Get Rejected on a Regular Basis

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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

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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:

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:

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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Professional Organizations: Why You Should Join Them, How to Get the Most Out of Their Meetings, and How to Avoid Going Broke Doing So

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Professional organizations and their meetings are one of the best parts of academic life. You get access to important professional resources and networks. Conferences are in fun locations – some of my favorites have been Melbourne, San Diego, New Orleans, Lausanne – and once there, you get to hang out with a bunch of people who also nerd out on good research. But, professional organizations and conferences can also feel overwhelming and mysterious to new graduate students.

Why join a professional organization?

The big question is – why join an organization in the first place? They are expensive to join, and once you graduate, they are even more expensive to maintain membership. But, they do offer a host of benefits.

Me, Kelly Musick, and Tasha Snyder on the Lavaux Vineyard walking tour outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. We were attending the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies conference.

Me, Kelly Musick, and Tasha Snyder on the Lavaux Vineyard walking tour outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. We were attending the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies conference. Kara Joyner was behind the camera.


Professional organizations often sponsor journals. You will have access to the journal through your membership, and often can even get print copies of journals if you prefer. But, you can probably get the journal through your institutions library, at least at most universities with graduate programs. You also get access to other professional resources, such as the mentoring program that the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) offers. Junior scholars are paired with more senior scholars, and these senior scholars offer advice, networking opportunities, and support. Many organizations have teaching resources available, and others have professional development resources, such as example conference submissions.

Some organizations have member profiles on their websites. The Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) has a database of members that reporters can search for experts related to their reporting. The listserves maintained by professional organizations are also very useful. They are used for disseminating information such as job opportunities and as recruitment tools for studies. Some disseminate teaching resources or media articles related to the organization’s topical focus.

Most departments post their job ads to professional organization websites as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is much easier to find jobs that are related to HDFS on the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) website that to try to search the massive Chronicle database.

Finally, organizations often publish newsletters with useful articles and updates on issues of relevance to the organization, such as the funding situation at NIH or a policy brief that was recently published. You do not always need to be a member to receive these emails, so check the organization’s website to see if you can sign up for the emails even before you are a member.

New research ideas

Professional organizations, particularly through their meetings, can spark new research ideas. Consuming the latest research at conferences can help you identify exciting trends coming in the field before they even appear in the journal.  You might learn about a dataset that is publicly available that you did not know existed. You might come up with a novel research idea that you hadn’t previously thought of upon hearing a question at a talk. Thus, professional organizations can help you push your research forward.

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How to Succeed in Graduate School While Really Trying

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

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We are midway through the autumn semester, and I have been reflecting on my graduate proseminar course, which is essentially an introduction to graduate school. Some programs have these types of classes, and others do not. So, in this post I give you links to articles I assign and a few tips I give to our first-year graduate students. The articles and tips are designed to tell students those things which faculty generally assume students know, as well as give them suggestions on how to succeed in graduate school. What would you add to my list?

How do I take a graduate class? How do I know what classes to take?

Claire’s Tips for registering for courses:

  • Talk with your advisor. Talk with your advisor about which courses you should take each semester. They may have specific courses they want you to take, or they may know about a specific seminar being offered that would teach you a specialized skill or knowledge set.
  • Email the professor. You may not be able to tell from the title of a course what the course topic will be. If you see a faculty member is teaching a seminar, email them for a course description and/or syllabus. Even if the syllabus is not ready, they will be able to share with you the topic for the seminar. Then, you can decide whether or not to take the seminar.
  • Take seminars when they are offered. Faculty often rarely have the opportunity to teach graduate seminars. Thus, if you are interested in a seminar in a specific topic, such as attachment, it may not be offered again for two or more years. Thus, it is smarter to take the seminar when it is offered and delay a required course, because you may not have the opportunity to take the seminar the following year.
  • Make it count. Choose your electives wisely. For example, try to take electives related to your research interests. You may be able to write a paper for these courses that are related to your research interests and will thus lead you closer to a publication or help you prepare for candidacy. Further, if you are planning to do a minor or specialization, you should look for electives that will count towards the requirements for the specialization.
  • Explore other departments. HDFS is interdisciplinary, and our students often take coursework outside of the department. If you cannot find an elective you are interested in taking in the HDFS course offerings, you might explore electives in Psychology, Sociology, Economics, or Communication.
  • Register for independent studies and thesis credits. Do not forget to register for independent study and thesis credits! By adding these credits to your load, you will free up time from coursework to focus on your research.
  • Make sure you take the minimum number of credits needed to be a full-time student.

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