This post is about dealing with dealing with a grant rejection. Previously, it was about the most recent PSD budget. While I got some positive feedback on that post, after thinking about it I realized that I really don’t know enough of budget negotiation details to comment intelligently on the subject… even in the vague terms I did. However, I’ve seen how a good grants program works, from the inside. So here’s some general advice on dealing with rejection*, and specifics on how it applies to dealing with getting a grant rejected.
1.) Don’t take this personally. This is difficult when things affect you on a personal level, but it’s critical. If you feel the need to blow some steam and vent about this, that’s understandable. But keep that stuff “in the family.” The last thing you want to do is frame this as a battle between you and those making the decisions, or worse, a battle between you and those whose proposals were successful. Doing that only taints the well, which is something that will hurt us when we want to go back to that well.
In the case of a failed grant, this boils down to don’t blame your program manager, and don’t worry about comparing your unfunded grant to the funded one submitted by your colleague down the hall. Niether really makes sense. The first one is just going to sour the relationship for the next time you propose. And while they should be able to separate any bad feelings you create by being confrontational, why rely on them to be that way? Don’t take the chance. And instead of complaining that your grant is better than your colleague’s (OF COURSE it is), why don’t you see if your colleague will let you take a look at their grant and its reviews? That will let you see what a successful grant looks like from the standpoint of the reviewers.
2.) Take a break, then get feedback. It’s hard to rationally deal with a rejection when it has just come down the pipe. But at some point soon, you need to find out why this happened, and what you can do to avoid it next time. What was their justification for rejecting you? What could be improved in your pitch? What does a successful version of our proposal/pitch look like? You need specifics here. This is probably the most important step.
Take the reviews seriously. For example you might feel they weren’t good enough to “see the beauty” in what you proposed. Don’t fall into that trap. If you feel that way, put the reviews down… walk away… and come back later. When you do, ask yourself why a group of your peers didn’t see the light? Think about how to incorporate the comments into your next iteration of the proposal. If the comments are unclear, call the program manager and ask nicely for help interpreting the reviewers’ comments. If the comments draw the fundability of your work into doubt, call the proposal manager and see if they feel the same way.
3.) Rally the troops. Ask the hard questions about who you want to be, and what you want to accomplish. Then find a way to meld your collective vision with the things the decision makers are looking to accomplish. If the collective vision you have melds with your failed proposal, DO NOT throw it out. Instead, incorporate the feedback we receive and try again. Applying for things is often an iterative process, where rejection presents an opportunity for improvement.
Fortunately, you’re already a step ahead of the game for next year. You have a fully-written proposal, and have feedback on it. What’s better, you have floated it by reviewers, and have gotten feedback on it. Next year, your proposal should be better. Heck, your research is probably applicable to another program. So long as you still want to do it (if you don’t, why did you propose in the first place?), then submit it there. If you fail, get more feedback and submit again. Wash, rinse, repeat. So long as your work is fundable with a solid proposal, this approach will get it funded.
If I could sum it all up in one statement it’s this: we should treat the grant application process like a serious, iterative one between you and your peers. We think of papers this way. Why not grants? We need to simultaneously apply a Cub fan’s naive optimism and a scientist’s skepticism to grant proposals. One always has to believe that “there’s always next year” while cynically looking at yourself and wondering what you need to do to make next year “the year.”
* – I hope it’s obvious that I don’t intend this to be broad enough to be applicable to romantic rejections. Also, if you’re taking romantic advice from a planetary sciences and astrobiology blog, I think we’ve discovered your problem.