After 12 months of reading, writing, experiments, revisions, and grant panels, I had to control myself from refreshing the page hourly on the eRA Commons site. All I was hoping for was to receive a score on my NIH K08 submission. Some who had reviewed my grant had said, “You have a good chance of being funded on the first submission,” and even, “I would fund this grant based on your career development plan alone.” I just wanted a score. And finally, about 4 weeks later, the webpage loaded; I clicked: “NOT DISCUSSED.” In that moment, I recall feeling deflated. Not disappointment. Not devastation. I remember that I felt as if I couldn’t envision a way forward in my research. Maybe what I wanted to study wasn’t actually significant? Or my attempt to become at least competently knowledgeable about macrophage biology in melanoma had been a failure? I devised scenarios that would have been best case: “Needs a biostatistician on PI’s mentor team” or “Another mouse model would answer this question more elegantly.” When I received my summary statement, I read the feedback and thought there really may not be a way forward for my research career. Maybe I did need to throw out my entire research plan and prelim data?
I left the summary statement on my desk in my office and decided not to read it again over the weekend. When I returned on Monday, I reviewed the comments again and began to divide the comments: 1) Already addressed in experiments since my submission, 2) Capable of addressing with alternate experiments 3) Don’t know how or don’t think it is possible to remedy. I’m an organizational addict so having a plan and then reviewing that plan with my research mentor helped me to process the “loss” of my first submission. I then began systematically addressing the concerns that didn’t need reagents or animals or other supplies that would take time to receive and then to experimentally design in greater detail. And then developed an experimental plan and ordered reagents and animals for the additional experiments I would need to perform.
This process made me ask myself how I have been successful at “comebacks” in the past. I don’t think we talk enough about returning after grant rejection in academic surgery, but I think it requires grit, resilience, perseverance, or whatever term you may like to give to that ability of being knocked off your feet and being willing to stand back up again. There are coping mechanisms I have identified (in no particular order of importance or frequency of use):
- Logic: Based on the % of K08 grants funded each cycle, the most likely outcome was that my grant wouldn’t be funded, and 50% of submitted grants were “not discussed,” just as mine was not. My two colleagues who were successful with their K08 submissions were both “not discussed” on their first submission.
- Self-reflection: I have previously been successful in grant submissions. I had received a CPRIT High-risk/high-reward grant and multiple internal grants. Thankfully within a month or so of receiving my summary statement, I was notified that my similar proposal was awarded two society career development awards.
- Excitement in the Challenge: Many of the comments of the reviewers in the study statement made me question: “What do I not know?” and “Is his/her suggested experimental approach a better way to answer this question?”. I could discover a line of investigation even more compelling than what I have thought of thus far.
- Gratitude: Despite being unsuccessful, I am grateful for all of the time that my mentors, grant administrators, and the institutional grant panels spent reviewing and providing feedback on my grant. I am grateful to be part of the highly collaborative institution where I am a faculty member.
- Authentic Supporters: In moments of doubt, I draw strength from the support of my spouse, my family, my friends, and my colleagues. Many kindly offered to review my summary statement, read future versions of my grant, or help me scientifically to address the comments in the summary statement.
With these tools helping to renew my faith in having a way forward in my research, I went to my division chief to discuss my resubmission strategy. I asked him for his secret in being so successful in obtaining grants. “There’s no secret. What you see is like an iceberg. The funded grants are the part sticking out of the water. My many submitted but unfunded grants are hidden beneath the water.” Don’t give up. Seek constructively critical feedback. And when you and your research mentors think the grant is the best it can be, resubmit. Good luck!