Rejection and Its Discontents

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

May 20, 2013

The probability that a researcher will have a grant proposal rejected nowadays is about 1. In the current climate, in which grant agencies and foundations are receiving more proposals than ever before even as their budgets stagnate or shrink, the last few remaining decimal places of uncertainty are rapidly disappearing.

It is natural to feel disappointed, angry, hurt, and frustrated when a rejection notice arrives, and it's OK to give in to those feelings—in private, anyway. But you no doubt also want to know what went wrong. As a proposal-development specialist for a federal institution that does a lot of research, I have some suggestions on positive ways to respond, after you've done whatever grieving or venting you need to do.

But first, drawing on my seven years of experience as a research administrator, let me review some key reasons why grant proposals get rejected. From the most likely to the least likely reasons:

Your proposal wasn't a good fit. You had a good idea and explained it well; it just wasn't quite right for the agency or the program to which it was submitted. The program may have changed focus, and your idea isn't a priority at the moment; or the grantor may have reorganized, and your proposal should have gone to a different program. Rejection could also mean that your project was too close—in scope, emphasis, or geography—to one or more projects already supported by the program. The grantor may want to evaluate the existing projects before committing money to another one on that same topic, or it may be prioritizing new topics. Finally, it could be that your project just wasn't as well positioned to do the work as one or more of the other proposals submitted.

What you can do: Try, try again. Fix any deficiencies, shore up any weak points, make sure that you're submitting your revised proposal to a program that's interested in financing what you want to work on.

There wasn't enough "there" there. This category covers a multitude of sins, and you'll want to be sure you understand just which one(s) your proposal committed. Perhaps you didn't offer enough preliminary data to convince reviewers that you were on to something important and proceeding along a path likely to lead you to an answer. The proposal may have lacked sufficient grounding in the literature for its timeliness, importance to the discipline, or likelihood of success. (Sometimes that just means reviewers are peeved you didn't cite enough of their papers.) The staffing and other resources you already had to devote to the work—or the ones you said you would need—may have seemed inadequate to accomplish the objectives in the time proposed. Your idea could also have been uninteresting to the grantor, not yet ready for prime time, or intrinsically "unfundable."

What you can do: Step back and reconsider. Make sure the program is interested in your topic. See if there's seed or bridge money available so you can get preliminary data. If your budget didn't match well with the proposed scope of your work, or if your project wasn't sufficiently grounded in the appropriate literatures, fix that. See if you can collaborate with someone who has the disciplinary standing you lack. Rework the proposal budget to get what you need. Then polish your revised proposal and send it in again. You may have to turn to another of your research ideas until the world (or a grant agency) is ready for the first one.

Your proposal was written or organized poorly. Sadly, that happens far more often than it should, partly because researchers rarely get training in grant writing. Academic writing is expository, leaves the good parts (i.e., the major findings) until the end, and has few limits on length or vocabulary. Grants are persuasive, need the good parts up front, have strict limits on length, and frequently need to be accessible to lay readers. Budgets need to be in line with project scope. Reviewers have to be able to grasp key points quickly, and to see how they align with the grant agency's review criteria and priorities. Clarity is crucial, as is adherence to all applicable guidelines. Spelling and grammar really do matter.

What you can do: Gather some advice, then rewrite. Ask a trusted colleague in your field to evaluate your hypotheses and work plan. Ask someone in your university's sponsored-research office to help you polish your prose and structure your proposal so reviewers will understand what you want to do and how the project would help the grantor achieve its mission and goals. This is particularly important for collaborations involving multiple partners.

The grant agency is overwhelmed. For each proposal selected to receive a grant, anywhere between one and 100 others (or more) didn't make the cut. On average, a successful proposal was submitted 2.1 times to the National Science Foundation before it was accepted (that figure will likely increase, thanks to sequestration). That's why it's vital for your proposal to emphasize its broader impacts: They help make the case for picking your proposal ahead of the 75 other meritorious proposals under consideration.

What you can do: Tweak and try again. See if there's a way to get a little more bang out of the grantor's bucks, or to align your goals and objectives more closely with theirs. Respond to any other deficiencies, polish your revised proposal, and send it in again. (And again, if necessary.)

Please note that "my budget was too large" appears nowhere on this list—because it is almost never a reason for rejection, unless your request was outside the approved limits for the program. As I mentioned, it's a problem if your budget underestimates or overestimates the amount of money warranted by the scope of the work (and your credibility may suffer with the grantor because of that). But even then, assuming the agency likes the project otherwise, it would probably ask for a revised budget before rejecting the proposal outright.

So now let me offer a few general suggestions on how to respond to a rejected proposal.

First, if you've gotten comments back from the grantor, read them over once. Then stick them in a drawer and go out for your favorite adult beverage.

When you're calm and ready, you need to get a sense of what went wrong with your proposal, whether you can revise it and resubmit, and what you need to do to close the deal next time. Revisit the comments, and then call the program officer to discuss them. If you didn't get comments, absolutely call the grantor for a post-mortem (unless you're explicitly precluded from doing so).

Hold off on calling the program officer until you can handle a frank discussion of what went wrong with your proposal. If time is pressing, ask someone else from your project team to make the call for you (or with you). You don't want to lose your temper or bad-mouth the program staff and the reviewers. Getting snarky may improve your mood temporarily, but you'll probably spend the rest of your professional life living down the consequences of that momentary indulgence. As the saying goes, the toes you step on today may be connected to the backside you need to kiss tomorrow.

Be sure you understand the resubmission process and its requirements. Is there a time limit—either before you can submit a revised proposal, or after which you can no longer do so? Are you required to respond to reviewers' comments on the rejected proposal, and if so, how? Will the same reviewers see the revised proposal, or will it go to different people?

Once you have that information, assuming you didn't get a wave-off from the program officer, follow the instructions, revise accordingly, and resubmit at your first opportunity.

Don't just make a few cosmetic changes and turn in the original proposal again: The grantor will notice, and will probably send it back without review. You'll have to wait until the next grant cycle to try again, and the program officer will remember your bad behavior.

If you did get waved off from resubmitting, be sure to ask whether another program would be a better fit for your project, either with this agency or someplace else. And if the answer to that question is "no" (and sometimes it will be), then pitch a different project and see if that one has any traction.

"But," I'm sure some of you are thinking, "what if the review was flawed?" Maybe a direct competitor of yours was mistakenly asked to review your proposal. Or maybe it was assigned to the wrong study section. That does happen—but not often, and you absolutely should not leap to that conclusion. Even if you can appeal an outright rejection, you may not find it in your best interests to do so, especially if you don't have ironclad proof that something went awry. If you think you do have proof, consult with your department chair or some senior colleagues before picking up the phone or firing off an e-mail.

Michael J. Spires is a proposal-development specialist in the Office of Sponsored Projects at the Smithsonian Institution.