I’ve been trying to get funding for my research, but nothing has come through. You, too? I’ve had past success with the National Institutes of Health and small foundations. But I haven’t received new grant funding in six years and my last award ran out two years ago. This is well past discouraging.

I’ve felt this before. Turned to my spouse and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” Said, “I don’t have another good idea in my head and I’ll never write another grant.” And yet, somehow, when the next cycle presented itself, I found a slice of hope and truly felt some enthusiasm for the next round. “Round” fits this situation, because I sure feel like I’ve been through a boxing match. I’m not sure if my natural scientific curiosity is a curse or a blessing, but it has helped me to keep moving forward. And I hope it kicks in soon.

I see a blog post here at Edge Scholars about taking a creative retreat to be able to really set aside time to delve into a task. On a related note, my husband suggested I take a few days off to recharge. Between having submitted yet another NIH grant application three weeks ago and, in that same interim time, having learned that my grant from last fall didn’t score well enough for funding, I think he is right. So I went to a local park yesterday afternoon. Found a scrap piece of paper in my car, and wrote and wrote like I was writing in a journal. Then went for a walk. After my time in the park, I didn’t feel like diving into another grant application quite yet, but I definitely was in better spirits.

What do you do when discouragement roars like a lion?

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Dr. Liz,
Boy, this is a tough one.  I myself struggle with how to recharge the batteries when they’re completely juiced.  I certainly don’t have anything that’s tried and true, but I can tell you about a few things that have helped me over time.
– Taking a *deliberate* block of time for myself.  I think this is what people mean when they suggest “taking time off” or “taking a vacation” or whatever.  I have some trouble with that, as I find that it’s all too easy for guilt to overtake any generic time off.  But, what *is* helpful is being very deliberate about carving out some time that is 100% for me – “reclaiming my time”, to borrow the words of the mighty Rep. Maxine Waters.  This can take many forms, but for me, often the requirement is that it’s something I do by myself and for myself (helps to re-establish an internal locus of control that gets eroded by the peer review process).  If others are around, I don’t focus enough on my own well being and my own needs.  As Dr. Alyssa Hasty has pointed out, you wouldn’t tolerate interruptions while teaching (a valid and important activity), so don’t tolerate them with other valid and important activities.  She was speaking of writing time, but I think the principle holds.
– Hearing about other people’s work.  I find that I can draw connections more easily than I can come up with brand new stuff whole cloth.  A great way for me to do this is to go to seminars outside my usual, or to talk to folks that I don’t normally work with about their science.  Sometimes stimulating those creative juices is enough.
– Reconnect with first principles, the “why” that drives me.  For me, this often happens while I’m on clinical service.  Talking with real people who have these conditions can be very motivating, invigorating, and can definitely provide perspective.  In general, I think taking time to really meditate on why I bother to do this at all is very helpful.
– Commiserate.  At the risk of being a downer, I try to talk with colleagues whom I regard as good friends.  They get it in a way that other friends outside of science don’t, and they can offer support beyond empty platitudes like “hang in there” or “tenacity and resilience will be rewarded” or whatever.
There’s lots of other things, I’m sure, but that’s a sampling.  Drop me a line anytime if you want to talk more!

Dr Liz, PhD says:

Thanks, Josh, for those great ideas. (I couldn’t get my reply to load directly in response to yours, so hopefully you find this.) Any encouragement (for me or the readers) is a good thing. I am working on another grant, so I guess “simply putting one foot in front of the other” should be added to our combined list, too.  🙂

Hey Liz, 

I feel you.

I’m BethAnn McLaughlin, by the way, in case you felt weird about hearing from a squirrel. It’s just a pseud I use to keep my mom from commenting on my blogs. 

For recharging, I commit to reading the literature. I’m fortunate enough to be on an editorial board, so I HAVE to read, but reading really cool fun science gets me excited. Not so much for talks (sorry Josh!). I do like a good conference though!  

I had a twitter friend (@namezia) who was in a rut and just decided that the funding numbers were that he was going to only ‘hit’ 10% of the time. So he dug in an did 12 grants in a year. CRAZY. The thing is, he got better than 10%. I’m not sure if it was that he was becoming a better writer (I’m sure he was) or forcing himself to depersonalize rejection because he was working so fast.  Either way, I think of grants like raising kids. You can NOT take it personally. I think women in STEM are particularly prone to struggling with this sometimes. People pleasers and what not.  

It seems like you have a lot to be happy about….your grant wasn’t funded, but it was scored. That’s a big deal. Take the plunge and have a talk with your program officer?  @drugmonkeyblog on twitter is a huge advocate of keeping on NIH program radar. You never know when they will have a portfolio gap and need just what you have to offer.

Most of all, get a tribe. People who won’t view your funding problems as deficiences, but rather as circumstances. I’d be happy to be in your tribe if you want to hit me up on Twitter @mclneuro


Hi Dr. Liz,
First, let me express my admiration for your decision to make this post. For those of us who suffer setbacks and feel discouraged, it’s comforting to know we’re not the only one. I’m sure your post will bring comfort to many readers, in that way.
When work is not going well, having a “well-rounded” life experience can be a great protective factor, in the way that have a “diversified portfolio” is a smart way to invest money. When one investment is tanking, the others will keep you afloat. This creates a firewall, of sorts, between our work accomplishments and our overall self esteem. Given the uncertainty of funding, it’s risky to rely on a grant to make us feel good or bad about our value as people. I try to remember that I’m a pretty decent person with friends and loved ones who love me, too, and I’m going to remain that person with or without the next win I’m seeking. I’d rather have all of this with a win, but the upcoming win or loss won’t define me.
Also, I like your metaphor of a boxing match. It’s tough when you’re losing rounds, but the best boxers make adjustments as they go. The people in their corner help them identify what’s working and what’s not, so the fighter gets better with every round that goes by. Thus, each hit we take is an opportunity to learn. It’s an old adage, but I’ve found in my work that learning something from each failue is the best way to turn the corner. I also agree with Josh and Flighty Squirrel that leaning on supportive people helps keep us going. When you’re out there fighting the good fight, it’s critical to have a team in your corner.
Thanks again for sharing. I’d be happy to be in your corner.

I’m a grant writer and deal with MANY clients who face your dilemma and struggle with whether to leave academia. If you are determined to stay, wanted to make sure you consider private funding to get you through until NIH funding becomes “attainable”.  My experience has been in working for the Foundations (not girdles) office of a cancer research institute. There, at least, the most abundant private foundation opps were for Young Investigators, which is unfortunate as I see you are an Associate professor. Nonetheless, it is worth looking into what private funding opps you are eligible for. Many academic institutions have foundation relation offices whose job is to help you do this and double-check eligibility requirements. So check that out at your institution or in your institution’s Development office. If possible, set up an appointment with people in that office to discuss your needs. Many have access to searchable databases that could identify funders appropriate for your type of research. They also might have “inside info” into what funders favor your institution, which can be an important factor in private funding. If not, that’s why god made Google.  The good news is that many private funders fund projects with limited preliminary data, if that has been the NIH roadblock. Two years of private funding could give you time to generate data to strengthen an R01 proposal. Finally, don’t be picky. Funding by Pew, the V Foundation or HHMI IS great. But there are LOTS of less prestigious small foundations or mom-and-pop funders (aka “donors”) whose money is as green as Uncle Howie’s. They could be a temporary life-saver for you.  Wishing you huge good luck. Elise

Dear Dr. Liz, 
I am still quite new to this and starting to get used to the rejections. I have not yet hit the rejection cycle (rejections every grant cycle), mostly because I haven’t accumulated enough projects. I am sure it’s coming. When I get tired of the grants, the writing, and the administrative stuff with which dealing makes me die a little inside, I get back to the lab. There is a great sense of accomplishment that comes with completing small tasks like making buffers, pouring plates, or stuffing pipette tips into boxes. Actually doing experiments and generating those small pieces of preliminary data for grants on your timeline is also a bonus. Plus, we got into this job for the lab work. It’s a shame we don’t get to do more of it. Keeping my fingers crossed for you!

Dr Liz, PhD says:

Thank you all for your great comments!
   To BethAnn – I do speak with my Program Officer (former PO), but not sure that really helps. Maybe Program Officers are more helpful in different research areas. I would love to have a tribe! What a great idea, though I’m not part of Twitter.
   To David Socks – I couldn’t agree more about keeping one’s life and relationships “front and center” so to speak, so I’m glad you added it. My husband and son often help me (unknowingly) to keep my priorities in order. My work is not my identity, or at least it shouldn’t be. But it surely feels like crap to spend months and heart on a grant application and then not getting funded (and sometimes not even getting encouraging feedback). Special thanks to you for being willing to be in my corner!

I came across an article on LinkedIn, here’s an excerpt from it which I find helpful to try to re-frame frustration: 

“The gap between what we want to create and it not happening generates a tension, and for many people, this is an uncomfortable feeling. One way or another, this tension will seek resolution. It pushes us to find innovative solutions, to finish a project or to seek out new markets…

There will always be structural tension in the beginning of the creative process, for there will always be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have. Why? Because creators bring into being creations that do not yet exist. Structural tension is a fundamental principle in the creative process.

In fact, part of your job as a creator is to form this tension.”

Source: https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/what-creative-tension-and-how-could-it-help-you 

Dr Liz, PhD says:

That is a very interesting way to look at the creative process and frustration! I can use that now. I’m working on another grant, and I’m struggling with the Aims. I’ll try to “reframe” my struggle after reading your post. Thanks, Aimee!
And for all of us creative folks, this is a good reminder of the process. Kind of like a being a sculptor. We have a block of wood/stone/clay, and we have a vision of the sculpture we hope/plan it will turn into. There is a journey between the beginning and the completed sculpture, and this post from LinkIn is about the tension/frustration as the artwork is revealed.

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