Lessons from a study section

First, some news: I was told last week that my promotion to full professor was unanimously approved by the faculty council (yay, me)!!! The promotion still has to be approved by the dean, but it seems likely. It felt really nice in itself as a validation of years of work…but also, my Division chief told me that my letters of support were glowing, and that meant a lot because the people who wrote those letters were leaders in my field. As I told my chief, their glowing letters said as much about them as people as about me, but still it felt good. Celebrations have been made, champagne has been drunk. I have to watch it though…a good friend has noted that I already have increased the pompous greybeard pontificating. So, apologies in advance if I come across a little preachy, but here we go.


I just finished two days of conference calls as an ad hoc reviewer for a Department of Defense cancer grant program, and the experience was, as always, eye-opening. Our job was to screen hundreds of preliminary applications to see who would get an invitation to submit a full application. These preliminary applications were short: two pages of science, two pages of biosketch, and a page of statements regarding the relevance to the military population. Shorter than a full application, sure, but there were so many of them…my pile alone consisted of 85 applications. It is often said that being involved with the grant review process is important for young faculty to understand how the process works, and I couldn’t agree more. Even experienced scientists fell into holes–they received bad scores for reasons that seemed avoidable. Based on actual fails, here are my take-aways:

Take the career development plan seriously. This kills me a little inside, because this is grantsmanship pure and simple. There is a nugget of honest concern for the trainee and how they are being mentored and supported, and this needs to come across in the application. We screened a number of career development awards, and many grants were dinged because the Career Development Plan section was not sufficiently detailed or seriously considered. It doesn’t fly to spend a paragraph saying basically that your “career development” consists of working in the lab. A list of faculty for a mentorship committee and a schedule for meeting with them. A list of didactic courses that you will take. Defined journal clubs and lab meeting times. These are the elements of a serious career development plan.

Several applicants listed mentors at another institution. While this is not formally a problem, several reviewers, including myself brought this up as a concern. Sure with technology, mentorship can occur long distance, and if this is the case, spell this out in detail. Otherwise, identify a mentor at your own institution.

Educate yourself on clinical needs. There were two grants I crushed because while the cell biology was strong, it was clear that the PI had serious lack of understanding of the disease that they claimed their research was poised to benefit. As an MD that does basic science research, I’ve taken pains to establish my basic lab bona fides, and I’m sorry, but it was too painful to read interpretations of current clinical care that were frankly mistaken. Please please please discuss your grant with someone that is familiar with the disease you are addressing.
Two sections asked applicants to explain how their research would benefit military personnel and/or their families. Many grants were received devastating scores simply because applicants failed to address military benefit specifically.

Clarity is king. Don’t make your reviewers work to understand you. Not only do your reviewers have to read and understand your grant, they have to turn around and explain it to the larger group. Help them. Clarity is an art, sure, so if you are unsure, have other PIs read your grant. You don’t have to “keep it simple,” in fact, I would argue against 100% simple…in my opinion, a great grants, or any science presentation, starts simple, and end simple, but reveals complexity (reality) in the middle.

Keep applying.  Let me say what others might be reluctant to:  the process is fallible and there is no question that some applications get dinged by “bad luck.” We like to pretend that grants are reviewed objectively and that the scores represent some kind of God’s-eye evaluation of its merits, but who gets assigned to read your application, how rushed they were in reading it, and whether the grant is discussed early or late in the day all make an impact. There is a reviewer spectrum sweet spot–too little knowledge of the topic area and the reviewer can’t really appreciate it, or advocate for it to the panel. To close a working knowledge of the area, and small problems can become a topic of extended discussion, something that nearly always drags down scores.

The cold truth is that reviewers are looking for any excuse to destroy your grant. Some may seize on the randomness in the system to call the entire grant process a crap-shoot, but it’s not true. Yes, the competition is fierce. Reviewers want to like your grant, but you have to help them. You will be punished if you don’t take each and every section of the proposal seriously. Your application has to be flawless.

Next time: hints on how to write a flawless proposal.