I have just finished providing the first round of feedback to a number of faculty members at my institution in the wind up to the first major research funding deadline in Canada of 2014. During the first round, I feel I do the most service to prospective applicant by providing the applicants with substantive feedback pushing them to be very specific with their research question, clear with how their question emerges from or responds to the existing literature, and clear defining their methodology.
But sometimes this substantive feedback, given with the objective of allowing them to produce the most competitive application possible, leads to a sense of discouragement.
For example, today I received a phone call from one of these applicants, saying that the applicant agreed wholeheartedly with my comments but felt that because of the work that needed to be done on some of the concepts was now considering delaying submitting the application until the next round.
Obviously, this is NOT what I was hoping to achieve with my early internal deadlines and my substantive comments.And this is not the first time I have received this kind of reaction from applicants that I have provided feedback to or have received feedback from others.
So here are my top 3 reasons why, even with comments that indicate there is a lot more work to be done on your application, I believe you should still submit.
1) It is never going to be perfect.
This is self-evident but worth stating explicitly. No grant application – even the funded ones – is perfect. The very fact that the project is “proposed” at this stage means that it must be living document. If you wait for it to be done before submitting it for review, you will have completed the project before it is time to test the waters.
2) Trial and error is the best strategy.
If you don’t ever submit the application to that different funding agency, you will never know if your project is truly outside of their scope or not. If you don’t submit your multi-disciplinary application to one disciplinary committee over another, you will never know which one is best suited to reviewing it. While there is a lot of advice that research administrators can provide you based on experiences with a large volume of proposals, there is ultimately no predictor of success.
Additionally, on average, I find it takes researchers about two applications to get their project funded. The sooner you submit that first-most-likely-not-funded application, the sooner you can get to the improved-second-and-more-likely-to-be-funded submission the following year.
3) Don’t underestimate the “luck factor”.
Yes there is an difference between a competitive grant application and non-competitive grant application. You definitely want to produce the best possible application with your given conditions (time, resources, etc.). But, there’s also a strong element of luck that determines which projects get funded and which ones do not.
For example, a few competitions ago, I supported an application from a researcher that I believed was very strong but proposed using a methodology that was far from traditional in the applicant’s field. In the comments back from the review committee, there were a number of external assessments that took the project to task for the proposed methodology. That said, the project was ultimately funded by the committee – ranked in the last funded spot for that year’s competition. You could say it was funded because it was well-written (it was!), or that the applicant had a strong funding history and publication record (they did!), and the project was incredibly well-defined and scoped out (it was!). Without these things, it wouldn’t have been funded but it probably didn’t hurt that the chair of the committee that year also happened to be a well-regarded scholar who also was known for utilizing the less-than-traditional methodology proposed in the project.
Peer reviewers do take their roles as reviewers seriously but it remains a subjective process, vulnerable to the tastes, trends, and opinions of scholars-as-human-beings. You will never be able to control the process entirely, so you might as well throw your hat in the ring.
The key is no matter the result to not get discouraged. There’s a lot to a grant application result that cannot be predicted ahead of time. As B.F. Skinner is oft quoted as saying “A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”