First Proposal Rejection

First Proposal Rejection

A few weeks ago, I had my first proposal rejection and it wasn’t pleasant. I definitely had to break out the scotch. This was a huge proposal with many universities involved and while I counted myself fortunate to be a part of the team, I’m still disappointed. My part was a supportive role for the overall proposal ideas, but it still would have been a significant chunk of money to jumpstart my academic career. The one thing that’s really disappointing, especially since this was my first proposal, is that the entity holding the purse strings is not one that gives you feedback but just says “thanks but no thanks”.

When I started writing my first couple of proposals, I dreamed with delusions of grandeur (hitting my first 5 in row or something stupid like that) but I definitely feared striking out. My startup funds are available for the first two years so I basically must hit at least one proposal within my first year to ensure I can keep paying my PhD student (due to funding lag) after year 2. As it stands, I’m 0-1 with 6 proposals still pending. I still think that’s a good number of sticks in the fire waiting to spark. However, I’m paranoid it’s not enough so I plan on adding more. There’s several agency YIPs coming up and then the next NSF call and finally the CAREER call in the spring. I’m determined to hit all of them.

This whole process of getting one proposal rejected and then reacting by submitting 4 or 5 more in its place reminds me of that scene from Varsity Blues. For those of you who have seen it, this YouTube clip should be familiar. Now that I have my first proposal rejection out of the way, it’s time to puke’n’rally.

For those of you in academia, how did you handle your first proposal rejection (assuming you’ve had one 😀 ). Any tips for us lesser mortals from you senior folks with lots of funding experience?

[Thanks to the Grant Goddess for her picture.]


It isn’t the first rejection that hurts, it is the 10th in a row that is painful. I’ve never been able to generate many grant proposals at a time—each one takes me months to prepare. So the rejections cost me much more than they cost people who just scatter proposals like birdseed.

I’m considering giving up on having any more grad students (I’ve already given up on summer salary) and just doing unfunded research in collaboration with others. The only tough part is going to be replacing computers—most of my research now is done either on machines surplused from other projects 5 years ago or borrowed time from another researcher who has funding.

You are doing well to focus on young investigator grants. They have smaller applicant pools and the chances of getting them are much higher.

I have received a number of rejections over my career, it’s the nature of the game (at agencies such as the NSF and DOE, which have peer review; with DoD it makes little sense to even apply unless you know the program manager well and he invited the full proposal). This past year was pretty brutal, but I got two co-PI proposals and there are several leads for next year so we’re in good shape.

How I handle grant rejection? Badly. It ruins my day, my week, sometimes my month (rejections on single-investigator grants are particularly hard, because there is no one to blame but myself.) I bitch, moan, and despair. Re-read many times then stop reading the reviews altogether. I try to figure out who sank my proposal and send negative vibes their way. I wonder if I will even receive another grant in my entire life (I do this one a lot, it’s my biggest professional fear). But, I eventually get up and start working on more grants, all over again, because failure to secure funding is not an option, at least not for me. I can’t do all the projects I would like to do even with the group I have now, and there’s no way I could do it all by myself. Not getting more funding is not acceptable, so I just keep writing, keep coming up with new ideas, changing or fully discarding old ones. The only way to secure funding is to keep at it. As a program manager told me at one point in the past “You are creative, eventually you will get something funded.” He was right.

Perseverance is a key ingredient of academic success. Good luck!

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