Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What to do if your grant isn't funded

Or, more appropriately, what I am going to do now that my K99/R00 application was not funded.

In mid-April I got the official decision that my K99 application would not be funded. There is a lot of competition for funding, so I wasn't completely surprised, but I did want to know:
1. What were the concerns/criticisms of the application?
2. Based on the reviews, is it worth resubmitting?

It took a frustrating couple of weeks before I got the comments on my application (but glad to have them). I immediately contacted the Program Officer and set up a time to discuss the comments.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the comments from the four reviewers, especially given the rejection. Many of the reviewers listed both the Strengths and Weaknesses of my application. Let me tell you, reading the "Strengths" were such a boost, and provided me so much motivation to resubmit (and work on my other projects) that it really helped me read the "Weaknesses" sections critically.

As a postdoc, I often feel a lot of pressure from established professors, from my peers who are applying for jobs, and from collaborators, to research, research, research, and, more importantly, to publish, publish, publish. I am advised to work, and to focus, and to always be on game because of how intensely competitive it is in the job market. I have been advised that I will interview well (yay!), but will have a more difficult time securing interviews because my publication record is weaker than my peers (boo). Yes, this is all true. I very much value having realistic expectations, and appreciate the motivation to do my best. But, a part of me feels frustrated that the focus seems to be on doing my best to secure a job, instead of doing my best because it is the right thing to do.  

Ironically, it was reading the notes from my rejected K99 application that I have found the most positive motivation. If you'll oblige me, some tidbits from the "Strengths" sections:
"The topic is important and the hypotheses are novel."

"Dr. Wilson Sayres is uniquely positioned to conduct the proposed research."
"The candidate has a strong background and publication records in computer genetic data analysis. She has a clear career goal and career development plan."

Oh, well, thank you very much!

Okay, so what are the weaknesses? I'm ready. Hit me with it:

"Aim 4 is experimental and no training for this seems to be evident."

"Since her research in the independent stage will involve collecting and analyzing biological samples, there is a need for training plan in biology research."

There were also some more specific criticisms, that, after carefully reading them, came about because I did not provide enough detail.

From my reading of the criticisms, I think that my application had some flaws that can be readily addressed in a resubmission. I am an evolutionary biologist. I have done some experimental work, but did not highlight that in my application (though not with humans, as a propose here).  Three of four aims were computational, and I proposed a rather ambitious fourth aim that was meant to be a collaborative computational-experimental aim. I did not highlight how much I expected this aim to be collaborative, and, given my limited experience in running wet-lab experiments, there were some criticisms of this aim that could be addressed with an appropriate mentor.

So, the big question is: Do I find a mentor who is an expert in experimental biology, in addition to gaining training in statistical genetics, OR, do I alter the fourth aim (which is supposed to be during my independent stage) to be more computational?

That's where talking to the Program Officer comes in.

This morning (7am PST) I spoke with the Michelle Hammlet, the Program Officer for the Institute where my application was reviewed (National Institute of General Medical Sciences). She was fantastic! We discussed the criticisms, how best to address them, and although she was understandably non-committal in what the "best" course of action for me will be, she was happy to discuss alternative options. Some things that I found particularly useful from our conversation. It may seem obvious after the fact, but while working on the application, I found myself getting bogged down in details, so taking a step back really helped:

- Be clear to differentiate between the K99 and R00 phases - taking care to make sure that I obtain all the training I need during the K99 phase to proceed to the R00 phase independently.
- The proportions of the application dedicated to the training (K99) and independent (R00) phases need not be equal. Depending on how much training is needed to reach the candidate's goals, some applications may have 25% devoted to the K99, while others may have 50% or more devoted to the training plan. Try to focus on the details of what kind of training I need to be successful in the R00 phase, as that is the focus of this application.
- A proposal that is all computational will still be competitive. This one really struck me, because I've been told from many PI's that I need to have an experimental component to my independent research.

So, the answers to my initial questions are:
1. What were the concerns/criticisms of the application?
I propose an aim that is broadly experimental without providing a training or collaboration plan.

2. Based on the reviews, is it worth resubmitting?
Yes! But, exactly how to frame the resubmission is not yet clear. 

Note: a wonderful example of How to Fail in Grant Writing.

No comments: