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So You Want To Be A Scientist?

Philip A. Schwartzkroin has been a research scientist for over 35 years. Through his many years in the laboratory, he has trained and mentored numerous postdoctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students many of whom have gone on to establish successful leadership roles in their chosen areas of research. Dr. Schwartzkroin currently is Professor of Neurological Surgery at the University of California-Davis, an affiliate of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, and holds the Bronte Endowed Chair in Epilepsy Research in the UC Davis School of Medicine. His book, So You want To Be A Scientist?, provides a glimpse into the job of being a research scientist, addressing explicitly many issues that are rarely addressed directly in training programs. In the original post below we learn how to react to the rejection of a research grant application.

Are you interested in a career as a research scientist? Do you have any idea what is involved in such a career? Graduate training programs do a good job in preparing students with facts and in teaching technical laboratory skills. But there is a lot more to the job of being a researcher than simply doing experiments. And many of the needed skills are not explicitly taught.

For example: How do you get grants to support your research?

Let’s say you’ve submitted a grant application and the reviewers don’t like it – and so recommend that the granting agency not provide funding. You try again, addressing the concerns and critiques of the reviewers – but the review scores for this second application are only marginally better than in the first round. What do you do then? This conundrum is not uncommon, and the appropriate response requires perseverance, confidence, and guidance. Here are some suggestions (certainly not exhaustive) about how one might proceed:

1) Do additional experiments that provide more compelling preliminary data.

2) Ask a senior mentor to help you “read between the lines.” While you may have, in your revised application, addressed the explicit criticisms expressed in the first review, you may have missed an important implicit message. For example, reviewers often try to let you know that they simply don’t find your questions or topic very interesting – without actually saying that. It would be important to know if that were the case.

3) Get input – hopefully honest and objective – from your colleagues who do not work directly in the area of the grant application. One of the difficult tricks in getting grant support is convincing the reviewers – who are likely not to be working in your area of interest – that your ideas are important and that your experimental approach will yield significant new insights. Sometimes it’s hard for a researcher to gain sufficient distance from his/her own work to get a good sense of whether the grant application succeeds on this level.

4) Request that your application be reviewed (in the next round) by a different review panel. This alternative might be effective if you suspect there is a member of the initial review group who is “sabotaging” your application, or if you think that the group simply doesn’t have the expertise/interests to review your application appropriately.

5) Try sending the application to another granting agency that has a more direct interest in your area of study. For example, a private foundation with a particular area of concern may be more sympathetic to work on “their” topic than a large government agency that deals with applications that cover a broad range of topics.

6) Alter the focus of your proposal if you think that will provide a more effective “hook.” Such an alteration does not necessarily mean changing your proposed experiments. Rather, it may involve a change in emphasis, using different key words, reorienting the background and rationale sections of the application.

7) Forget about the experiments proposed in your application, and develop another set of studies that you think are more likely to be funded. It is important to learn when to “cut bait” and go on to something more productive. This decision is very difficult. Indeed, we scientists usually resist pressures to change our research directions. But this alternative is always important to consider.

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