Experiences in grant application failure

I think it is just as helpful to openly discuss failures alongside successes (and not just when it comes to publishing experiments), and I think that as academics, we often hide failures and rejections to avoid presenting ourselves in less attractive ways. I’m always impressed when important people (read: Professors) openly discuss their rejected papers and grants, so this is my way of emulating them.

This week, I missed out on a Category 1 research grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC). The round I submitted for was the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA). I received my PhD approximately 4 years ago, at 24.

Before even writing and submitting this grant, researchers here at my university knew that it was going to be well-and-truly “over-subscribed”, with many of the less experienced researchers pleased with the idea of a new format for an award that was designed specifically for them. The award is worth AUD$375,000 over three years, and this budget was fixed should the submission be successful. The report tells me that 12.8% of submissions were successful, which is relatively low in comparison to other awards.

There was some concern (amongst the postdocs with whom I spoke) that the eligibility rules meant that researchers returning from several years in top overseas universities could come home and be counted as “very” early-career researchers despite having already established themselves amongst the international elite. It was certainly the case that the people around me applying for the DECRA were already advanced in their careers (high-end of Levels B and C) and the award would be only a supplement to their income already. [To be fair, I should specify that I also belong in one of these groups.]

I’ve been known to lament over the amount of wasted time spent on research grants, and indeed the burden of waste in research is one of my favourite topics to study in healthcare. In retrospect, however, I feel that the time I spent organising myself for writing the grant application was not a waste of my time for the following reasons:

  • I was able to consolidate my thoughts around what I really wanted to do in the next couple of years;
  • I was forced to update my CV and think critically about my strengths and weaknesses (and how to address them); and
  • I wrote an overview of a topic which I then butchered to form part of at least two separate papers, which were subsequently published in high-impact journals.

My grant submission was rated as Top 25%, which is not particularly high since there is at least one other category of unsuccessful submissions above that. With some luck, the next time I discuss research grants, I will be talking about how I managed to submit a successful grant instead.

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