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Writing a grant application is not an easy feat, but successfully qualifying for one is an even tall order.

Professor Nicholas Graves from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) estimated grant success by surveying samples from several applicants. He calculated that writing grant applications took 38 person-days of work each, and given the notoriously low success rate, it is a tremendous investment in terms of time and effort that goes unrewarded in the funding rounds. Although the low success rate is not a reflection of the applicant capabilities as much as it is of the relatively unsound system of the grant funding process, the success ratio unknowingly serves as the demotivating factor for investigators working on potentially breakthrough research projects.

Grant application reviewers often share the cynicism as well as pressure that the applicants undergo upon writing and submitting a grant application for fund support. Reviewers consider the process of determining the proposals worthy of acceptance-based strictly on merit. According to many grant application review panelists, another factor contributing to the pressure is the strict system that stems out of extreme competition among applicants to get funded. (Berg et al., 2007)

Reviewer’ Take on Rejected Grants

In their individual experiences, members of different review panels have reported that usually, it is about 75% – 90% of the total grant applications received by the funding institution that deserves to be funded but are rejected due to minor technicalities, negligible deviations or even low funding levels. Such glitches make the probability of proposal rejection tremendously high, especially if it’s your first attempt applying for federal funding programs. The average grant success rate that lies more or less between 12% and 20% affirms the total figures of very few applications that are successful in acquiring fund support on the first submission.

The statistics that we established above serve to demotivate faculty members, particularly early-stage investigators, due to fear of rejection and failure, to the point that it often keeps them out of the competition altogether. This is a great loss to the world of sustainability science, as many of these researchers, in fact, have fundable proposals, thought-provoking ideas, and valuable health-care service projects that remain un-submitted for fear of failure.

Understandably, this level of rejection can be difficult on you – especially if you have been earning straight A’s all through academia and have a published dissertation to your name or little to no experience with professional rejection until your introduction to faculty ranks. However, it is a fact that you are not going to get any grants if you do not apply, regardless of approval or rejection.

Rejection is Not the End of the World

As Thomas Edison famously said, “Many of life’s failures are by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Perseverance is the key to success in every aspect of human life-cycle. It cannot be emphasized enough how relevant it is to achieve your professional objectives. Persistence, coupled with patience, is the secret of acquiring grant success, which requires calculated strategy, composed approach, and determination. Rejection is part of life and is a routine process in grant writing, as well. Peer reviewers will never give a 100% approval; there will always be negative feedback on any proposal, and often a few positive words to balance it out.

You need to accept that rejection is simply part of the grant-seeking process and not a denunciation of your proposed research project. Even if your grant application is flawless, rejection sometimes is just inevitable. When you half anticipate a rejection just as you do for approval, you become mentally prepared to respond appropriately without wasting time in emotional arguments. Your approach to address each criticism becomes fact-based and not defensive.

Turn Your Rejection Around into a Successful Shot

Go for resubmission. The ability to turn your rejection into a successful research career is what sets any faculty member apart from a funded principal investigator (PI). It is only up to you to give up at the first rejection or use the review critic to improve your proposal writing skill. This incorporation of rejection into your inclusive grant-writing and resubmitting process is the essential factor in your success. If you are in it to be funded, then you need to plan your schedule in accordance with the commitment to apply for a funding grant at least twice. This way, you are not only giving your best the first time, but upon rejection, you are mentally prepared to utilize the feedback into giving an even better shot with the additional benefit of hindsight about what went wrong in your proposal.

Upon receiving the notice of rejection, the very first step towards resubmitting the application for a rejected grant is to contact your program officer. It will not only help in gathering reviewers’ formal/informal feedback but also assist in the systematic analysis of each comment to conduct your review.

Steps to Review Your Application Based on Common Reasons of Rejection

When you decide to take rejection as another opportunity, the following are the immediate steps to take to help recover lost equilibrium.

Contact Your Funding Agency

Call the relevant authorities over at your funding agency to get further information in a conversational manner. Do not indulge in complaining, instead be gracious of their time and consideration. Contact your program officer and go through the following questions:

  • Was there any aspect that was overlooked or could have been executed differently?
  • Is there any particular institution that supports projects of our proposal field?
  • What are the chances of a better outcome if we resubmit our proposal?

Review Your Grant Application

Conduct self-review of your grant application to eliminate any possibility of mistakes as well as to ensure your motivation to pursue rejection, because oversight of any nature will not help your case at all.  If you are confident about your choice of funding institution and its interest in an alliance with your proposal, you can safely assume the reason for rejection is external. (Janke, 2017)

Consider the Following Scenarios

Minor oversight might have given you the rejection: If your total score is just short of few points to be eligible for fund support along with relatively positive feedback, chances are you missed out on something seemingly insignificant at the time, but due to stiff competition among number of applicants, it served as the reason for rejection. The best course of action is to contact the program officer immediately and figure out whether you should reapply after rectifying each omission/error in the new draft.

The reviewer did not find your proposal interesting enough:   If your application received a mere 50 or 60 percent score in relation to the applications that achieve 100% to be able to get funding support, it is time you rethink the whole idea. Re-consider the choice of agency, funding cycle, and the feasibility of the project altogether. If your application was rejected without comments from the review panel, or if the feedback was thoroughly negative, the best thing you can do is accept the futility of pursuing the same competition and move on to different funding foundation that is more in accord with your field.

You may have the fundable proposal foundation but lack the overall striking factor: There are many ways to go about resubmitting a project idea, but minor editing to make an un-fundable project fundable is not one of them. The rejection could simply mean what you proposed may well be fundable, but with the different grantor. Use the basic structure of your rejected proposal for another funding agency and submit a more improved version of the project. This may end up with a far more successful project than the first submission.

There are cases of rejection where only bad luck could be blamed: There is only so much your application can control, there are times when it’s simply a stroke of bad luck that gives you a rejection. There is no explanation or information available despite going through each weakness and criticism from the review committee. You just need to develop an efficient coping mechanism to deal with the rejection without taking it to heart and begrudging the whole process or allowing the experience to discourage altogether. After all, if you do not apply out of fear of rejection, you are rejected without even allowing yourself a chance of success.

Why Resubmissions Have a Higher Success Rate?

To sum it up, resubmission is not just an opportunity to acquire funding support; in more ways than one; it helps you along the process of the grant application. The benefit of reviewer comments makes you better informed about the strengths/weaknesses of your proposal through the expert point of view that is due to the firsthand experience of the review criteria. Equipped with comprehensive feedback, your second submission should be rectified of all the mistakes, omissions, and unnecessary data, which in turn will increase your chances of succeeding like not before because you now know what you missed the first time you attempted. (Elizabeth et al., 2018).

Write your resubmission application in a manner that conveys how you have gone over each and every shortcoming pointed out in the feedback. Allow them to be sure that you understand the reasons for the rejection the first time. If you happen to be the applicant who lost it by a very slim margin, then it is a good idea to mention the previous score as a reminder. Do everything that you believe will improve the likelihood of grant success, except complaint, argue, or even mild protest over the first rejection.

Lastly, always try to have more than one relying on bases. Make sure to assemble a funding portfolio well in advance and reach out to each of them, whether governmental or private foundations, with your proposal to minimize the probability of grant rejection. However, keep in mind that while resubmissions improve your chances of success, they do not guarantee it.

References

  1. Berg, K.M., Brown, A.F., Elmore, J.G., Gill, T.M., Wilson, I.B., & Zerzan, J. (2007, November). Demystifying the NIH Grant Application Process. J Gen Intern Med, 22(11), 1587–1595. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11606-007-0301-6
  2. Janke, C. (2017, December 27). A Unified Reviewing Format for Grant Applications and Evaluations. EMBO Rep, 19(2), 187-188. http://dx.doi.org/10.15252/embr.201745611
  3. Brauer, M., Carnes, M., Filut, A., Ford, C.E., Kaatz, A., Nathan, M.J…, & Raclaw, J. (2018, March 20). Low Agreement among Reviewers Evaluating the Same NIH Grant Applications. National Academy of Sciences, 115(12), 2952-2957. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1714379115
  4. Eblen, M.K., Patel, K.C., Pearson, K. RoyChowdhury, D. & Wagner, R.M. (2016, June 1) How Criterion Scores Predict the Overall Impact Score and Funding Outcomes for National Institutes of Health Peer-Reviewed Applications. PLoS One, 11(6), http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155060
  5. Bhattacharya, A., Filut, A., Kaatz, A., Lee, Y., Magua, W., Potvien, A.,…Carnes, M. (2017, August 1). Analysis of NIH R01 Application Critiques, Impact and Criteria Scores: Does the Sex of the Principal Investigator Make a Difference? Acad Med, 91(8), 1080–1088. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0000000000001272
  6. Kopstein, A., Janice, J.M., & Martin, M.R. (2010, November 17). An Analysis of Preliminary and Post-Discussion Priority Scores for Grant Applications Peer Reviewed by the Center for Scientific Review at the NIH. PLoS One, 5(11), e13526. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013526

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