We’re living through tough times. The overall grant funding rate has been trending downwards since I was born, and I ain’t that young. Everything’s more competitive now than it was 10 or 20 years ago, from the amount of work needed to get into a high impact journal to the number of publications you need to be competitive for training grants or R01. Not only that, but we’re more circumscribed as well – the regulatory requirements are much more stringent than they used to be, and we live in a world of all soft money.

To add insult to injury, for a lot of young folks, going into science means you stop getting constant praise from everyone for how smart you are, and start being constantly told what an idiot you are, every time you submit a paper or grant. Heck, I’m more successful than most, and my standard grant review is, “It’s amazing, given all the great work he had as preliminary data, that he wrote such a godawful grant.” You probably spend your primary education and undergraduate career being the smartest kid in class, and having everyone telling you how wonderful you are. Now, pretty much the opposite.

So, given both these real and psychological pressures, how do you sleep at night? How do you keep from collapsing into a quivering pile of jelly when you think about it?

Two words:

Massive. Egotism.

Here’s the important part – I first taught large lectures for undergraduates in 1988, 30 years ago, and have been helping train grad students and fellows for roughly 20 years. There is such a thing as talent and intelligence, and people have it in different quantities. But in order to be in this position at all, you’re already in the top few percent. And, in my experience, there ain’t all that much difference at that level. Somebody who’s in the 99th percentile and the 99.5 percentile just isn’t that different.

So – the thing to tell yourself is, “What I am trying to do is possible. And if anybody can do it, I can.

Your ego needs to be so big, it no longer requires external approval – you’re wonderful no matter what anybody else says. So when reviewers ask me if perhaps I was having a stroke while writing my latest paper, I don’t let it get to me. I know my work is wonderful – I just perhaps need to do a better job of letting them know how wonderful it is.

That’s the trick, though – have the sort of ego that allows you to completely emotionally gloss over complaints from reviewers, while still having the humility to recognize when things need to change. Sometimes your theory is wrong, and you need to adapt it to new data. Sometimes you need to do a better job of explaining why your work is important. Sometimes you just flat out need to bring in somebody else’s expertise. That’s OK, though – you can not possibly be an expert in everything, no matter how smart and hard working you are. Division of labor has been a good idea since the neolithic. Needing someone else’s help isn’t an admission of failure – it’s good resource management. There’s only so much of you to go around, and it’s more efficient to outsource some skills.

So, don’t let the harsh reviews of your grants get to you. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, gosh darn it, people like you. And if you’re not the smartest person in the room, you’re as close as makes no difference.

Alternately, you can just remind yourself, that no matter how bad it gets, nobody is shooting at you yet, so how bad can it really be?

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Thank you! This is the best advice I’ve received in the past 7 years. This, and have a really thick skin. 

Brilliant article, James! Great advice!

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