I had a dream the other night that inspired this comic. My dream was about waiting for a connecting flight. I decided to take it easy and do something fun, then realized that my flight was leaving soon and I was nowhere near the gate. Then I got on a train and realized I was going the wrong direction. Anyway, I woke up to the realization that I’d relaxed and done fun stuff most of the weekend (I did work some in the evenings) and that I had an unfinished grant that was still due this week. As it turned out I finished up my grant quite nicely despite the slacking off- or maybe even because of the slacking off. But it gave me the inspiration for this comic.
You see, writing and submitting a grant proposal is a lot like planning for a vacation that you’ll probably never get to take. The work you’re proposing should be fun and interesting (otherwise, why are you trying to get money to do it, right?) but your chances are pretty slim that you’ll ever get to do it- at least in the form that you propose it. I’ve started to think of the grant process as a long game (see this post from one DrugMonkey)- one where the act of writing a single grant is mainly just positioning for the next grant you’ll write down the line. Writing grants give you opportunity to come up with ideas, to consolidate your thoughts, and think through the science that you want to do and how you want to do it. The process can push you to publish your work so that you can cite it as preliminary data. And it can forge long-lasting collaborations that go beyond failed proposals (though funded proposals certainly help to cement these relationships in a much more sure way).
I think “A Fine Trip Spoiled” may be the title of my autobiography when I get rich and famous.
One of the great things about being a purely computational researcher is that, nowadays, my office is pretty much wherever I want it to be. I’ve got my laptop, WiFi is omnipresent, and I have noise-canceling headphones for the serious business. There are lots of reasons that I have to be at my office – meetings and increased ability to focus being primary. However, it’s not the case that you have to be purely computational to get a lot out of working in non-traditional locales. Writing is the place where we all (as researchers) can do this. Writing manuscripts and grants being the biggest time sucks. Some of you will have the ability to be flexible in your actual work time, others this might pertain mostly to the ‘extra’ work you do writing grants and papers.
So here is my random collection of thoughts on this topic.
Why take your work outside the standard work environment?
Flexibility and efficient use of time. If you have your laptop with you you can fit in writing wherever you are (see list below). This allows you to use your time well instead of standing around checking Facebook on your phone. Not all writing work is suited for the short bits of time (probably no less than about 20-30 minutes at a time) but if you plan what to work on you can get a lot done this way. If you don’t have your laptop a surprising amount of work can get done with just a pen and paper.
Freedom from distraction. OK, a coffee shop can be a pretty distracting place, that’s a given. But sometimes being in your office can be pretty distracting too. People stop by to chat for a minute, phones ring, drawers need organizing, etc. If you can ignore the distractions outside your office (wherever you’re choosing to work) then this can be a productive way to go. Also, try working somewhere WITHOUT WiFi (it can be done)- and cut out the social media chatter.
Creative stimulation. Changing your work environment drastically can give you a shot of creative energy. It can be refreshing wot work outside at a park, or while enjoying a glass of your favorite beverage at a cafe or bar.
What to work on?
Catching up on answering emails
Reading papers- no laptop required
Planning and outlining- also no laptop required, use a pen and notebook
Where can you do this?
Coffee shop. Everyone pretty much knows about this one. Can be distracting, but find a quiet corner and bring headphones. Also, try not to drink 15 double espressos while you’re there (not that I would have ANY experience with that)
The Mad Scientist enjoying a beer after a long day meeting and about to do some grant writing at a McMenamin’s pub in Portland
Bar/pub. These can be awesome places to work- probably not on a Friday or Saturday night, but other times. Many have WiFi and they have BEER! Also, try not to drink 8 beers while you’re there. Alcohol is actually a consideration since it can affect your motivation pretty severely. Ordering ONE beer and some food works OK for me, but certainly use your best judgement- and they will always have alternate non-alcoholic beverage options.
Public library. This is really just a no-brainer. No cost (though many libraries have coffee shops attached and allow you to bring covered cups in), free WiFi, lots of sitting areas, quiet atmosphere, surrounded by the smell of knowledge.
Park. Working outside is sometimes really nice in nice weather. If you’re lucky enough to have workable weather (not too hot, not too cold, not too windy or rainy) then find a table in the shade and settle in. I’ve never found this particularly effective myself, though the idea is wonderful, but I’m sure it could work for others.
Doctor/dentist office, DMV, etc. This option is one I use quite a bit, but it only works for things that you can do a little bit on before being interrupted. I find that making todo lists and outlines work well here. Also reading background material can also work well.
Car. Not while you’re driving! I mean if you’re sitting and waiting for something or someone this can be a good time too.
Public transportation. When I was in Seattle I rode the commuter train in from Everett to work several times a week. A great place to work. An hour of uninterrupted time while beautiful countryside rolls by. Buses can work too, though not always for actual writing since often they bump and move too much for a laptop. Subways/metros also work well. Of course, this is pretty dependent on the density of people. It’s really hard to do anything productive when you have an elbow in your face and about 6 inches of standing room.
*that’s me in the seat behind Rex, by the way.
Airplane/airport. So much wasted time in airports- which are great places to work if you find the right spots. Airplanes can be a bit problematic in terms of an actual laptop (I find I can do it if I type like a T-rex) but I bring papers to read and a notebook to do planning and write ideas. In airports try to find places where there aren’t many people- away from your departing gate if you have time. More chance of getting a power outlet and fewer distractions. If you’re really in need of an outlet try looking in places where other people aren’t going to be sitting (hallways and walkways) and sit on the floor- it can be done.
Hotel. Also in the traveling realm. Hotels can be excellent places to write. Free from a lot of the distractions and obligations of home and office. If you have extra time after a day at a conference or between sessions or before you catch your plane- use it. Many hotels are set up with desks, comfy chairs, outlets, coffee makers, and WiFi. When I travel to the east coast and my return flight is early I will frequently work through the night. Not for everyone, but I’m a night owl and I find it easier to do this (sometimes) than to sleep for a few hours then drag myself out of bed at 5 AM (3 AM my time) to get to the airport. Also, no danger of oversleeping – unless of course you accidentally crash. So if you do this make sure to arrange a wake up call and set an alarm for backup.
Other locations. Be on the lookout for other opportunities. I have worked on a grant while pouring wine for a wine tasting at a friend’s house (not a wine-tasting party, mind you- this was a professional activity, so quite a bit of down time). That was pretty epic really but it still didn’t get my grant funded.
Following on my previous post about methods to deal with the inevitable, frequent, and necessary instances of academic rejection you’ll face in your career I drew this comic to provide some helpful advice on ways to train for proposal writing. Since the review process generally takes months (well, the delay from the time of submission to the time that you find out is months- not the actual review itself) it’s good to work yourself up to this level slowly. You don’t want to sprain anything in the long haul getting to the proposal rejection stage.
Funny, it feels like I’ve written about exactly this topic before…
I got rejected today, academically speaking*. Again. I was actually pretty surprised at how
“Not Discussed”, again
nonplussed I was about the whole thing. I’ve gotten mostly immune to the being rejected- at least for grant proposals and paper submissions. It certainly could be a function of my current mid-career, fairly stable status as a scientist. That tends to lend you a lot of buffer to deal with the frequent, inevitable, and variably-sized rejections that come as part of the job. However, I’ve also got a few ideas about advice to deal with rejection (some of which I’ve shared previously).
Take a deep, full breath: No, it won’t help materially- but it’ll help you feel better about things. Also look at beautiful flowers, treat yourself to a donut, listen to a favorite song, give yourself something positive. Take a break and give yourself a little distance.
Put things in perspective: Run down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How you doing on there? I’ll bet you’ve got the bottom layers of the pyramid totally covered. You’re all over that. And it’s unlikely that this one rejection will cause you to slip on this pyramid thing.
Recognize your privilege: In a global (and likely local) perspective you are extremely privileged just to be at this level of the game. You are a researcher/academic/student and get to do interesting, fun, rewarding, and challenging stuff every day. And somebody pays you to do that.
Remember: science is ALL about failure. If you’re not failing, you’re not doing it right. Learn from your failures and rejections. Yes, reviewers didn’t get you. But that means that you need to do a better job of grabbing their attention and convincing them the next time.
Recognize the reality: You are dealing with peer review, which is arbitrary and capricious. Given the abysmal levels of research funding and the numbers of papers being submitted to journals it is the case that many good proposals get rejected. The system works, but only poorly and only sometimes. And when everyone is scraping for money it gets worse.
Evaluate: How do YOU feel about the proposal/submission: forget what the reviewers said, forget the rejection and try to put yourself in the role of reviewer.
This is YOU on the steps of the NIH in 6 months! Winning!
Would YOU be impressed? Would YOU fund you? If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ then you need to reevaluate and figure out how to make it into something that you WOULD or decide if it’s something you should let go.
Make plans: Take what you know and plan the next step. What needs to be done and what’s a reasonable timeline to accomplish this. This step can be really helpful in terms of helping you feel better about the rejection. Instead of wallowing in the rejection you’re taking ACTION. And that can’t be a bad thing. It may be helpful to have a writing/training montage to go along with this since that makes things more fun and go much faster. Let me suggest as the theme to Rocky as a start.
I’m not saying you (or I) can do all of these in a short time. This process can take time- and sometimes distance. And, yes, I do realize that some of this advice is a little in the vein of the famous Stuart Smalley. But, gosh darn it, you ARE smart enough.
*For those interested, I submitted an R01 proposal to the NIH last February. It was reviewed at the NIH study section on Monday and Tuesday. The results of this review were updated in the NIH submission/tracking system, eRA commons, just this morning. I won’t know why the proposal was ‘not discussed’ for probably a week or so, when they post the summary of reviewers’ written comments. But for now I know that it was not discussed at the section and thus will not be funded.
At this point I’ve submitted something like 8 R01-level proposals as a PI or co-PI. I’ve been ‘Not Discussed’ on 7 of those. On the eight I got a score, but it was pretty much the lowest score you can get. Given that NIH pay lines are something around 10% I figure that one of the next 2 proposals I submit will be funded. Right? But I’ve been successful with internal funding, collaborations, and working on large center projects that have come to the lab- so I really can’t complain.
As it’s being rolled out the requirement for the new format will be stated in the RFA – SO LOOK FOR THIS IN ALL RFAs from here out. Two pilots already have it RFA-CA-13-501 and RFA-CA-13-502
The upsides: In my opinion the addition of the contributions to science will be the biggest one and should allow you to really highlight your publications (or lack thereof) in appropriate context. Plus space for moar buzzwords!
The downsides: It’s gonna be a pain to write (like a mini grant in there) and reviewers won’t read this one either.
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 to 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.