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?

How to Succeed in College

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Dear students,

The science of learning has identified many study strategies that can increase retention and comprehension, yet most college professors rarely talk about these strategies. Below I cover four topics: efficient study skills, accountability structures, distraction blockers, and additional tips. If you apply these strategies to every college course you take, and your life in general, the good news is that you will get better grades and improve your overall success in college, and the even better news is that it will probably take you less time than your current strategies and will improve your well-being.

Efficient Study Skills

The single worst way to remember something is to read it. That is, the single worst way to study is to read your notes. If you want to remember something, you have to practice remembering it. The first study strategy I am going to suggest to you is retrieval. In cognitive science, the retrieval effect suggests that if you want to remember or retrieve something from your memory, you have to PRACTICE remembering or retrieving it from you memory! If you do not practice retrieving it, then why do you expect to be able to retrieve the information on your exam, or, later in life, as most college professors would like you to do as you apply the concepts from your coursework to the real world. In fact, according to science, the more times you have to remember something, the more likely you are to remember it in the future. Thus, practice retrieval.

Try making flashcards, using resources from your textbook which may include flashcards, or use Quizlet or other applications or websites that allow you to create your own flashcards or games. You can try creating regular flashcards, or try a strategy I once heard an ADHD coach suggest – create a visual depiction along with the word you are trying to remember. If you are a visual learner, you may remember better with the visual cue in conjunction with the word. Have a friend quiz you – perhaps a friend you make in this class, or another friend. Take turns quizzing each other on material from your respective courses.

The second study strategy I am going to suggest to you is prediction. In an experiment, UCLA researchers found that the simple act of predicting what you are going to be taught, even if it is wrong, increases retention of material. Specifically, according to James Lang’s book Small Teaching, when you use prediction: “you are compelled to search around for any possible information you might have that could relate to the subject matter and help you make a plausible prediction. That search activates prior knowledge you have about the subject matter and prepares your brain to slot the answer, when you receive it, into a more richly connected network of facts.” (p. 49). If you want a better grade in your courses, try predicting what you think you will learn in a reading, in a lecture, or in a video or podcast before you consume the material. Specifically, try reading the title of a chapter or video. What do you think it is going to be about? What do you think will be the four main points? Read the chapter or watch the video. Were you right? Even better, go back and correct your answers. This strategy will help you retain the material for the exams, and even later in life.

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Accountability Group

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As many of my readers know, and for that matter, anyone who talks to me knows, I am an avid consumer of productivity tips, from blog posts to books. As the mother of four boys ages 5 to 15, married to a full-time employed co-parent, I am super busy all the time. And, I also love to not work and have fun with my family and friends. So, when I am at work, I need to get things done. This can be a problem because I also love to waste time reading news websites, online shopping, engaging on social media, etcetera. I use a ton of productivity strategies (see this post for some of them) to try to create accountability around getting the things done that will advance my career. For me, that is getting my grants and publications written, revised, and submitted.

Stream in the woods

The view on a walk during my 2016 InkWell writing retreat.

One of my favorite tips for productivity came from Michelle Boyd of InkWell writing retreats. I went on one of Michelle’s amazing retreats in 2016 (cannot recommend her enough), and one of the best parts of retreating was my half hour I spent with Michelle each day. We talked about my writing struggles, and she mentioned that one strategy that really helped her get her writing done was her accountability group. I started an accountability group in the Fall of 2016 with three fellow faculty members, two assistant professors and another associate professor like myself. We are in three different departments in three different colleges at Ohio State. We meet for one hour, strict, every week (one member is a “timekeeper”). This group has helped me become more productive, and has given me peer mentoring and support through some of the most trying times of my career. I cannot recommend forming your own accountability group enough.

At the first meeting of the semester, we discuss some overarching goals we have for the semester and set goals for the next week. Then, each week, we meet and discuss whether we met our goals or not. One member is a “secretary”, and they will remind you what your goals were. If you met your goal, you get a gold star (one member is a “goalkeeper”). If you almost met it, you get a silver star. If you do not meet your goal, you get a blue star. After three blues, we might have an intervention and brainstorm ways to get back on track, or provide social support, or encourage you to be gentle with yourself because you are going through a lot and you have unrealistic expectations, whatever seems right for the moment. One of my fellow accountability group members mentioned that she met a colleague who has her own accountability group at a conference. Their group throws in $5 every time they do not meet their goal, and then they use the money to share a meal at the end of the semester. I think this is a great idea! My group might try this next year. I find that I really want to get a gold star, and I try hard to meet my goals. Thus, I prioritize those things that I set goals for, and I would say that most weeks, I get silver or gold. What I love about the group is that my accountability group creates something to bug me to get my most important work done. My students will email me, journal editors will email me for reviews, but NIH doesn’t email me to find out when I am submitting my grant. My accountability group will ask me though, and keep me answerable to my goals.

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Dual-earner couples share the housework equally – until the first baby comes

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Claire Kamp Dush, The Ohio State University

As a tenured professor and mother of four young sons, I am constantly asked, “How do you do it?” What people mean is: “How can you have a full-time job and still manage child care and housework?”

I usually respond, “High-quality husband and high-quality child care, in that order.” From the outset, my husband, a full-time, clinical pharmacist, has been a committed partner in caring for our house and raising our children.

But I’ve learned that, with our equal division of housework and child care, he’s an outlier. There may be some like him, but our research group at The Ohio State University recently discovered that such husbands in dual-earner households are, indeed, rare.

Unequal workloads

In our new study of 182 dual-earner couples who became parents for the first time, we found that fathers generally did less work around the home after their baby was born, and also became less involved in childcare than mothers. This was surprising given that both parents worked at their jobs about the same amount of hours.

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Where should I submit my paper?

I wish we could get credit for publishing in these kind of journals. photo credit: yelahneb via photopin cc

I wish we could get credit for publishing in these kind of journals. photo credit: yelahneb via photopin cc

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When you are in an interdisciplinary department, deciding where to submit your paper is fun, and confusing. I already told you about the time my student and I rewrote a paper we had rejected from Demography for the Journal of Family Psychology (it was accepted). But, how do you decide which journal to submit to? What factors do you consider?  My student Sara Sandberg-Thoma have been working on a paper and discussing where to submit it, which is where the idea for this blog came from. Sara and I came up with the following tips on how to decide where to submit your paper

  1. Where are the papers you are citing published? The paper Sara and I are working on could be submitted to several journals – it crosses a few disciplines. As we were reading the paper out loud, I noticed Sara was citing a paper in a journal we hadn’t discussed that I really like – Social Science & Medicine. I suggested we submit the paper there.
  2. What is the turn-around that you want? Sara is going on the job market soon, so we wanted to submit the paper to a journal with a pretty quick turn-around time. I also considered turn-around time when I was on the tenure track – I didn’t want my paper languishing for months. I would rather get a quick reject and move on to the next journal. Social Science & Medicine, the journal we decided on, has a pretty quick turn-around time, so we thought the paper could potentially be in press before she went on the market.
  3. Where else have you published? Other journals in our field have pretty quick turn-around times – Journal of Marriage and Family (JMF), Family Relations (FR), Journal of Family Psychology (JFP) – but Sara already has two first-authored papers in JMF, so we decided to go for Social Science & Medicine because she hadn’t published there before.  I don’t think it is a good idea to have most of your papers in the same journal, though JMF is awesome, so she has a good problem.
  4. How good is the paper? I think Sara’s paper is really good, so I think she should be able to get it in a high-impact factor journal. You will sometimes hear academics talk about top-tier, second-tier, and third-tier journals. So, before Sara submitted to FR, a journal I love but that is probably second tier, I thought we should try a higher-tier journal first. Again, since she had two papers in JMF, I thought we should go for a different journal with a high impact factor – again a deciding factor for Social Science & Medicine.
  5. Who do you want to read your paper? Another factor to consider is who you want to read your paper. Would you like psychologists to read it? Maybe you should go for JFP or a psych journal. Do you want sociologists to read it? Maybe you should go for Social Forces or Journal of Health and Social Behavior. This is also important in considering who will review your paper. In my post about the demography paper that ended up in JFP, I discussed how to write your paper for different audiences. Consider your audience before you submit. Skim a few other papers in the journal. This will give you a sense of the flavor of the journal, and you can adjust your paper accordingly.
  6. What do other people think? Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and I have a writing group with our grad students, and we always get feedback from this group. Do you think this paper is good enough for JMF? What kind of reception do you think it will get at JFP? Advice from others can really help, and can also help you see flaws in the paper that you can fix before you submit. Just don’t wait around too long for the advice! I have a colleague who is constantly seeking advice from several people, and his/her papers never get submitted, thus his/her CV is lacking – not a good situation to be in when on the tenure track. So, get some advice, then submit it!
  7. When should I shoot high? If you already have some really great publications, like Sara does, she can afford to get rejected from a high-impact journal first, then resubmit to a lower impact journal. The extra time it will take to be rejected from the higher-impact journal shouldn’t hurt her if she resubmits to a quicker turn-around lower-impact journal. However, if she had fewer publications and she was going on the job market soon, I might suggest she try for a lower impact journal that would be unlikely to reject her paper, especially if it had a quick turn-around. But, she has some wiggle room give her current publication record, so I think she can afford the risk of rejection and shoot for a higher-tier journal. So, if you have already been productive for the point at which you are in your career, then shoot high. Or, if you have tenure, why not try to submit that paper to Child Development or American Sociological Review. You can take the risk.

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Kill Your Darlings (or Kill Your “Research has found that”s)


photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc

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When I took our university’s Course Design Institute [which I highly recommend], I learned to think about my teaching in a new way.  One of the first questions I was asked was “What do your student need to know to move from novice to expert?” As we reflected on this question, we were supposed to think over what our students needed to know that were content-related and skill-related.  I was designing my research methods course at the time, so I reflected on what my students would need to know to successfully conduct research not only from a content standpoint, but also from a skill standpoint. The most important skill that I could think of was writing well. A researcher can be phenomenal, but if she or he cannot clearly explain their research, she or he will not be successful.

Writing is a particularly salient skill for me because when I first started submitting my papers, I regularly received negative feedback on my writing. My pattern of thinking then, which I think is common to many young scientists, was that if I do high-quality, methodologically sophisticated research, reviewers will see the value in my research and will react favorably.  Papers from scholars with this mindset tend to have longer result sections and shorter literature reviews. What I quickly learned in submitting my research was that nothing could replace good writing.  Reviewers do not like to read poorly written work, even if the data and methods are good. So, I would get comments from reviewers that commented on the poor quality of my writing and typos. I was tired of these comments, and the possibility that my papers were being penalized because of them.

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Work and family and “one night a week”

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I know there has been a lot written about academia and work-life balance – this recent post in Inside Higher Ed tries to get at why academics work so much. In general, the meme about academics working constantly doesn’t really resonate with me [I should also mention that the meme about professors never working also does not resonate with me]. College professor has been ranked as one of the best jobs in America and the least stressful, though both of these rankings have been debated. In general, I have found it possible to have work-life balance as an academic. Part of my strategy has been to try to make my time at work as productive as possible, so my time at home can be as fun and relaxing as possible.

So, my next post in my “how do I do it” series is my strategy of “one night a week”. While on the tenure track, I often found that it was difficult to find time to focus on my research and writing during the day when I was meeting with students, going to meetings, teaching, etcetera. So, I started staying at work one night a week, and working late, often until 10 or 11.  I would shut my door, order in some food, and work on my research and writing for several hours. This really worked for me, and I got a lot done. I tried not to let teaching or service creep into this time, and I would just work on analyses, coding, and writing. I should also mention that there were very few distractions after 5! Note it doesn’t always have to be at night – I have a friend who worked every Saturday morning on the tenure track.

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Writing Group

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As the mother of four (2 sons born in grad school, 2 sons born on the tenure track), people are always asking me “how do you do it?”  [Note, my husband never gets asked this question, which is a whole other blog post on gender attitudes.] My go to answer is always “high quality husband, high quality childcare”.  This is true. But, I have also been interested in productivity for a while. I have read several books on the subject, including books designed for academics like Advice for New Faculty by Robert Boice and How to Write a Lot by Paul Silva, and those designed for a general audience like Leave the Office Earlier by Laura Stack. I also participated in the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development’s Faculty Success Program with Kerry Ann Roquemore, which I really enjoyed.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook that he and his wife, who are both on the tenure track, were going to need some tips for success with multiple children.  So, my friend Dave’s comment is inspiring my next series of posts.  I am going to post a few tips that I have found have helped me be productive.  Most I have implemented in the past five years or so, and I really think they have helped up my productivity.

The first tip I want to share is on my writing group.  After reading How to Write a Lot, my colleague Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and I started a writing group with our graduate students. We started out simply; I remember that our first semester one of our tasks was to read How to Write a Lot.  We devised a schedule for the quarter (though Ohio State is now on semesters, so we now devise our schedule by semesters), and each person in the group took a week to share a piece of writing with the group. We usually distribute a draft of a paper, though sometimes it might just be an idea for a paper, or a conference proposal. Sarah and I both take turns in addition to the graduate students. The group helped boost our productivity by creating deadlines for the students, and for us.  For instance, if a student presented a paper at a conference in the fall, we would encourage the student to put the paper on our schedule to read in the spring.  This is very important because publishing is key for both tenure, and what I call the “first tenure track” – grad school.  The job market is so competitive, and to stand out at all, students need to make sure they are submitting their work for publication early and often. We found that writing group was successful and resulted in several submissions.

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