I am applying for with deadlines. It helps me focus when I start to drift. 1 R01 application in…too many foundation awards…2 more R01 apps in the next year (probably a revision as well), plus an NSF CAREER award (and probably a few more foundation awards…I am a glutton for punishment!).

  3. DrDrA,

    What a great post! Couldn’t come at a better time. This is the kind of pep talk we all need — a take-a-deep-breath, 6 simple steps refresher on how to prioritize. This might just keep the panic at bay for another day 😉


  4. This is a FANTASTIC post and also speaks to other types of deadlines, like graduation for grad students or submitting an NRSA. Great stuff on how to prioritize.

  5. Although I am not a tenure track faculty yet, I am into grant writing now. I found this article very informative. Please keep this good work up .

  6. Pingback: Moving pains | Professor in Training

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