Friday, February 9, 2018

Is the resilience the name of the game in academia? Part 2. The Aftermath.

Is resilience the name of the game in academia? was the title of a very popular post from last year which opened a wide discussion on how much can one suffer through federal grant applications before they are deemed worthy, and whether the tenure track process is a pyramid scheme.

A couple of weeks ago I was working on my 7th consecutive NIH application and doing the obligatory chat with the NIH Program Officer who could take it in his portfolio. After the discussion he said "I looked up your application record. You are doing exactly what you are supposed to do. Keep going!" I was on the phone so I could roll my eyes. I thought "If someone tells me to keep going one more time, I'm going to to lose it." But what else can you do?

So, I kept going, through the emotional turmoil of working on application #7 while #6 was being reviewed (the NIH running wheel). As I was checking on eRA Commons that the new application was OK, the score for #6 came in...5.0 percentile...Wait. What?! I had to do a double take and make sure it was 5 and not 50. Single digit %. I broke down in tears. The score is well within the pay line and doesn't require any New Investigator bump or special treatment. My PO replied to my email with "Congratulations!"

I am happy, but the tension from running on the wheel for 3 years started dropping and I mostly feel so so tired. The enormity of what happened has still not entirely hit me. The possibilities, the change in focus for a lab that has been just pushing to get one more piece of preliminary/feasibility data, not being afraid that I could not keep the lab alive for more than 6 months...

I started thinking of what I learned from all this and what I could tell others in the same situation I was in. So here it goes.

1) Accept coaching. I remember reading this New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande about always needing a coach to truly become great. Coaching is more than mentoring. A coach identifies your weak spots and tells you how to improve, pushing you beyond what your comfort zone. Seek the people who will look at your grants and your writing and who will rip them open. Anyone who says "This is great" is not helping you. A coach is also someone who knows how to point you in the right direction. Reading my good grant some of my senior mentors said "You finally cracked the language you need to use for the NIH". Yet, they had not been able to tell me how to do it in previous applications and I had to look for professional grant coaching with Peg AtKisson @iGrrrl. So in a society where everyone needs to be praised, actively seek criticism and embrace it. Look for the people who really give you their honest feedback either gratis or for a fee.

2) Take all advice with a grain of salt. Ah, here I'm going to mess with you. You should take coaching and mentoring, but even the best coaches make mistakes. Your ideas are unique to you, as is your individual situation. You are the only one who can make the final decision on what goes into a project, a paper, and a grant proposal. While you should request a lot of feedback to see how different people react to your writing, this will mean a cacophony of different opinions. It is up to you to judge what is useful and what is not. And this is by far the most difficult aspect of being a leader: sticking to your guts, your choices, and your vision. The way I look at it is that if I have to drive my career into the ground, it will be on my own terms.

3) Be nimble. Rapidly adjust to situations and events as they happen. My first R01 application didn't work out and my PO recommended I write something else to target a different study section, so I did. If you are on a short 6-yr clock like me, time is of the essence. If you take 2-3 years to beat a dead horse...or rather to try and raise a cute little foal into a race-horse, you may end up with a project that is still not quite there. If you are in a place where you need two R01s for tenure, forget it! Some if the advice I got was to have multiple projects cooking and also figure out how to constantly repackage a proposal for different funding sources. That's what I call "application Tetris", where you can take one aim from here, one from there and voila', you have a new grant proposal! There is no single way to do things, mostly because you never know what is going to be a hit with reviewers.

4) Keep going! You know this was coming. Resilience is the name of the game. I have often wondered about how to keep going. This job has the ability to drag me back in on the exact moment I am ready to give up. You have probably heard many stories of people who were ready to quit and then everything turned out. I think there is an element in there of your colleagues throwing you a bone. Sometimes study sections appear to be like air-traffic control for young investigators: there are so many in the air, that they want to make sure you are running out of fuel before they let you land and refill. Maybe there is clarity that comes when you are truly desperate that makes you write your best proposals. I don't know.

The last think I can say is 5) Take care of yourself. Nothing is worth your health and well-being. I wish I practiced what I preach, but I'm working on it 😉