Upside/Downside: Getting a grant rejected

So I’m starting a new feature to talk about the things related to my professional career that I’m ambivalent about. This is for my millions of followers/subscribers who might be interested in this kind of thing.

Receiving a rejection for a grant proposal


So part of what I do is writing applications for funding to send off to various funding agencies (e.g. NIH, DOE, etc.). These proposals are reviewed by a panel of my peers- evaluated for quality, innovation, impact, and how well they fit the goals of the request for proposals that I’m answering. A standard NIH R01 grant runs 12 pages and takes several months of preparation and work to assemble and get perfect- it generally involves a lot of personal investment; time, effort, emotional attachment.  In this funding environment (very poor) they have a high probability of being rejected. The reasons vary but the effect is the same. No money, no 3-5 years of guaranteed support, no boost to the ego for having your peers recognize your brilliance, no accolades of any kind.

Your grant has been rejected. You may or may not have the possibility of responding to reviewers’ concerns and resubmitting a revised version of the same grant. It’s the end of the world. Or is it?


  • You don’t get the money. That sucks.
  • You won’t have support to pursue that really cool plan that you’ve agonized over for so long.
  • You won’t get the ego boost that comes from success. In fact, the opposite. You have a big kick in the pants from the reviewers and the funding agency telling you that you didn’t make the cut. That sucks too.
  • The reviewers saw major flaws in some part of your proposal, or you didn’t sell it well enough. In either case, you need to take this to heart seriously.


  • You’ve spent a good deal of time seriously thinking about this research project. That counts for something. Really. Now you have a plan of action. If you are lucky enough to have some kind of funding to get some part of this done then you now know what 7395256948_e355c85bc3_bto do.
  • These kinds of efforts are very good at highlighting where you need more preliminary data. Maybe you can figure out a way to get some of that accomplished to provide preliminary data for the next round.
  • You now should have a set of good suggestions about where you need to improve and generally, if you read between the lines, you can figure out where your sales pitch has gone wrong and you haven’t made yourself clear.
  • Writing up the background and significance for a grant and gathering all the references necessary is approximately equivalent to writing a review article. Make it one. I’ve done this successfully in several situations.
  • You now have an additional corpus of text, ideas, and figures to recycle for the next grant proposal. And you should do this as much as possible.


So, in summary. If you’re in the sciences get used to rejection. A lot of rejection. Come to embrace it, accept it, and love it (OK, maybe not love it) and your life will be considerably less stressful. The simple truth is that a lot of people have a lot of great ideas. If the idea is really good it will persist and grow better with time and revisions. Hopefully someday it will land you a big bunch of dough. I know I’m still holding out that hope.