Failing for success
Sometimes I get into a groove and since we’ve been talking about failure, I think it’s time I shared why failure isn’t the end of the story. Failure sucks, let’s be real for a second, it hurts, it’s not fun, and it feels like a very personal attack. Or at least that’s what it feels like to me. When someone rejects something I’ve written or proposed I feel like I’m being told I’m not good enough or that I don’t deserve to be a researcher, imposter syndrome is a bitch. But failure isn’t the end, it’s just somewhere in the middle.
I have probably shared this once already, but it’s worth talking about again since we’re in this line of thought. Very recently the school did a full article about me. It was the first time I’ve had a whole article dedicated to me, but I have been mentioned several times in the past. The difference is that this was a story about my success (here). Because I was awarded (or my lab was awarded) a 2-year grant for $150,000 to do some research around the project I proposed.
The grant was very competitive, only one or maybe two projects were selected and there was a pool of a few hundred proposals, so there were other options. One of the people I discussed my recent win with was someone who reviewed grants for this particular organization and reassured me that if I was awarded the science was as sound as it could be for a project like mine. I have a copy of the responses and our score, which were all great, we had a very low score (paradoxically lower is better) and they had some very good impressions of the proposal.
However, that’s the end of the story. We applied and we were awarded only tells a small portion of what actually happened. Because I’ve been trying to get my project funded for years (with an s). I’ve written several grants and different types of proposals, multiple a year, to get some sort of funding to get this project started. And with each successive failure I learned a little bit more about what I was doing wrong.
At the time it didn’t feel that way, but it’s true. Every submission, no matter how poorly written (mine weren’t that bad I’m assured), got feedback as to why it wasn’t awarded. So while it felt like I was back to square one every time a grant proposal was rejected the truth is that I was working toward something better crafted, something that would be competitive.
One of the last grant proposals I wrote prior to this funded proposal was an R21 (here). Re-reading that post reminds me of how horrible I felt when it happened and how I tried my best to ignore the weird feeling of failing yet again. You can only get so many rejections before you start to wonder if it’s you and not the science.
I stand by what I wrote in that post, the reviews weren’t bad, they just had pointed out several points that were very weak. I’ve spent years thinking about “super secret technique” or SST for short, while these people only just found out about it. They had no idea what the potential was and obviously I didn’t spell it out enough. All the reviewers agreed it was cool, but they had no idea how we would use it to do the things we said we could do with it. So there was a gap in my story, I went from SST -> ??? -> Cool science. I needed to finish that logic train so they knew how we got to the cool science part of the story.
The grant that was recently funded originally had an earlier deadline, which we missed. I tried digging out the post, but can’t find it. I’m somewhat surprised I didn’t talk about it because it was heartbreaking, but a lot of things were going on early last year, so I guess I can’t be too surprised. It’s a good thing we missed it because it got extended to the middle of August (here). It also gave me a chance to see the R21 reviews and rethink how I wanted to sell the project.
The thing is the R21 reviewers don’t see each others reviews, but they all said that same thing about not seeing how it was going to be applied. They didn’t all say it the same way, but it was basically the theme for all the responses we got, so when it came time to retool the recent grant I really drilled into it how we go from SST -> specific data analysis -> backup plans -> Cool science. Which really filled in that gap, maybe even too well I went into a lot of detail about why this would work, what we would do if it didn’t, and how even if the entire thing fails we still learn something very valuable about the state of the technology and the limitations of the equipment. If I was going to fail this time it wasn’t going to be for the same reason.
And FINALLY we were funded because I had failed so many times prior. Because failure never reset the board, it just gave us another chance to do it a little better. It’s like writing a novel (not that I’ve ever written one), you have a lot of edits before the finished product goes to print. Or so I’ve been told. The same thing applies here, each time we were rejected it gave me a chance to edit my proposal to make it clearer to the reader why SST was going to be the next big thing if it worked and how it wasn’t a total loss if it didn’t.
Had I not gotten the feedback from the R21 proposal, I firmly believe this grant would’ve been rejected and I would not be writing this right now. Mostly because of that small portion that was clear enough to me, but not clear to someone just reading about this idea. Just keep that in mind when you read about successes, because we often skip over all the failures that lead to that point in favor of celebrating the final result.
And don’t get me wrong, the result is worth celebrating, but it’s only the last step in a journey. I understand due to article length and the sake of brevity, it makes sense to keep it short and celebrate a win. However, I want to make it very clear that the win came after a half dozen losses and some heart breaking rejections.
Something to keep in mind as fellowships/grants get funded, or not. Failure is not the end, the end is when you actually get awarded.