The Strategic aspects of getting grants funded is one of the most often ignored.

How often do you submit? When do you submit versus getting papers or preliminary data out the door? Where do you submit to?

Those are some very important questions to answer, that many do not think about often enough.

Instead, these questions seem to get lost in the drive to “submit frequently and submit often,” a sort of infectious cultural phenomenon in the research enterprise.

Yet in the push that many chairs, deans, and others of supervisory nature may have that you should be hitting the metaphorical “submit” button every chance you get, this isn’t always the best for funding.

At the most recent Grant Foundry workshop, held in Hilton Head SC, strategic thinking was one of several large issues that kept coming up repeatedly. It was clear that people were looking for guidance, apart from the knee-jerk “submit as often as you can” bandied about by so many.

One client has been submitting proposals about once every 2-3 months for the past few years. He has several major proposals under review now. He was at the Grant Foundry with the goal of developing yet-another-proposal for submission.

When we looked at his situation, our advice was to do the opposite, and not submit. He has some groundbreaking research to get published, and in all the grant submitting, that work – and other things – were suffering. It’s not that his research was stalled. It was moving along, but more slowly than if it had his real focus. We discussed with him how getting his work out sooner, through a more focused effort, would benefit his situation.

This advice was unique to his situation as a junior and relatively unknown person in his field. Strategic thinking is always highly situational. If we’d been talking to a more senior person with a lab full of eager postdocs, quite likely our thinking would have gone in a different direction.

What’s interesting about this conversation is this: although our client agreed that rationally this made the most sense, he was actually quite nervous to not submit more grant proposals for a while. He was nervous about bucking the tide of knee-jerk “submit as often as you can” promulgated in our culture. It’s a culture of badge-of-honor for being a good boy or girl scout and working as hard as you can. It’s a culture of “who cares about results, as long as you’re keeping up appearances.

There are many strategic considerations that go into assuring the best timing and quality of the proposals – if you care about more than just the “I submitted” sticker pinned on your lapel to advertise hard work. Yet the bottom line is that it takes guts to ignore the pressures all around to “just submit as often as you can!”

I’d love to hear your story: do you feel like there’s pressure to submit when you’re not ready? Does that pressure affect you? Or do you just ignore it and stay on track?

4 thoughts

  1. But Morgan, what if my salary depends on how many grants I submit? I fully agree with the stupidity of submitting every cycle and the whole lottery idea, but my salary gets cut if I don’t submit a specific number of proposals per year.

    1. Hi Nora, if submission is tied to your salary, then it makes sense to do it, for now. However, when you have major funding, it may be a good idea to use that as a leverage point on a silly policy like tying submissions to salaries.

  2. On the topic of strategy, I was thinking (while I was NOT preparing my NIH grant for the Feb cycle) that I wonder if the Feb cycle gets less applicants overall than the other two? Certainly it seems that I am never really prepared for this cycle, but maybe I should strategically TARGET this cycle? Is there data on the overall # of submissions for each cycle and is Feb the lowest?

  3. On the topic of strategy, I was thinking (while I was NOT preparing my NIH grant for the Feb cycle) that I wonder if the Feb cycle gets less applicants overall than the other two? Certainly it seems that I am never really prepared for this cycle due to the holidays, but maybe I should strategically TARGET this cycle? Is there data on the overall # of submissions for each cycle and is Feb the lowest?

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