Megan Duffy: Transferable takeaways from trial and error (and more trial) in writing National Research Service Award (NRSA) applications*

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next stepsOver the course ofsixmonthsYeonwoo LebovitzAnthony FranchniMegan Duffyand Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progressCheck back everyWednesdayfor new posts.

Current position: 4th year Ph.D. Student in Neuroscience, Department of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine
Program start date:  August 2013
Institution: Michigan State University

Fall down twice, get up a third time.

As most of you know from my previous posts, my immediate next step after I finish my Ph.D. (which is becoming quite a scary reality) is to broaden my training during a post-doctoral fellowship, which I’m sure will be filled with more grant-writing opportunities. However, after examining my strengths, weaknesses, interests, and values, a long-term career in academia laden with grant writing [among other things] in the current and future funding climate is not for me.  Personally, I would like to contribute to the scientific community in a support role at a Parkinson’s non-profit as a programs manager (see previous post interview with Beth Vernaleo, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research Programs, Parkinson’s Disease Foundation for more insight).

So why am I writing about writing grants when my ideal career involves being on the reviewing end?  I think having to write an NRSA gives you great perspective on the amount of work that goes into writing a grant.  In addition, I think there are several things that this experience can teach you that can transfer to whatever science career you end up in, regardless of if your NRSA or GRFP (see below) application gets funded.

First things first…some background: My program highly encourages students to write and submit a pre-doctoral fellowship application through one of two primary mechanisms (keep in mind, there are others)

  1.  Graduate Research Fellowship Program for the National Science Foundation (NSF; see https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=6201).
  2. F31 Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (NRSA) through the National Institutes of Health (NIH; see https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-16-309.html).

In addition, I’m fortunate that my program runs a NRSA writing workshop weekly each fall over the course of two months.  This workshop culminates in a mock study section by faculty members a month prior to the December 8 NRSA deadline, with the goal being to put students in the best position to receive an award.  A year ago, I wrote my first application and while it placed high enough to get discussed and scored, it didn’t meet the payline.  My confidence took a minor blow but I thought, “Well, at least I got scored on my first try rather than not discussed.”  Next step: Revise and resubmit in August.

Fast forward to October 2016.  After checking my email every 30 minutes on the day I knew my score would be released, I found out that my application had again been decent enough to get discussed and that my score improved with my resubmission, but not enough to reach the payline.

What?!

I had addressed every major concern the reviewers had in my introduction to revised application page and altered my research plan accordingly.  I had more preliminary data than before.  My writing was more polished.  I had presented at more meetings and had more author and co-author manuscripts in press or in progress. I had more collaborators and would be trained in more cutting edge techniques.  Had the last 4 months of writing and revising been a waste? I was fuming, to say the least. My confidence in my own abilities and the importance of my science took a big hit.  I read through the summary statement as soon as it was available, and sent it off to my adviser in a huff, with smoke coming out of my ears.  Her response?  “That’s a great summary statement! These issues are addressable and you’re so close to the payline –let’s try one last time for the December deadline.”

Sigh.  After allowing myself a day to be frustrated, it was time to put on my big girl boots, and channel that energy into revising my application again to be the best possible version that I could make it.  This far into my degree, this would be my last shot before being “too late.”

So here I am, a year later, and having just submitted my third NRSA application and it’s out of my hands until I find out the results in the spring.  They say hindsight is 20/20 and as cliché as that is, it’s true.  After all the negativity, I feel like I have come out of this experience a better writer, a more methodical scientist, and a little more mentally tough.  After talks with my adviser and some past professors from college, I’ve been able to see many silver linings to this [initially] frustrating experience.  Whether your application gets awarded (which is a huge honor!) or not, there are some positives and skills from this experience that you can harness regardless of where your career takes you.

  1. Time management.  This is a big one, especially when you are not only depending on yourself to get things done in a timely manner, but other collaborators that may or may not even be at your institution.  Give others firm, but reachable deadlines to return feedback to you.  Have many parts of a writing piece to put together?  Write out a calendar for the week that allows you to fully accomplish a section or two of that piece per day. (I LIVE by lists.  There’s something about the satisfaction from being able to cross every item off my to-do list for the day…)  Build in a few “buffer” days in case some emergency happens so you aren’t SOL on deadline day.
  2. Be less self-critical, but also welcome criticism [in your writing, presentation style, etc].  You spent X amount of time working on a manuscript, grant, or presentation.  You feel confident, but you can’t please everyone, and there will always be someone to critique you.  For the sake of your sanity, do not take it personally (And personally, I know that’s WAY easier said than done.)  It makes you, your science, and your work feel less worthy and the more time you spend sulking, the less time you spend taking that criticism constructively and trying to make yourself better.  I think this experience has helped me develop a thicker skin to handle those kinds of comments better.  Channel that frustrated energy into incorporating suggestions into your work.  You’d be surprised what a caffeine and criticism-fueled writing session can produce. (Remember that rule in college to not email the professor until at least 24 hours have passed after getting grades back?  That also applies here.  Receive criticism you don’t like?  Allow yourself to be upset/mad/frustrated for a day then get back to being productive.)  Some wise words from one of my college professors after I received my second scored [but not funded] application back:
    “It’s hard to face rejection.  I know.  It makes you and your science feel ‘less special.’  But, those who love their science for purely **that**, not for any other reason, will survive in the long run, whether academic or not.”
  3. Get out the first draft. I don’t care if it looks like Frankenstein wrote it, ate it, and regurgitated it.  I have previously been known for wanting to perfect the first draft of something before sending it to my adviser and later to my collaborators. Leaving that first iteration until you think it’s perfect not only defeats the purpose of why it’s called a DRAFT, it’ll cause you more stress later on when you’re getting closer to the deadline and still have a million edits to make.  Whether you’re working on a grant, manuscript, blog, or your dissertation, make a titled outline and complete one section at a time.  It makes it seem so much less of a behemoth and will help you focus on making each component a more fluid “first pass.”

Would I have liked to get a fundable score the first time? Sure.  Is that realistic? Absolutely not.  Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I’m glad I’ve had to go through this process several times as a student.  I think it’s helped me to grow in more aspects of my academic and professional careers than  grantsmanship, so I hope you all find it helpful!

That’s all for now.  More professional development posts to come after the new year now that my NRSA is finished and out of the way.  (Third time’s the charm? We shall see.  Keep your fingers crossed for me!).  Happy holidays and happy new year!

*Giving credit where credit is due.  I have a great adviser who is not only very involved in her students’ academic and professional development, but has made the grant-writing process a great learning experience.  In addition, there are a few college professors I still stay in contact with who have been around this block before and have helped me see the silver lining.  Thanks!

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