The Flying PhD Guide to Grant Failure

If the life lessons learned from reality TV mean anything, and they’d better given how many use these shows as life guides, then through the fire of failure comes redemption and meaningful success. The narrative of the hero being tortured by a poorly risen soufflé or undersheened macaroon only to earn their place in successful society with a superior pannacotta comes from a dog-eared script. Even this reality TV star failed last time around.

In the attempt to gain grant funding for this research, I’ve put together 6 grant applications so far. 3 have been decided and we’re a perfect 0 for 3. I guess that means I am approaching reality TV promised land. Given this good fortune, I feel a certain sense of duty to share my secrets of glorious grant failure so that all may enjoy the experience. Of course, none of the funding groups has provided feedback, so all I can share is what I’ve done. Here are the tips that seem to have worked for me in this personal crusade to reach the discard pile.

The model sun = the total funding pool. The planets = the chance of  success for a researcher. The planet at the left would be someone with more chance than the writer. [via bobs-spaces-net]

The model sun = the total funding pool. The planets = the chance of success for a researcher. The planet at the left would be someone with more chance than the writer. [via bobs-spaces-net]

1. Be the Work Experience Kid

The last thing you want to be if you’re going to fail is experienced at research. Researchers who are successful with grant applications tend to be beyond the early researcher stage. In fact, the average age of first success in schemes like the NIH have been climbing for a while now. So first step, apply when you have pretty much zero games in the league. The more you’re like the annoying research work experience kid still fetching misplaced lunch orders the better.

2. Do Other Stuff For A While

It probably looks really good when you’ve demonstrated steady progress through a field of scientific endeavour. That might jeopardise your chance of failure, so what you really want to do is spend about a decade getting other qualifications for non-research related work. Doing a medical specialty for example. It’s probably just as much of an issue for those who take time out to have kids or look after other people. It may be just one of the challenges that has led to success rates for women making applications being lower (which warrants a much larger discussion). While processes are there to allow mitigation for gaps, it’s unclear to me how well they’re working.

3. Work in a Little Field

Everyone wants to fund the cure for cancer. Trying for a grant in a relatively niche area, like prehospital health care, involving things that sound not that serious, like helicopters, might just bump up your chance of failure. Or maybe choose an obscure genetic disease with a vanishingly low incidence to focus on. That would probably do it too. The more the field is in a niche, the less likely the reviewer will be able to understand the full scope of what you’re doing.

4. Be a Novice

Along the same lines as point 2, you don’t want to come with a track record. Early career researchers have success rates of less than 20% (take the ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards as an example). You can drive this lower. Having other grants already in play and lots of related publications is the stuff of pros and might jeopardise your chances of cathartic failure. From personal experience, a total of 5 publications and no grants is a good starting point.

5. Be a Bit Left Field Too

Being in a little field might not be enough. Trying to look at something that doesn’t have lots of preceding literature, like noninvasive prehospital brain monitoring, might just give the impression that it’s an area no one else wants to look at. Extra implausibility points always help.

6. Work Outside the Established System

Obviously you’re probably going to have some sort of linkage to a Uni or established research group. If you can nest your research within an organisation that doesn’t fit that description, your lack of reputation is only reinforced. If you can make it a charity where previous research has been funded successfully through alternate means leading to no grant history, this is an extra bonus. That way, not only is your chance of failure enhanced, you get to feel that you risk bankrupting the charity*. The self-flagellation adds to the bitterness. Excellent.

7. Be a Part-Timer

Knowing that a researcher is going to work full time on the project you’re funding must make it easier to back them. Being a part-timer plants the useful idea in the reviewers’ head that you’re actually some sort of uncommitted wheatgrass-chugging hippie with other agendas that may distract. It’s an obvious differentiation point.

7. Actually,  Just be a Researcher

The brutal truth is none of the above may be the issue. Grant monies have a limit, and really good research teams miss out. When they miss the big national competitive grants, they have to hit the smaller Foundation grants. This only enhances the failure rate of the novice researcher flaunting all the attributes above. Even all the measures taken to try and address any imbalances can’t entirely make up for the high number of applications vs the actual number funded. It’s not that reviewers are trying to thwart good research. They’re just stuck with reality and the need to differentiate. The landscape isn’t likely to change without substantial increases in funding either.

With overall success rates of about 20% for major grant projects, research funding applications are going to involve failure at least some of the time. This is actually one of the things I’ve already learnt from the PhD. Having said that, even saying that you can learn from the failure is a sentiment with more mole whiskers than a hormonal bridge troll. I’ve no doubt there’s some really excellent researchers who get knocked back just enough to necessitate vacating the field of endeavour. The question is how many times can perseverance overcome the setback?

At the moment, it certainly feeds the Impostor Syndrome. Perhaps I should take it as positive feedback on that front – “We write to take the chance to validate your thinking … we also don’t think you belong here.”  At least I’ll be super-resilient if I burn the toast.

* To be clear, my charity has survived for more than 25 years. They’re way too bright to actually let me jeopardise anything and are extremely clever at making things happen. It’s one of the reasons I love working for them.

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2 thoughts on “The Flying PhD Guide to Grant Failure

  1. Pingback: Monkey Grant Writing Tips | The Flying PhD

  2. Pingback: The Number | The Flying PhD

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