Grant-induced amnesia

Sep 25 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm sure many of you have heard the fascinating but possibly dubious claim that  after a woman gives birth, her brain undergoes an evolutionarily advantageous set of changes that cause her to forget the excruciating pain of labor, lest she be deterred from future attempts at reproduction. Not having given birth myself, I cannot speak from experience with regards to the validity of  such a phenomenon. But I've been wondering recently if there genuinely isn't a similar thing going on after a person writes a grant.

The outpouring of encouragement after my last post motivated me to take another crack at the BRAINS RFA, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't struggling. I have the Aims written, and I know all the important points I want to make, sort of, but I'm having trouble getting words on paper. Like, it's in my brain, but my brain can't organize itself to form coherent thoughts.

So I look at my R21 for inspiration, and not to brag or anything, but that is a well-written grant. It's like this beautiful story about everything that's wrong with my field, and how my project will come along and fix all the things, and all my arguments are written with such conviction, you know? And I try to remember what it was like writing that grant--did the genius just flow through my fingertips and into my MacBook? Or was it a struggle like the current one is, full of much ceiling-staring, junk food eating, and typing-then-deleting, ad nauseum? 

And the truth is, I can't remember. When I think about it, I don't recall feeling nearly as frustrated and hopeless as I do now. Maybe that's because it was a simpler grant, or because I wasn't also running a lab and teaching and planning a wedding at the same time. Maybe I've lost my mojo. Or maybe I did struggle just as much--but then, sometime over the summer, grant-induced amnesia set in, preventing me from accurately recalling what an absolute fucking ordeal putting a grant together is.

With looming October and November NIH deadlines, I know a lot of you are also in the thick of it--feel free to use the comments space to vent, share tips for staying calm, Adderall sources (jk Drugmonkey!), etc. Hang in there!

27 responses so far

  • Cynric says:

    I've experienced this a few times. Some grants just flow... the ideas seem to organize themselves, and I can bash out a first draft in a couple of weeks. Others are like getting blood from a stone.

    I'm beginning to suspect that the difficult grants are indicative of a contrived research question. If the motivation is "I need to write a grant; what question can I come up with that will appeal to reviewers?", rather than "I'm desperate to do these experiments, please give me the money!", then I tend to struggle.

    I'm also finding it harder to motivate myself as I get more experienced, ironically. Oh, for the days when I was a super-keen postdoc desperate to show the world what I was made of...

    • Dr Becca says:

      God, I hope not! The thing is, with this grant I think the questions and design are solid (as PP attested to in the comments of the last post). I just can't seem to spit out all the cushioning.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Neil Gaiman has talked about how some days the writing is easy, you're inspired, and the words just flow off the page, while other days, every letter is a struggle and you hate every thing you've put on the page.

    Then a year later, when he goes back an re-reads it, he can't tell which bits were written on which days.

  • anon says:

    Stop working on it. Just stop. For a day at least, and go do something else and try not to think about it if you can. For me, it's the moment I wake up in the morning that problem solving occurs. The idea, phrase, solution to an experimental hurdle, or to whatever I was struggling with, just pops in my head like one of those cartoon lightbulbs, and I'm like, well duh! Why didn't that come to me sooner? You're a neuroscientist and can explain why that's the case; it may have something to do with sensory deprivation and synaptic trimming that occurs with sleep that facilitates learning and/or creativity. That's my 2cts.

    • AD says:

      "Stop working on it. Just stop. For a day at least, and go do something else and try not to think about it if you can."


      Sometimes when I've been writing for several hours (or sometimes when I haven't even begun writing for the day) I reach a wall where I just cant think of the right words to express my thoughts. I stop writing for the day and when I come back the to the draft the next day my thoughts start flowing like there never was a wall!

  • MitosRock says:

    I just came back from the most discouraging meeting I've ever had. It was with a PI that I was hoping to ask to be part of my mentoring committee for a K99 app due in a few weeks. Now I'm sitting here in a funk because I can't decide if I should suck it up and deal with this person as a "mentor" because I really (really) need her lab's protocols to make the grant work, or if I should pull out my highest horse and ride off into the that's-not-how-I-like-to-do-science sunset. How do you deal with someone who only thinks their own ideas are good? If this person was openly disparaging to their own postdocs in front of you, would you even consider including them? The thing is, this type of issue is usually about trying to get a big-shot name onto your grant (which is misguided), but this person is not a big name, I just really need to propose that I'll learn the techniques.

    • Bashir says:

      Can you replace them with a similar PI? If they are for some reason needed for the K99 app to work then it's as simple as that.

      You can have your high horse and have a less good grant.
      Or you can have a better grant application.
      Decide which is more important to you.

      What you do with this person if you get the K99 is a whole nother problem, except that OMG IF YOU HAVE A K99 YOU DO NOT HAVE ANY PROBLEMS!!!

      sorry had to yell.

      • Dr Becca says:

        I agree. If you want this thing, and this person is truly your only option for getting it, then just do it. The sad truth of our position is that having a high horse is a luxury, mostly for after tenure.

        I'm reading between the lines here, but it sounds like maybe this person didn't like your proposal? It's worth running her criticisms by a 3rd party, to see if they hold any weight beyond the ego issues you mention.

    • If you really need this technique for your grant application to work and there's no other place to learn it, then I guess you're going to have to suck it up. I guess you should answer for yourself how involved this person is going to be and how often you would have to meet with hir? If you only have to go to the lab a couple times to learn the technique and then never again I would include this person, but if it's going to be a long process and you already feel it will make you sad and discouraged, then maybe find another solution.
      These kind of personal issues are sometimes the hardest part of doing science IMO.

    • NatC says:

      Agree w Bashir and InBabyAttachMode, but want to add one more thing:
      think about how much you will *actually* have to work with this PI -on-your-mentoring-committee. Will you be working with the PI directly to learn this? Or with someone in their lab? Is your main mentor supportive of learning technique even with these issues?
      PIs on mentoring committees are great support for learning techniques and then possibly contacts and /or resources. If all you need is to learn a technique to incorporate into your own project/development, then you can probably define the relationship so that you do not need to interact with them much more than that, even for a K99-type grant.

    • DJMH says:

      Agreed with everyone else's points, but also, if this person is such a terrible lab manager as it sounds, you should definitely learn these techniques because that lab won't produce any survivors!

      A certain amount of this job, like all of them, is about Getting It Done, and if you have to go through a crazy person, then that's what you have to do. Just try to make sure there aren't any sane people who could fill this slot instead.

    • MitosRock says:

      Wow, I really appreciate everyone's comments! After a few days of decompression and some discussion with my mentor, I've decided to include her on the mentorship team. The grant really would be triaged without the inclusion of techniques that very few people on campus are qualified to teach me. I also heeded some of the blogosphere's advice, and got another PI in a closely related field to also be on my mentoring team just in case.

      And yes Bashir, IF I GET THIS GRANT, I'LL BE SWINGING FROM THE F-ING RAFTERS! And drinking the 2008 Brunello that I've had stashed away for just such an occasion....

  • Fred says:

    A junior PI here. I'm putting in a R01 next week, and we are seriously thinking about publishing most of the preliminary data (and data not shown in the grant) about 1-2 months after submitting the grant. This manuscript would show we have completed more than half of proposed studies in the grant. The first Aim would be mostly complete, and good portions of the other 2 aims would be complete. My question: should I hold off in submitting this until the grant is reviewed? Or submit away? Would publishing this negatively affect the review of an A1 revision of this grant if not funded on the first shot?

  • prepping for TT says:

    "I'm beginning to suspect that the difficult grants are indicative of a contrived research question..... Oh, for the days when I was a super-keen postdoc desperate to show the world what I was made of..."

    Some of us never had those days. My postdoctoral training grant was totally contrived but got funded. Now I'm proposing science I really care about, but (a) I can't see my way through it completely yet--it involves (quant) methods testing and development, which doesn't strike me as easy to sell as performing experiments, and (b) there might be other, more senior PIs who are swinging their ways down a similar path. I've tried to feel this out, but I'm not getting a clear answer.

    I've never truly felt like saying, "Hey, look at me, my stuff is awesome; I am going to blow the field away with these great new ideas." I've gotten good at acting like I feel this when I absolutely have to, but it's not my M.O. I only enjoy working on my grants when it's just about me reading about an interesting area and sorting out what could be done... but I rarely feel like it *has* to be done by me, and I worry about unknowingly entering a race against an amply funded bigwig.

    • Cynric says:

      "I've gotten good at acting like I feel this when I absolutely have to, but it's not my M.O."

      The super-keeness was mostly naivety, I now realize. Experience is bringing me closer to your M.O.

      I like to think of it as progress: moving from a stage when I was fuelled by overenthusiasm, to a stage where persistent, determined work slowly bears fruit. It's still satisfying, but reality refusing to conform to my brilliant hypotheses has mellowed me out.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    unless there is a funded grant and some papers covering precisely what you are proposing you should never concern yourself about this. put your best foot forward. then swing the other one up and kick the bigwig squar in the yarbles.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    scientifically, of course

  • [...] comes up because Fred, a new PI, left a comment over at Dr. Becca's place*: ...we are seriously thinking about publishing most of the preliminary [...]

  • Dr. Cynicism says:

    I have a theory that after a PI writes an R01, some secret NIH-led society comes to your home in the middle of the night and does one of those Men-In-Black-style mind eraser thingies. Either that, or they implant you with thoughts of how "it wasn't THAT bad; might as well try again next time."

Leave a Reply