ambition, in grant-writing (archived from LabSpaces)

Dec 05 2010 Published by under tenure-track OTJT

originally posted 1 Sept 2010

When I was writing my first postdoc fellowship, Dr. Advisor told me that there were 2 rules of grant-writing*:
1. use a lot of if-then statements
2. don't be too ambitious.

I took this to mean that I should not propose to do more in the grant than could happen in the 3 years of the award. So I made sure that my proposed experiments were totally reasonable**. But then I get my summary statements and I see the phrase "overly ambitious". Dr. Advisor immediately translated this to "you are fucked". But my score was pretty good and I was funded. Whew! Fast forward to my K99, I also saw the scary "overly ambitious" phrase in my summary statements. In fact, this is held up as the major flaw of my application. Again, I was told that I was screwed***. But, my score was really good and I got funded. Yippeeee!

This is the problem: In both of those applications I thought I was being conservative. I actively tried to avoid being plainly "ambitious" feeling sure that this would prevent me from the "overly" in that phrase. I was actually a little concerned that I was not ambitious enough. My final K99 application ended up being only 1 Aim from the original outline, fer crissake. In both cases, FAIL!

I clearly do not understand what makes an ambitious project.

Fast forward again to this summer when I start setting up my own lab. I write a small application for a pilot grant. The amount of cash is enough for a ~70% of a person-year and a few supplies. I feel like it is a nice little project, sure to generate some prelim data for a bigger grant. I write a project that I think 1 person (me) could do in a year. I'm a little concerned about being "overly ambitious" but it is ridiculous to trim the project any more. I get the reviews back (NIH format). And the verdict is:

(wait for it...)

I could be more ambitious. WTF?!?? This sort of blows my mind. But, they decide to give me the cash so I'm OK with it.

The moral of the story (for me) is that I desperately need to learn about ambition. What is it? How do I know if I have it? When do I have too much?

I feel like this will be an important lesson, for my own grant-writing, and also my future students. If I can't advise them on what is a normal, reasonable project they will get screwed. And I *heart* my future students and don't want to see them screwed.


*Dr. Advisor was NOT an excellent example for grantsmanship, but that didn't stop the advice!
**My idea of reasonable is never even close. I routinely spend 3x longer to get shit done than I anticipate. Everything is always more involved than I feel it should be. Why won't the universe just stop fucking with me? I have no idea.
***Why did Dr. Advisor always toy with my emotions? Was it a game, or an attempt to moderate my expectations?

NOTE ADDED IN PROOF: I realize now that this post makes it look like I am batting 1.000 when it comes to grant-writing. Not True! I did not mention the many (and there were MANY) fellowship and grant applications I wrote that were not funded.

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