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Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding. Link to Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding.Link to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.Link to Part 3. Write Your Application.Link to Part 4. Submit Your Application.Link to Part 5. Assignment and Review.Link to Part 6. If Not Funded.Link to Part 7. Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Strategy to Assess Your Options   ·   Options if Your Application Isn't FundedNext page in Strategy.

What to Do if You Get Bad News

Note: This page does not reflect NIH's revised policy for application submission. See the April 17, 2014, Guide notice.

We will update this page soon.

 

Even though most applications do not succeed on the first try, it's hard to hear bad news. Deal with the rejection before deciding what to do next.

Though your reviewers' critiques may be off the mark, you will need to accept the review for what it is and move forward. Thoroughly assess the summary statement and analyze the critiques to get a sense of whether your reviewers thought your application is worth fixing, getting help from others to make this assessment.

Know the next steps to take: deciding whether you should resubmit to a different review group and whether you should revise or start over.

Table of Contents

Just the Facts

(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)

Most applications do not succeed on the first try.

It's a fact of grant life: most applications do not succeed on the first try.

If yours is one of them, you need to first spend some time assessing what went wrong. You have two key resources: your program officer and your summary statement, though the later has limitations since it provides only part of the picture.

After that, decide next steps. There are three basic options you can pursue:

  1. Revise and resubmit.
  2. Create a new application.
  3. Repurpose the application.

This page gives you a strategy for assessing your options. To read about the options themselves, go to Options if Your Application Isn't Funded in Part 6.

Our Advice

(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)

Steel yourself for bad news, then deal with it in an effective way.

It's unfortunate, but most applications do not succeed on the first try, so steel yourself for bad news.

After getting word, you first need to deal with the rejection. In addition to being angry, you may feel that some of the criticism from the reviewers is off the mark. It may very well be.

Reviewers can be wrong. They may misinterpret, overlook, or misread what you wrote or may simply have a different viewpoint from yours. (And PIs err too—your reviewers can only review what you wrote, not what you thought.)

This may seem unfair, but in the end you have to move on: accept the review for what it is and deal with it in an effective way. Here's what would not further your cause: sending an angry letter to a study section or institute. Write the letter if it makes you feel better—just don't send it!

Before you act, take time out until you can think about the matter calmly and objectively.

Then start a thorough assessment of the issues to figure out whether to:

  • Revise and resubmit.
  • Create a new application.
  • Repurpose the application.

Since you have only one shot at resubmitting, it is critical to carefully size up the problems your reviewers raised. Delving into the nature of those issues should reveal the path that's right for you.

To get there, we've set up five stops along the route to your next application: two for an assessment and three for a decision.

Assess Peer Review Results

Before you can choose whether to revise and resubmit or start anew, you'll need to gauge how serious your application's problems are.

Assessment Stop 1: Your Summary Statement

Read your summary statement carefully and analytically to gain insight into two questions:

  • Are the application's problems fixable?
  • Was it reviewed by the right study section?

Show the summary statement to colleagues for their interpretation. To assess the type of criticism you got from your reviewers, ask the following questions:

Did the reviewers think the topic was significant? This is critical! Did your reviewers seem excited about the research topic? Try to read between the lines to get at the essence of their enthusiasm—they may not state it overtly.

Did they identify fixable problems?

  • Did your reviewers find problems you can readily fix to meet their expectations?
  • Did they misunderstand some points that you could easily clarify?
  • Did they have major conceptual issues, for example, the research was not state-of-the-art, or the experiments you proposed would not prove your hypothesis?

Did they seem to be the right reviewers? Did their world view seem to match yours or was it radically different? Did you get the sense that no matter what you wrote they wouldn't have appreciated it?

Summary Statements Are No Panacea

Not to minimize this critical step, but be aware of your summary statement's limitations for assessing the seriousness of the problems and how to resolve them.

First, if overall enthusiasm for the proposal is low, no amount of revising will help, even if you address all the points in the summary statement.

Second, once reviewers find a "fatal flaw"—for example, an unprovable hypothesis—they usually stop discussing the application to save time.

  • When the discussion stops, the reviewers' feedback ends, and you have no way of knowing what they may have found—good or bad—had they continued.
  • Because the feedback is incomplete, you can correct all the problems and still not get a fundable score when you resubmit.

Last, for your resubmission, your application may encounter different reviewers who identify their own issues.

Assessment Stop 2: Your Program Officer

Now that you've thoroughly combed through your summary statement, it's time to contact your program officer.

First ask about your chances of special funding. We fund a handful of applications that score above the payline through special actions. Your program officer will discuss with you what, if anything, you are expected to do next.

If you are on the list for special funding later in the fiscal year, our best advice is to revise and resubmit your application as soon as possible. Be sure to read Revise, Don't Wait for Later Funding in Timing Factors That Affect Your Application and Award.

Unless you are going to be funded imminently, look to your program officer to help you understand your summary statement and possibly give you more insights into the review meeting. NIAID program staff often attend review meetings as observers and may be able to fill you in on more details about the discussion.

It's key to get his or her take on the level of reviewer enthusiasm for your idea and whether there were other criticisms or positive statements that didn't make it into the summary statement.

Then for a broader field of advice, reach out to senior colleagues, mentors, or other investigators at your institution. Get their take on the reviewers' critiques in the summary statement and advice on how to proceed.

How to Decide on Next Steps

If they could not appreciate your scientific area or understand what you were proposing, maybe your application was assigned to the wrong study section.

After carefully reviewing your summary statement and checking in with your program officer, you should have a better sense of what to do next. If not, the following "decisions stops" may help.

Decision Stop 1: Were They the Right Reviewers?

In most cases, it is advantageous to revise and resubmit your application and request assignment to the same study section—if it had the right people to review the application.

If they could not appreciate your scientific area or understand what you were proposing, maybe your application was assigned to the wrong study section.

To figure that out, ask the following:

  • Did the reviewers' expertise fit your topic?
  • Were they knowledgeable about your methods?
  • Did they understand the rationale for your research?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, the study section may have been inappropriate—just one caveat here, keep in mind that in most cases the problem is the application, not the reviewers!

Check out the expertise of the people listed on the roster attached to your summary statement before deciding. And get input from your colleagues and your program officer.

If reviewers found deal-breaking flaws such as an unexciting topic, no amount of revising will help.

Decision Stop 2: Is It Worth Fixing?

If you decided that the right people reviewed your application, your next challenge is to figure out whether you can resolve the problems your reviewers identified in the summary statement.

If reviewers found deal-breaking flaws such as an unexciting topic, no amount of revising will help.

On the other hand, an application that piqued reviewers interest gives you a solid foundation to build on, even if it has some warts. Ask brutally honest colleagues, grad students, and your program officer to help assess the reviewers' level of interest in your idea and whether they feel you can resolve the problems.

Surprisingly, it may be a good sign if reviewers pointed to lots of fixable problems. This may show they are interested in the research and feel the application is worth revising.

If your application was streamlined. Because applications that are streamlined don't benefit from a full review, it's much harder to get a sense of the reviewers' appraisal of their merit.

Some may not have been discussed because the pool contained too many outstanding applications, including resubmissions, which already addressed the study section's concerns.

Your application may be worth revising even if it was streamlined.

Use the feedback from the reviewer critiques to figure out what areas they felt had problems, and follow our advice above to determine your best course of action.

Common Fixable Problems

Many people succeed after revising and resubmitting because they can address the problems identified in the summary statement.

Here are examples of fixable problems.

Problem: Poor writing, formatting, or presentation.
Solution: Rewrite; get help with writing, editing, formatting, and presentation.

Problem: Insufficient information, experimental details, or preliminary data.
Solution: Assess what's missing; add it to the Research Plan.

Problem: Significance not convincingly stated.
Solution: Beef up that section; show the importance to NIAID's mission, your area of science, and public health.

Problem: Research not shown to be feasible by the proposed staff.
Solution: Recruit collaborators and consultants with the required expertise onto your project.

Problem: Insufficient discussion of obstacles and alternative approaches.
Solution: Describe what you'll do if you get negative results or an approach doesn't pan out. Include decision trees.

Hard-to-Fix Problems

Don't waste your time revising an application that has inherently unfixable problems.

The following problems are either not fixable or nearly impossible to correct.

  • Low-impact research topic.
  • Philosophical issues, e.g., the reviewers do not think the work is important.
  • Hypothesis is not sound or not supported by the data.
  • Work has already been done.
  • Methods proposed were not suitable for testing the hypothesis.

If you encounter such problems, it's best to start over with a new topic.

Paradoxically, faint praise can be a worse sign than abundant criticism. You should be concerned if reviewers had no major criticisms of your application, but it fared poorly in peer review.

Often this means reviewers were not excited about your idea. They may not state this explicitly, mostly out of politeness. Same for your program officer.

Try to get honest feedback from coworkers or mentors, and don't shoot the messenger. It's better to find out at this stage than to keep trying with a doomed idea. If a low-impact or dull topic was the problem, revising won't help. Learn more about choosing a project in Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.

Decision Stop 3: Which Strategy Suits the Problem?

Once you've determined whether you can address the issues, pick one of the four options listed below.

For problems you can fix, revise the application and either:

  • Resubmit and request assignment to the same study section.
  • Resubmit and request assignment to a different study section.

For problems you can't resolve, do one of the following:

  • Create a new application.
  • Look for funding outside NIH.

Read more in Options if Your Application Isn't Funded in Part 6.

Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Strategy to Assess Your Options   ·   Options if Your Application Isn't FundedNext page in Strategy.

See the other sections of
Part 6. If Not Funded

Table of Contents for the Strategy

We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email deaweb@niaid.nih.gov.

Last Updated April 17, 2014

Last Reviewed December 01, 2011