How I got through my grad school slump

By Katherine Still

Taken from

I waited until my Ph.D. committee had left the room to break down. I sank into a chair, head in hands, as my committee meeting form sat unsigned on the lectern. I had just failed my dissertation proposal defense—a poor start to my fourth year of grad school. My committee members had told me that my experiments were too small-scale, my ideas not deep enough. I realize now that they were pushing me because they believed in me. They told me as much. But in that moment, I could not hear anything positive. All I could hear was the voice in my head telling me that I’d failed.

a man with his head sticking out of a pile of papers while a carrot dangles over him

The setback sapped me of all motivation. For the next 4 months, I lacked focus at work. I no longer double-checked that I was fully prepared before starting a lab protocol, and I had trouble finding the energy to even think about re-writing my proposal.

I was surprised at my unraveling. I had passed my qualifying exam without issue; I had thought I was a successful graduate student. Surely, I was more resilient than to let one failure demoralize me. When I shared my struggle with colleagues, they assured me that a loss of motivation was normal at this stage in grad school, even without any major setbacks. One senior grad student called it “the dreaded fourth-year slump.” But normal or not, I wanted to understand why I felt that way.

My colleagues were right about one thing: The outcome of my proposal defense wasn’t the only cause of my slump. After some thought, it dawned on me that I had been putting undue pressure on myself throughout grad school. To believe I was making good progress, I needed external validation—an award, positive results, or praise from professors I respected. When I didn’t get those things at every opportunity, I felt I was not on the right track.

That mindset became a hindrance during my third year, because I didn’t have much new to show for my efforts in the lab. I spent time repeating experiments as I started to mold my findings into a publishable format, and I attempted a few long-shot experiments that failed. I received fewer compliments on my work, and that made me feel as though I was progressing slowly compared with earlier in my Ph.D. program. To make matters worse, I compared myself to my peers, and when awards went to others, I wilted.

In the weeks leading up to my proposal defense, I suffered from anxiety because I feared that my committee would see the shortcomings that I perceived in myself. Lacking confidence in my work, I proposed experiments that were doable but not exactly paradigm-shifting. And when I didn’t pass, the failure confirmed my self-doubts. Eventually, as my loss of confidence became a bigger problem, I knew that I had to do something about it.

My new approach … has given me a resilience that I wish I had earlier in my Ph.D.

I decided that I needed to set healthier standards for myself. I did not have control over how much praise I received or how many new data I generated. The only thing I had control over, I realized, was the effort I put forth. So, I started to regularly check in with myself and ask, “Am I doing my best?” If the answer was yes, then I could be proud. If the answer was no, then it was within my power to turn things around.

I went into my second proposal defense with a much more positive mindset—along with grander experiments in my proposal—and passed 5 months after my first attempt. I’ve also used the approach to change my focus during the day-to-day grind of benchwork. Now, instead of fixating on whether my experiments generate exciting data that others will compliment, I focus on thoroughly planning and meticulously executing my lab protocols. I also avoid comparing my research progress to that of my peers; their journey is theirs alone.

I’m pleased to report that my new approach has helped me regain confidence in myself—and my work—and I’m more productive as a result. It has given me a resilience that I wish I had earlier in my Ph.D. I hope that I can help other students realize that external validation is not always guaranteed, and if they are doing their best, that is good enough.

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How I motivate myself to complete boring job tasks—and have fun in the process

By Bill D. Roebuck

Taken from

About 10 years ago, I sat in my office, struggling to muster up the motivation to write an annual progress report for my dean. I enjoy writing grant applications and scientific papers—tasks that engage my creativity and further my research. But report writing doesn’t come with any reward apart from the momentary satisfaction of crossing something off my to-do list. Like other routine paperwork, I find it hard to get through. So that day, I offered myself a reward: When I finished the report, I’d give myself 2 hours to examine slides under the microscope—a task I’ve always loved but never had much time for as a faculty member.

A man signing a document while wrapped in a flag

Over my 40-year academic career, I have learned that I need to give myself special projects as a reward for completing onerous paperwork. I retired from my faculty position 3 years ago, so thankfully I don’t face much paperwork anymore. But I still break out this reward system every so often. It’s a strategy I call “just for fun.”

The strategy was born out of challenges I experienced in grad school. I could handle failed experiments, equipment malfunctions, and other hiccups. Bureaucratic busywork was a bigger hurdle. I usually delayed putting together reports for grant agencies and university administrators until threatening letters arrived—or the deadline was so close that I became gripped with panic. I never felt that paperwork was advancing my science, but rather sapping my energy and time for research.

One of my committee members recognized and understood my difficulties. He asked, “If a day is going badly, what might you like to do at work—just for fun?” I must have looked confused, because I didn’t see how his question was relevant to the problem at hand. Then he told me about his strategy of rewarding himself with a fun project when he completed a task that he didn’t particularly enjoy. He advised me to think about doing something similar. I immediately liked the idea, but it took me a few years to fully implement my own system. It also evolved over the course of my career.

As a Ph.D. student, I did not see labwork as a special reward because I already spent most of my time in the lab. So, I devised a different kind of reward: I’d let myself attend seminars on topics I was curious about but that lay outside of my immediate field. For example, one day I remember telling myself, “If I get this report submitted on time, I am going to that seminar on pathology.” I got better at meeting deadlines—and I had some fun in the process.

When I became a faculty member with a lab of my own, my “just for fun” strategy began to shift. I was at my microscope less and less, and I started to miss it. At the same time, my need for fun rewards multiplied because bureaucratic tasks started to clog up my to-do list.

I … give myself special projects as a reward for completing onerous paperwork.

So, as my laboratory grew, I started to jealously guard some small projects—such as microscope tasks, simple experiments, and data analyses—that I could complete myself. Sometimes I even sought out those projects. For example, a collaborator told me that he was having problems staining liver tumors, so I told him: “Send me the slides; I can do that!” At that point in my career, my role in research mostly took the form of advising students and technicians. The research didn’t feel like my own anymore, and when it was done, I certainly could not say, “Look what I discovered!” But with the “just for fun” projects, I had full ownership. I felt as though I’d done real science.

Over the course of my career, this strategy helped me complete and move past the parts of my job that I didn’t particularly enjoy. The rewards I gave myself provided a way to relax and reminded me why I love being a scientist.

As for that annual report, I spent an uninspiring morning on it—but got it done. Then I hurried over to the microscope, eager to inspect a series of slides that my collaborators had sent a couple weeks earlier.

To others, it may have looked like work. But to me, it was just for fun.

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To fairly evaluate scientists’ CVs, universities should welcome personal disclosures

By Erin Gibson

Taken from

“Why don’t you have a K award?” the interviewer asked, referring to a postdoc award granted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health that is seen by many biomedical scientists as a ticket to a faculty position. It wasn’t the first time this question had come up as I interviewed for faculty jobs. But it still left me feeling frustrated. I had published first-author papers in Science and Cell and acquired plenty of other funding, and I offered the department a unique research plan. I knew I was a strong candidate. Yet in the eyes of some interviewers, my CV was lacking because I did not have an illustrious postdoc award. I struggled through a mental tug of war with myself, wondering whether to shift the conversation and focus on my other accomplishments—or simply tell the truth.

The truth was that when the K award applications were due, I was busy dealing with challenges in my personal life. I waited until after I completed my Ph.D. to become a mother, and I gave birth to our first child during the second year of my postdoc. We were relieved when she was born without any complications, because my first pregnancy, 1 year earlier, had been ectopic, resulting in emergency surgery and the loss of a fallopian tube.

A woman stocking bottles

The following year, I became pregnant with our second child. My pregnancy was going well until my 20-week checkup, when the ultrasound technician paused and said, “One moment please. Let me get the doctor.” We learned that our baby had abnormal kidney and bladder development and a vascular anomaly in her brain that could be fatal at birth. To our great relief, she survived the cesarean section. But she had urinary problems, her left leg was significantly larger than her right, and she was later diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder.

The next 2 years of her life were a blur. Taking care of her was a full-time job, requiring hundreds of doctors’ appointments and procedures. The procedures eased her health issues somewhat, but the reality is that there’s no cure for her condition. It’s progressive; it will only get worse.

I am not writing this for sympathy. I am writing this to remind academics that life happens outside the lab. I spent most of my postdoc years struggling to keep up with my research in the midst of major life events at home. Some days, I cried in the corner at work after receiving a worrisome test result from a doctor. Other days, I could barely think because I had stayed up all night with my daughter.

I persisted in academia thanks to the unwavering support of my postdoc mentor, who never forced me to choose between my science and my family. With her encouragement, I put together faculty job applications during my sixth year. I worried that reviewers might balk when they saw I had no prestigious postdoc awards, but I didn’t know how to address that. As far as I knew, personal information did not belong in a CV or cover letter.

The interviews would have been more enjoyable … had I been able to focus on my science.

When this interviewer asked about the K award, however, I decided to be honest. I told him that I didn’t have an award because my daughter’s health complications had taken priority when the applications were due. He stiffened up and appeared flustered. Clearly that kind of personal disclosure was not the norm. But it didn’t seem to hurt me—I ended up receiving an offer from that university and others.

Even so, I wondered whether putting the information in writing as part of my application would have been easier on everyone. In that interview and later ones, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about my daughter. The interviews would have been more enjoyable and productive had I been able to focus on my science.

I’d like to recommend a solution: When universities advertise job openings, they should invite applicants to describe any events that may have impacted their professional progress. That way, an applicant would feel comfortable explaining that during their 2-year publication gap, they were caring for an ailing parent. Or that they didn’t travel to conferences for 4 years because they had two small children at home.

I know that some people will argue that personal information has no place in hiring decisions. But I disagree. To fairly evaluate a scientist’s CV, it’s important to understand their full journey—children and all.

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Make science PhDs more than just a training path for academia

Sarah Anderson

Taken from

My committee member looked up from the document in his hand, which detailed my ideas for my research proposal. He cleared his throat: “You know, when you apply for faculty positions…” he began. I gave a quick, impulsive nod in response, but thought to myself, “That’s never going to happen.”

I’m a PhD candidate in chemistry with no intention of pursuing a career in academia, and I’m certainly not alone: out of 81 students in my programme, only 40% plan to go into academia. A more comprehensive survey of 5,700 science doctoral students worldwide, conducted in 2017, found that 75% of respondents wanted to work in academia after graduation, although a significant portion of those reported equivalent interest in the industry sector, suggesting indecision1. Clearly, the desire to pursue academia is not universal among PhD students. Furthermore, tenure-track job openings are a rare find: a study of job availability carried out in 2014 concluded that only 13% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the United States2.

Despite the lack of exclusive interest in academic careers and the low demand for professors, PhD programmes are designed to accommodate students with their sights set on academia. This fact is evident in the requirements that PhD students must meet to earn their doctoral degree, as well as the events hosted and sponsored by science departments.

Research is of course at the heart of a PhD, and assessment of productivity through a qualifying exam and thesis defence is needed to bestow a doctorate. But the goal of an original research proposal, such as the one my committee member was holding, isn’t to evaluate progress, but rather to serve as practice for developing exploratory project ideas and securing funding for them — skills most relevant to future professors.

This agenda isn’t hidden: the reminder that a great proposal could be used later in faculty applications was dangled in front of my colleagues and me as a largely inapplicable and therefore ineffective incentive to put in the work.

Also, the majority of events hosted by science departments — seminars given by professors, lunches with professors, panels of professors — are of greatest value to students taking an academic route.Collection: Young scientists

There are typically more opportunities for non-academic professional development outside of a candidate’s department of study, such as science-journalism and business-certification courses. But a lack of department promotion and sponsorship of these programmes means that students are often either unaware of their existence or feel discouraged from participating.

Research proposals are one example in which PhD programme requirements could be better tailored to the career goals of each individual student. Those interested in science communication shouldn’t waste their time producing a proposal for research they’re not interested in performing. They could instead write a piece on their research targeted at a non-expert audience, for example. Similarly, those planning to enter industry could pitch a new product, and those aiming to become lecturers could participate in and report on a teaching internship. Choosing a career track with corresponding requirements could become as standard as selecting an inorganic, organic, physical or biological chemistry track.

The events hosted and sponsored by science departments are an area in which graduate school could become more inclusive and beneficial to students pursuing careers beyond academia. There are many professionals in industry and non-conventional fields who could occupy some slots on the department calendar. Furthermore, by promoting external programmes aimed at non-academic-career preparation, science departments could ensure that students are aware of such opportunities and display public support for their participation.

To successfully implement these changes, we must first subvert the assumption on which PhD programmes seem to be built: that their participants plan to pursue academia. This mindset is in part a consequence of PhD programmes being crafted by professors who used their own career trajectory as a template.

But I suspect it’s also a product of the unfortunate reality that PhD advisers simply do not view non-academic careers with the same degree of admiration. The fact that multiple people have written articles on how to break the apparently devastating news to your adviser that you aren’t following in their footsteps speaks volumes. If academia can’t appreciate the inherent value of professions beyond ‘research professor’, then maybe it can at least recognize the benefits it gains from having PhD-trained scientists in roles outside academia.

For example, science communicators create crucial dialogue between scientists and the public, helping to establish a wider audience for researchers’ work and prevent misinterpretation of findings. Those in the field of science policy help to inform important regulations that affect national agencies funding academic research. High-school science teachers, lecturers and lab instructors are training the next generation of graduate students who will work in university labs. Hopefully, the PhD programmes that these students experience help them to feel validated in and prepared for whatever career path they choose.

Nature 573, 299-300 (2019)doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02586-5

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Secrets to writing a winning grant

Emily Sohn

Taken from

When Kylie Ball begins a grant-writing workshop, she often alludes to the funding successes and failures that she has experienced in her career. “I say, ‘I’ve attracted more than $25 million in grant funding and have had more than 60 competitive grants funded. But I’ve also had probably twice as many rejected.’ A lot of early-career researchers often find those rejections really tough to take. But I actually think you learn so much from the rejected grants.”

Grant writing is a job requirement for research scientists who need to fund projects year after year. Most proposals end in rejection, but missteps give researchers a chance to learn how to find other opportunities, write better proposals and navigate the system. Taking time to learn from the setbacks and successes of others can help to increase the chances of securing funds, says Ball, who runs workshops alongside her role as a behavioural scientist at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Do your research

Competition for grants has never been more intense. The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme is the European Union’s largest-ever research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion (US$89 billion) in funding set aside between 2014 and 2020. It reported a 14% success rate for its first 100 calls for proposals, although submissions to some categories had lower success rates. The commission has published its proposal for Horizon Europe, the €100-billion programme that will succeed Horizon 2020. In Australia, since 2017, the National Health and Medical Research Council has been funding less than 20% of proposals it receives. And the US National Science Foundation (NSF) received 49,415 proposals and funded 11,447 of them in 2017 — less than 25%. That’s tens of thousands of rejections in a single year from the NSF alone.

Being a renowned scientist doesn’t ensure success. On the same day that molecular biologist Carol Greider won a Nobel prize in 2009, she learnt that her recently submitted grant proposal had been rejected. “Even on the day when you win the Nobel prize,” she said in a 2017 graduation speech at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, “sceptics may question whether you really know what you’re doing.”

To increase the likelihood of funding success, scientists suggest doing an extensive search of available grants and noting differences in the types of project financed by various funding bodies. Government agencies such as the NSF tend to be interested in basic science that addresses big, conceptual questions, says Leslie Rissler, programme director at the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology in Alexandria, Virginia. A private foundation, however, might prioritize projects that inform social change or that have practical implications that fit into one of its specific missions.

Pitching a proposal

Before beginning an application, you should read descriptions and directions carefully, advises Ball, who recently pored over 200 pages of online material before starting a proposal. That effort can save time in the end, helping researchers to work out which awards are a good fit and which aren’t. “If you’re not absolutely spot on with what they’re looking for, it may not be worth your time in writing that grant,” she says.

Experienced scientists suggest studying successful proposals, which can often be acquired from trusted colleagues and supervisors, university libraries or online databases. A website called Open Grants, for example, includes more than 200 grants, both successful and unsuccessful, that are free to peruse.

Grant writers shouldn’t fear e-mailing or calling a grants agency to talk through their potential interest in a project, advises Amanda Stanley, executive director at COMPASS, a non-profit organization based in Portland, Oregon, that supports environmental scientists. For six years, she worked as a programme officer for the Wilburforce Foundation in Seattle, Washington, which supports conservation science. At this and other private foundations, the application process often begins with a ‘soft pitch’ that presents a brief case for the project. Those pitches should cover several main points, Stanley says: “‘Here’s what I’m trying to do. Here’s why it’s important. Here’s a little bit about me and the people I’m collaborating with. Would you like to talk further?’” She notes that a successful proposal must closely align with a foundation’s strategic goals.

Each organization has its own process, but next steps typically include a phone conversation, a written summary and, finally, an invitation to submit a formal application. “Once you’ve gotten that invitation to submit a proposal from the programme officer, your chances of getting funded are really, really high,” Stanley says.

Drs Cheryl Smythe and Fiamma Salerno
Grants manager Cheryl Smythe (left) allows for IT glitches when submitting grant proposals.Credit: Dr Louisa Wood

The write stuff

Applicants should put themselves in the shoes of grant reviewers, who might need to read dozens of applications about complicated subjects that lie outside their own fields of expertise, often while juggling their own research.

“Imagine you’re tired, grumpy and hungry. You’ve got 50 applications to get through,” says Cheryl Smythe, international grants manager at the Babraham Institute, a life-sciences research institution in Cambridge, UK. “Think about how you as an applicant can make it as easy as possible for them.”

Formatting is an important consideration, says Aerin Jacob, a conservation scientist at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in Canmore, Canada. White space and bold headings can make proposals easier to read, as can illustrations. “Students are tempted and sometimes encouraged to squeeze in as much information as possible, so there are all kinds of tricks to fiddle with the margin size, or to make the font a little bit smaller so that you can squeeze in that one last sentence,” Jacob says. “For a reviewer, that’s exhausting to read.”

Ball advises avoiding basic deal-breakers, such as spelling errors, grammatical slips and lengthy proposals that exceed word limits. Those kinds of mistake can cast doubt on how rigorous applicants will be in their research, she says. A list of key words, crucial for indexes and search engines, should be more than an afterthought, Ball adds. On a proposal for a project on promoting physical activity among women, she tagged her proposal with the word ‘women’. The descriptor was too broad, and her application ended up with a reviewer whose expertise appeared to be in sociology and gender studies instead of in exercise or nutrition. The grant didn’t score well in that round of review.

To prevent a reviewer’s eyes from glazing over, Jacob says, use clear language instead of multisyllabic jargon. When technical details are necessary, follow up a complex sentence with one that sums up the big picture. Thinking back to her early proposals, Jacob remembers cramming in words instead of getting to the point. “It was probably something like, ‘I propose to study the heterogeneity of forest landscapes in spatial and temporal recovery after multiple disturbances,’ rather than, ‘I want to see what happens when a forest has been logged, burnt and farmed, and grows back,’” she says.

Grants can be more speculative and more self-promotional than papers are, Rissler adds. “A grant is about convincing a jury that your ideas are worthy and exciting,” she says. “You can make some pretty sweeping generalizations about what your proposed ideas might do for science and society in the long run. A paper is much more rigid in terms of what you can say and in what you must say.”

Getting some science communication training can be a worthwhile strategy for strengthening grant-writing skills, Stanley says. When she was reviewing pitch letters for a private foundation, she recalls that lots of scientists couldn’t fully explain why their work mattered. But when she received pitches that were clear and compelling, she was more willing to help those scientists brainstorm other possible funding agencies if her foundation wasn’t the right fit. Scientists who sent strong — albeit unsuccessful — applications were also more likely to get funding from the foundation for later projects.

Science storytelling

To refine project pitches and proposals, Stanley recommends that scientists use a free communication tool from COMPASS called the Message Box Workbook, which can help to identify key points and answer the crucial question for every audience: ‘So what?’ Scientific conferences often provide symposia or sessions that include funders and offer helpful tips for writing grants. And development officers at institutions can help scientists to connect with funders. “A good development officer is worth their weight in gold,” Stanley says. “Make friends with them.”

Jacob has taken science-communication training through COMPASS, The Story Collider (a science-storytelling organization) and from other such organizations. She has learnt how to talk about her work in the manner of a storyteller. In proposals and interviews, she now includes personal details, when relevant, that explain the problems she wants to address and why she decided to speak out about conservation — an example of the kind of conflict and resolution that builds a good story. Jacob senses that the approach strikes a chord. “As a reviewer, you remember somebody’s proposal just that little bit more,” she says. “If you have a stack of proposals, you want to find the one that you connect with.”

A clear focus can help to boost a grant to the top of a reviewer’s pile, Ball adds. In one of the first large grants that she applied for, she proposed collecting information on the key factors that prevent weight gain as well as designing and implementing an obesity-intervention programme. In retrospect, it was too much within the grant’s two-year time frame. She didn’t get the funding, and the feedback she received was that it would have worked better as two separate proposals. “While it’s tempting to want to claim that you can solve these enormous, challenging and complex problems in a single project,” Ball says, “realistically, that’s usually not the case.”

Teaming up with collaborators can also increase the chance of success. Earlier this year, Ball was funded by the Diabetes Australia Research Program for a study that she proposed in collaboration with hospital clinicians, helping disadvantaged people with type 2 diabetes to eat healthy diets. Earlier in her career, she had written grants based on her own ideas, rather than on suggestions from clinicians or other non-academic partners. This time, she says, she focused on a real-world need rather than on her own ideas for a study. Instead of overreaching, she kept the study small and preliminary, allowing her to test the approach before trying to get funding for larger trials.

It is acceptable — even advisable — to admit a study’s limitations instead of trying to meet preconceived expectations, Jacob adds. In 2016, she had a proposal rejected for a study on spatial planning on the west coast of Canada that would, crucially, be informed by knowledge from Indigenous communities. She resubmitted the same proposal the next year to the same reviewers, but with a more confident and transparent approach: she was straightforward about her desire to take a different tack from the type of research that had been tried before. This time, she made it clear that she wanted to listen to Indigenous peoples and use their priorities to guide her work. She got the funding. “I saw that if I tried to change it to meet what I thought funders wanted, I might not be accurately representing what I was doing,” she says. “I just wanted to be really clear with myself and really clear with the interviewers that this is who I am, and this is what I want to do.”

What not to do

Writing is hard, and experienced grant writers recommend devoting plenty of time to the task. Smythe recommends setting aside a week for each page of a proposal, noting that some applications require only a few pages while major collaborative proposals for multi-year projects can run to more than 100 pages. “It can take months to get one of these together,” she says.

Scheduling should include time for rewrites, proofreads and secondary reads by friends, colleagues and family members, experts say. Working right up to the deadline can undo weeks to months of hard work. At the last minute, Jacob once accidentally submitted an earlier draft instead of the final version. It included sections that were bolded and highlighted, with comments such as, “NOTE TO SELF: MAKE THIS PART SOUND BETTER.” She didn’t get that one, and has never made the same mistake again.

Add an extra buffer for technology malfunctions, adds Smythe, who once got a call from a scientist at another organization who was in a panic because his computer had stopped working while he was trying to submit a grant proposal half an hour before the deadline. She submitted it for him with 23 seconds to spare. “My hand was shaking,” she says. That proposal was not successful, although the scientist sent her a nice bottle of champagne afterwards.

Grant writing doesn’t necessarily end with a proposal’s submission. Applicants might receive requests for rewrites or more information. Rejections can also come with feedback, and if they don’t, applicants can request it.

Luiz Nunes de Oliveira, a physicist at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, also works as a programme coordinator at the São Paulo Research Foundation. In this role, he sometimes meets with applicants who want to follow up on rejected proposals. “We sit down and go through their résumé, and then you find out that they had lots of interesting stuff to say about themselves and they missed the opportunity,” he says. “All it takes is to write an e-mail message asking [the funder] for an interview.”

Jacob recommends paying attention to such feedback to strengthen future proposals. To fund her master’s programme, she applied for a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), but didn’t get it on her first try. After requesting feedback by e-mail (to an address she found buried on NSERC’s website), she was able to see her scores by category, which revealed that a few bad grades early in her undergraduate programme were her limiting factor.

There was nothing she could do about her past, but the information pushed her to work harder on other parts of her application. After gaining more research and field experience, co-authoring a paper and establishing relationships with senior colleagues who would vouch for her as referees, she finally secured funding from NSERC on her third try, two years after her first rejection.

Negative feedback can be one of the best learning experiences, Rissler adds. She kept the worst review she ever received, a scathing response to a grant proposal she submitted to the NSF in 2003, when she was a postdoc studying comparative phylogeography. The feedback, she says, was painful to read. It included comments that her application was incomprehensible and filled with platitudes.

After she received that letter, which is now crinkled up in her desk for posterity, Rissler called a programme officer to ask why they let her see such a negative review. She was told that the critical commenter was an outlier and that the panel had gone on to recommend her project for the grant, which she ultimately received. “I learnt that you do need to be tough,” says Rissler, who now helps to make final decisions on funding for other scientists. She emphasizes that whereas reviewers’ opinions can vary, all proposals undergo multiple independent expert reviews, followed by panel discussions and additional oversight by programme directors.

Grant writing tends to provoke anxiety among early-career scientists, but opportunities exist for people who are willing to take the time to develop ideas and push past rejections and negative feedback, she says. “We can’t review proposals that we don’t get.

Nature 577, 133-135 (2020)doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03914-5

****Interested in contributing original content to the blog? If so, contact Morgan at