Get Rejected on a Regular Basis

As an interdisciplinary researcher and family demographer, I have been frustrated by the lack of data to answer some of what I believe are the more important research questions. As a tenure-track faculty member at a research intensive university, my (federal) grantsmanship expectations are high if I want to get promoted to full, or to have the money to get resources for my grad students and myself. Thus, I thought I would marry the two problems – write grants to collect data to answer research questions I am currently unable to answer with available population data. However, it is very competitive to get federal grants, and I wanted to write a post for everyone who is constantly trying to get grants about my experience, and with the encouragement to keep trying!

National Couples’ Health and Time Study (NCHAT)

In 2015, I went to a conference at the fabulous Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University titled: Same-Sex Couples: Frontiers in Measurement and Analysis. As I heard about the lack of population data on same-sex couples, I also started to think about how it had been since 1988 that population researchers had a study focused on family functioning in the US, the National Survey of Families and Households. I decided I could write a grant to for a new study focused on family functioning in the US that would include both same and different-gender couples. I wrote the grant, and submitted it to NIH in February of 2015 as an R21. It was scored, which meant that it was in the top 50% of grants and was actually discussed by the review committee, so I revised and resubmitted in November. It was scored again, with a better score, so I submitted it again in 2016. Because NIH only allows one revision, this third submission was technically a “new” submission. Although it was scored again this third time, the score was worse, and it was apparent that I was not going to be funded by the study section I was sending the grant to. My program officer also pointed out that because I was being reviewed with R01s, but I had half the space with my R21 to explain and justify my scientific premise and decisions. I rewrote it as an R01, and tailored it for a new study section. I submitted it in 2017. It scored well at the new study section, so I revised and resubmitted it. It scored even better, and was finally in the fundable range for a new investigator, which at NIH is someone who has never held an R01. After about three and half years, and 5 submissions, I finally got funded! We are getting ready to go in the field, and the study is called the National Couples’ Health and Time Study (NCHAT).

History of Submissions and Award

Submission Date

Mech-anism Revision Grant Title Study Section Score Percentile

Summary Statement Quote

2/19/2015 R21 Pilot Study for the National Study of Family Dynamics SSPB 46 38 The reviewers agreed that this is a highly significant area of research but that the weaknesses in the approach reduce the overall impact of the project to a moderate level.
11/16/2015 R21 Yes Pilot Study for the National Study of Family Dynamics SSPB 33 27 Overall, the majority of the panel agreed the significance of improving research on same-sex families outweighs any minor weaknesses, and the project will have a high impact on fields of sociology and research methods.
6/9/2016 R21 Pilot Study for the National Study of Family Dynamics SSPB 50 50 Overall, in balancing the strengths of the significance with weaknesses in the approach, the panel agreed the project will have a moderate impact on family demography.
2/6/2017 R01 Mechanisms Underlying Sexual Minority Health Disparities in the United States HDEP 36 24 Overall, the majority of reviewers concurred that the significant application has potential for moderate scientific impact on the field.
11/6/2017 R01 Yes Mechanisms Underlying Sexual Minority Health Disparities in the United States HDEP 24 10 Overall, the reviewers agreed that the findings of this application are likely to have a high impact on the understanding of dyadic minority stress processes to address health disparities among sexual and gender minority populations. Awarded: September 14, 2018

Work and Family Life 2020 Study (WAFLS)

While I was submitting and working on the NCHAT R01, I had a second project I was also trying to get funded. In 1980, a group of researchers at the University of Nebraska (Alan Booth, Lynn White, David Johnson, John Edwards) collected data on about 2000 married individuals in the US. In 2000, Alan and David, who were now at Penn State, and their colleagues Paul Amato (who chaired my dissertation) and Stacey Rogers, collected data on a new cohort of about 2000 married individuals. Given all the speculation by academics and the media about how marriage has changed over time, I had the idea to collect data on a new cohort in 2020, and this time, because same-gender marriage is now legal, to collect data on same-gender marriage as well. Without going into too many details, I first submitted to the National Science Foundation’s Sociology Directorate in 2016. I was told the cost was too high for NSF. So, I switched to NIH. Even though I put it as my third choice, I was assigned to the same study section that had not funded NCHAT. I wish I had reached out to my program officer at the time about switching study sections, but I did not. The grant was not discussed which means that it did not score in the top 50% of applications. I did a bit of searching, and found a study section that I thought might fit well, re-framed the grant for this study section, and resubmitted. It was not discussed again. I was demoralized, but my other R01 had just been funded, so I decided to take a chance and re-submit it. This was the grant’s last chance because it would not be awarded until 2019, and data collection needed to start in 2020. The resubmission got a score of 20 and a 4%, my best scoring and percentile ever! Thus, three years after it’s first submission, this grant was just awarded as well.

History of Submissions and Award

National Science Foundation

Submission Date Division Grant Title Program Reviewer Ratings Program Officer Notes
8/15/2016 Social and Economic Sciences Work & Family Life Study 2020 Cohort: Examining Change in Marital Functioning among Different-Sex Spouses over 40 Years, and Benchmarking Marital Functioning among Same-Sex Spouses Sociology Good, Very Good, Good Despite the value of such a survey, particularly as it relates to family life and same-sex marriage, the reviewers agreed that the cost of the project was out of reach for NSF. At the end of its deliberations, the Sociology Advisory Panel recommends that this proposal be declined.

National Institutes of Health – National Institute on Aging

Submission Date Mech-anism Revision Grant Title Study Section Score Percentile Summary Statement Quote
6/5/2017 R01 A Life Course Examination of Marital Functioning and Health among Individuals in Same and Different-Sex Marriages SSPB Not discussed
2/1/2018 R01 The All-or-Nothing Marriage? Marital Functioning and Health Among Individuals in Same and Different-Gender Marriages SPIP Not discussed
11/5/2018 R01  Yes The All-or-Nothing Marriage? Marital Functioning and Health Among Individuals in Same and Different-Gender Marriages SPIP 20 4 Following the discussion, the panel agreed that the application’s high significance and numerous strengths resulted in a study with a high potential impact on the field of close relationships and health.
Awarded: August 15, 2019

“If you aren’t getting rejected on a regular basis, you aren’t taking enough risks”
– Audra Teel and Erica Robeen (my sisters)

My sister Erica Robeen told me this quote, which she attributed to my sister Audra Teel. These rejections were not easy. Sometimes when I am feeling really demoralized I lay on the floor in my office in my shame spiral for about 5 minutes then get up and keep going, and I definitely did that after receiving some of these scores/non-scores/reviews. But I decided awhile ago to not let imposter syndrome win, and to not give up because the worst thing that could happen was rejection, and I had been there, done that. I already posted recently about how white cis-men are primarily in charge of our nation’s biomedical and social science health research agenda, and I think it is because they are more likely to attribute bad reviews to external factors, and just keep submitting, whereas women, persons who are not cis-men, and persons of color are more likely to attribute it to some kind of internal factor. I hope my experience can give everyone who has doubts about their abilities some hope. I will also mention that throughout this process, I went to lots of grant writing trainings, followed grant writing advice, had my grants reviewed by professional grant writers (David Morrison), colleagues who were external to Ohio State (Laura Argys and Robert Pollak), colleagues who were at Ohio State (Dean Lillard, Natasha Slesnick, and Ann O’Connell), my co-investigators and consultants on the various grants (Wendy Manning, Gary Gates, Hui Zheng, JaNelle Ricks, Corinne Reczek, Miles Taylor, Ben Kail, Tonda Hughes), and grad students and colleagues in writing groups or college-sponsored grant writing groups. I also had help from the Institute for Population Research’s grantswoman extraordinaire Jill Morris, who handled all the uploading and budgets, and read over everything for me for all of these submissions, plus more not listed here. I kept her busy for a lot of years, but she never complained once! Some of these activities costed money and some individuals were paid for their services, and these monies came from either myself or my college. I also want to say that both grants improved immensely throughout the revision process. What was funded was much better than what I first submitted, the comments from the study section reviewers made both studies much much better and I am grateful for their time.

I am now going up for full professor, and in preparing my dossier, I realized that I submitted 12 proposals between 2014 and now that were not funded, and two that were. Getting rejected on a regular basis paid off for me. Maybe it will for you too?

Health and Social Science for All

Recently, I have been reflecting on the state of health and social science in the US.

How competitive is it to get an NIH grant?

The number of submissions to the National Institutes of Health has grown continually over the past 20+ years; in 2018, NIH received more than 55,000 grant applications, of which about 20% were funded, though the success rate varies by NIH institute.

Graph showing upward trend in number of grant submissions, and downward trend in funding rates.

Retrieved from: https://report.nih.gov/nihdatabook/report/20

Who is actually receiving grants?

NIH’s Data Book makes it easy to see the breakdown of grant awardees by gender.

Thus, about 70% of R01-equivalent (NIH’s main grant mechanism for large research projects) are awarded to men. I tried to find the numbers broken down by race/ethnicity in NIH’s Data Book, but the numbers were not available. Nikaj, Roychowdhury, Lund, Matthews, and Pearson (2018) examined R01 grant awards between 2009 and 2016. They found that less than 5% of awardees identified as underrepresented race or ethnic minorities.

Early stage investigator = 10 years or less from terminal degree; New investigator = never been awarded an R01; Experienced investigator = has held an R01. Underrepresented Minority = investigators who identified as African American/Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Data source: Nikaj, Roychowdhury, Lund, Matthews, & Pearson, FASEB Journal, 2018. doi: https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.201800639

Thus, the majority of NIH-funded biomedical, health, and social science research grants are awarded to men who are non-underrepresented; or primarily white men. That is, the nation’s NIH funded research agenda is being primarily driven by white men.

Why does the lack of diversity matter?

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