Archive for the 'grant writing' category

When funding agencies all of a sudden change the rules

When I went abroad to do my post-doc, I was determined to apply for funding from the homecountry's national science organization to be able to fund my project. This was a little tricky, because you were only allowed to apply once, and could only do that in the year after obtaining your PhD. My dilemma was whether to wait until my high impact factor paper was accepted (if it would be accepted in time of course), or apply as soon as I could. At that time, all of a sudden the science organization announced that the next round of that fellowship would be the last one ever, without a clear picture of the type of funding that would replace it. I did not hesitate and applied, as did many others. In fact, they received three times more applications as they did otherwise, and mine was ranked such that in any other round it would probably receive funding, but in this round it fell just outside the ones that were funded. I was seriously bummed, especially when the next round the fellowship reappeared. It still exists today, but of course I was only allowed to apply once, so I had wasted my chances in the worst round ever.

Now, the Dutch science organization is announcing that for the next round of two prestigious personal fellowships - the kind of funding that can make or break a young researcher's career - all of a sudden applicants need to have a guarantee from the university that they can stay there. This is very similar to the NIH's requirement that you need a faculty position in order to apply for an R01. However, before this rule got into place, many young groupleaders only got permanent positions at a university AFTER they obtained this funding. And because of that, very few permanent positions are being advertised at the moment. Changing the rules so suddenly means that for individuals this can literally break their career because it robs them of the chance to apply for funding to establish themselves as a group leader. It specifically affects those people who have made the effort to go abroad for a post-doc, because some of the people who stayed will by now have a permanent position at a university. It will surely reduce the number of applicants, which is the reason NWO is doing this, but at what cost for individuals...?

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The spark in science

For the first time in over 3 years I opened the folder on my computer that contains the grant and fellowship applications that I submitted during my postdoc, including one that was still work in progress. By the time I left academia, I had submitted 10 applications, none of which got funded. The reason I opened this folder was to share one of them with someone, not necessarily because I wanted to read them again. But as these things go, I found myself going down the rabbit hole of reading my old applications. And something struck me: they lacked the spark of really wanting to discover something in science. They all read a little like: “look I have an okay CV, I can do a whole bunch of things and collaborate with a whole bunch of people. Oh and then I’m going to do this project”.

And I remember a conversation I had with 2 more senior scientists in the process of writing that unfinished application that revived that spark. They asked me what the question was that I really wanted to answer and what it was that got me excited about neuroscience in the first place. But by then I had already made up my mind about wanting to leave academia, so we will never know if rediscovering the spark would have got me funded.

But it did make me realize once again that I got so caught up in chasing funding that I nearly forgot what it is all about: studying something and trying to find answers to questions that fascinate you. And it also made me realize that except for those 2 people, none of my advisors or mentors ever asked me that question: what it is that I really want to study and that really gets me excited to understand further. And more importantly that I forgot to ask myself that question as well.

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"Avoiding a lost generation of scientists"

Today, I came across a paper in eLife titled "Avoiding a lost generation of scientists":

Funding for academic research in the United States has declined to a 40-year low in real terms, and other countries are experiencing similar declines. This persistent shortage of support threatens to create a "lost generation" of researchers – talented scientists who either leave the profession entirely, or who stay but acquire the cynicism and short-term thinking that hinders progress. While all researchers are being affected by the decline in funding, early-career researchers such as postdoctoral fellows and new investigators are being hit hardest.

The authors share stories of early career researchers that are struggling to stay in academic science and have created a facebook page* to do the same there. Also, they argue that advocacy and outreach should be done in order to make policymakers aware of this problem, for example by the infographic below.

From the eLife paper:

The authors end by saying:

The three scientists who shared their stories above are examples of a much deeper problem, but they are also reason for hope. If more of these narratives can be placed in front of policymakers and the true cost of under-funding science made clear, the prospects for consistent funding for the next generation of scientists can improve.

As someone who left academia because I couldn't get funding and was sick of all the short contracts and uncertainty, I applaud this effort and hope it will lead to a change. But I'm going to be advocate of the devil here and ask: Will the stories of disgruntled post-docs lead policymakers to change their mind? And is just going to increase funding going to solve this, or will it lead to more post-docs staying on for longer? Please discuss.


*Why Facebook? Is Twitter really dead...? - oh wait, they are on Twitter too. Oh, and they have a website.

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Prestigious grant reduces chance to get permanent position?

Feb 26 2016 Published by under Academia, grant writing, life in the lab, science

The other day I came across an interesting article from Daniel Lakens about how academic research grants are divided in The Netherlands (article in Dutch). In this article he refers to an interesting study (in English if you download the PDF), describing where scientist who receive prestigious individual Dutch research grants end up. What I thought was most interesting is that when they compare individuals who received a grant versus those who applied but didn't receive one, the successful applicants are 10% LESS likely to hold permanent positions SIX years after receiving a grant*. I actually see this happen around me as well: the lack of advertised tenure track positions in many scientific disciplines leads to a weird way of hiring people in the homecountry. I heard the story of someone who obtained an ERC starting grant, which is 5 years worth of money, who was then offered a 'tenure track position' of 5 years (meaning that they paid their own salary for said position, with no guarantee for what would happen after that). This type of story is exactly what is suggested by these data.


* Data are from the period between 2000-2008 so the situation may be different now.

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A day in my life

Recently, The New PI asked what people outside academia do in a random work day. That random day is today, Monday November 9th.

As you know, I left academia a bit over a year ago and I now work as an R&D scientist in a company. To keep it kind of vague because of trying to stay somewhat pseudonymous here, I'll only disclose that my company makes stuff for patients and that we do preclinical and clinical studies to see if that stuff does something for the patients.

6:00 am: husband wakes me up after a night in which Little Brother was up a couple times and husband took him to the living room around 5ish but let me sleep for a bit longer. I make breakfast while husband showers and then all four of us have breakfast together. Then I shower while husband makes lunch for himself, BlueEyes and me (Little Brother gets lunch at daycare) and around 7:15 am Little Brother and I leave the house to cycle to daycare and work (husband brings BlueEyes to school which only starts at 8:30).

8:00 am: I arrive at work after dropping Little Brother off at daycare. I search for a spot in our open office, chat with colleagues and read my emails. I had already opened my email Sunday evening to see how much I could expect but now take the time to properly read them and respond. Then coffee with colleagues.

9:00 am: We are working on a big grant (yup, EU likes to fund public-private partnerships, so lots of grant writing still even outside academia) and I'm trying to decide what I can do before we have a meeting about this grant that I am chairing. I also need to prep for this meeting.

9:15 am: Unexpected fire drill. We all leave the building and go to the meeting spot outside. I chat with a colleague I had never met about what kind of work she does, which is interesting. Then I chat with our preclinical manager about an experiment I'm planning with a CRO and what I need to do for that. So not entirely wasted this fire drill time.

10:00 am: Meeting about the grant. Writing the grant precipitated some decisions about what direction to go, which still needs to be aligned with the marketing and regulatory people. This kind of stuff really distracts from the actual writing, which also needs to happen. Also, we have not yet heard from everyone in the consortium yet, even though we plan to have a first draft ready by the end of the week. Yikes, stressful.

11:00 am: Coffee with my manager who couldn't attend the meeting about the grant to update them. Again more about the larger decisions and why we had not made those earlier than about the grant.

11:30 am: Back at my desk staring at the grant. Typed a little section, tried to call one of the consortium members but left a message on their voicemail.

12:00: lunch with colleagues, chatting about a conference someone had just been and what they had seen there. Joking about how close the field is to a cure (not..).

12:30: back at my desk, more emails (about the experiment with the CRO) and prepping for a group of MSc students that are coming to visit the company later in the day.

1:00 pm: some more grant writing. Okay and some procrastination on twitter. And some panic about whether or not the experiment with the CRO is going to happen. The money needs to come from this year's budget so if I can't make it happen before the end of the year it won't happen at all.

2:00 pm: give a talk to the students together with another colleague about what our company does, how we got these jobs and what kind of work we do now. It's a really nice and interactive group of students who ask a ton of question. Then we give them a tour around our (new and pretty amazing looking) building.

4:00 pm: the students have just left and I briefly chat with a colleague. Then I look at the grant and try to figure out what I can still do while tired from the students visiting. I write a short boring section that still needed to be done.

4:45 pm: I check the weather forecast (rain for the next hour) and leave to pick Little Brother up from daycare. I am lucky today that husband worked from home and picked up BlueEyes, because normally I cycle first to the daycare (that is close to work) and then to the after school care (that is close to home) and then home. Husband has also already cooked so we eat together at 6:00 pm.

6:45 pm: we start the whole bath, toothbrush, read a story routine that lasts until 7:30 pm (which is a good day :-)..).

7:30 pm: answer a couple emails, write this blog post and then it's time to watch Walking Dead with husband (only in season 2, so no spoilers please!).



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How I should have handled the thing

The other day I wrote about how the following thing happened. As many people have pointed out: a. it is hard to distinguish exactly who the idea-owner was, and if so, this is not that important, and b. I should have said something earlier. Looking back, I clearly see what I should have done differently:

First, while we were brainstorming about what I could write my fellowship about, I should have asked if our stuff would be different enough. Perhaps I should have even asked if they were okay with me proposing this, as they may have felt it was close to their research-niche. I guess being open about this, rather than assuming someone would speak up about this could have avoided this situation.

Next, when they told me after I had just joined the lab that they were performing these experiments, I should have said something other than "Oh. Okay", which is what I said because I was so surprised. I should have expressed my surprise and have a conversation about how to move forward. Instead, I never said anything because I was afraid I would get upset and cry about it. And the longer I waited with saying something, the more upset I got about it.

So the biggest lesson here was that it is important to immediately have a conversation about things like this, instead of just whine about it on the internet.

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The following thing happened

A couple years ago I was applying for personal fellowships to return to the homecountry and work in a PI's lab in order to set up my own group within their bigger lab (which is how things usually go in the homecountry). I talked to a junior groupleader (JG) in this lab and we brainstormed about what I would write in my fellowship. I wrote the fellowship and asked JG for feedback because they had experience with said fellowship. I submitted the fellowship and it got rejected. Twice. Then I moved back to the homecountry and JG told me they were doing one of the experiments that I had proposed in my fellowship. And recently I saw that they had published the results. Aim 1 of my fellowship is done. But not by me. If this doesn't make you a disgruntledpostdoc, I don't know what does.


What is the worst academic backstabbing you have experienced?

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Some observations from a conference

Recently, I went to a certain conference in a certain European country. I made some observations there:

At this conference (and representative for this field as a whole) the percentage of women was somewhere around 60-70% I think (I don't have the exact numbers but this was my guesstimate). When examining the gender ratio of the main speakers, the women:men ratio was 4:27.

There were 4 prizes that were awarded during the meeting for various accomplishments. Here the women:men ratio was 0:4. Is this because women don't get nominated? Or do the men ask people to nominate them?

When you have moved to industry some people are very interested to hear about that, and others don't even seem to notice you anymore.


When talking to people from my generation of PhD students and those slightly older than me, it struck me how most people were very much struggling for grant money, and in a position that no grant money means no job (senior post-doc, research associate, etc). Multiple people told me that they were going to give it one last try and then perhaps move on to something outside academia. These are people that on paper have all the things necessary to be successful. It's almost like there is no money. Or is it because a very small group of people get all the money? (link is in Dutch, but contains a very nice visual at the bottom showing the distribution of grant money)

Also at this meeting: awesome science, nice and helpful people and seeing old friends.

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Grant writing: don't apply unless you are above average?

A while ago, I wondered whether to apply for funding if you knew the funding rate was only 3%. Back then, most people said to apply anyway (which I did by the way; didn't get the money though). However, today I came across this paper in PlosOne entitled: "To apply or not to apply; a survey analysis of grant writing costs and benefits" (which I found via naturejobs).  The authors did a survey on 195 astronomers and social and personality psychologists who apply to three US federal agencies: NASA, the NIH, and the NSF. They found - according to naturejobs:

[They] found that applications took on average 116 hours to prepare for principal investigators and 55 hours for co-investigators. More submissions increased the chances of receiving funding, but time spent writing a proposal had little correlation with success.

Then, they calculate how much time it takes to write one or more grant applications per year and what the chances are of getting funded. They next come with the following recommendations (emphasis added by me):

Because a 20% funding rate will force at least half of all proposers to abandon federally funded research after multiple years of effort, we recommend that proposers, research mentors, and funding agencies compare current funding rates to this value. We suggest that individual investigators should consider avoiding proposing to programs with funding rates at or below 20% unless they are confident that their research program has a greater-than-baseline chance of success or they are willing to write two or more proposals per year.

They next suggest that perhaps institutions should decide who gets to apply for low-chance funding, so that the others can focus on something else and do not waste their time writing potentially unsuccessful grants.

This is very different advice than the "always apply" that I normally hear. I know that in some of the homecountry's institutions this is how it goes for personal grants from the homecountry scientific organization: that the institutions do a sort of pre-screening round to see who gets to submit (which I find doubtful: do the institutions know what reviewers will say about a grant? And are internal committees a good way to decide who gets to submit?). And where do 'the other' people get funding to do their research?

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On changing academic science

First, go read the long discussion happening over at drugmonkey about how the current funding situation affects early career scientists and current grad students and post-docs the most. Then come back here 🙂

In my homecountry, the funding situation is not that different. Less money goes to universities and the money that is there is divided through research grants that are harder and harder to get. At the same time, the EU is funding huge training projects for which 10-15 PhDs who are supposed to finish in 3 years and then those 10-15 PhDs with roughly the same experience and expertise flood the job market around the same time. Has anyone thought about the implications that might have for them?

At the same time, a couple people in my homecountry have started an initiative called "Science in transition". You would think that one of the things they address is this: how to make sure the people that are trained can get jobs and how to make sure established scientists get funded. Perhaps if you put together a collective of white, middle-aged men, it is no surprise they don't think about this...

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