What do you do when your lab runs out of money?

Jun 16 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

The first thing I did when I started my TT job - before the floor was even laid in my shiny new lab, before I bought anything or hired anyone - was apply for an R21 from NIMH. And I got it, first try.

Well this is great! I thought. I clearly have a natural gift for grantsmanship, and my lab will assuredly remain funded for the rest of my days. Basically,

Fast forward 3 years from the NOA, and...uh...yeah, it's hard. The R21 has come and gone (not to mention most of my startup), and despite a LOT of trying, I've yet to secure any more external funding. It sucks. I am about 15 months out from submitting my tenure packet  - do I even have a chance at convincing T&P that I'm worth keeping around? I have no idea, but I'm going to give it my best shot. Since I got bad score news in November and then February, I've been working my ass off to figure out a survival strategy. It comes down to two things:

1. Find money

2. Publish as much as possible

Hmm...those kind of sound like the things I already needed to do for tenure. So how will I do them on a very, very tight budget?

1. Write, write, write. At least two NIH grants per cycle - one new, one revision. A foundation here or there.

2. Write, write, write. Publish all possible existing data, no matter how incremental.

3. Beg the dean for bridge funding (where the other side of the bridge is...TBD)

4. Collaborate. We have a couple of good ones going now that are saving us tons of money in animal costs.

5. Piece a little chunk of change together with small internal grants for undergrad projects.

6. Network like a mofo. You never know where the next lifeline will come from.

So here we are. I have half as many full-time personnel as I did a year ago, and our animal rooms are eerily quiet. But my lab folks are excellent and are working hard, and I'm doing my best to keep morale up (chocolate. Lots of chocolate). We got a really nice paper in a really nice journal out of that R21 (and another on its way), and a beautiful image from that work will be on the journal cover this summer. Everything is amazing, except we are broke.

Hopefully not for too much longer.

38 responses so far

  • Heavy says:

    Love the approach, especially #4 and #6. Best of luck.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    An acquaintance of mine who is a bioinformaticist calls himself a "5 percent man", because he's funded by having 5% effort on a ton of collaborative grants.

  • odyssey says:

    7. Don't give up.

  • girlparts says:

    Don't forget to write grants on those collaborative projects, too.

  • Sympathetic says:

    I'm very sympathetic but in all seriousness, if it were me I would apply for jobs, possibly in industry or outside the country if you think you won't be competitive in the US. It will give you a backup and some leverage with your institution during the tenure process. Also, just make your best case in your tenure application - institutions know what the funding climate is like and that can help to some extent.

  • DJMH says:

    oh man, this is...both scary and familiar.

  • Cecilia says:

    Thank you for this. I'm on that boat, except that I never got a grant three years in my TT tic toc.

    It is comforting to get this encouraging list of tips.

    Good luck!


  • newbie PI says:

    I'm three years into the tenure track and am in a very similar boat. Just this morning my summary statement for my R01 appeared. I was 2% away from the payline last submission. Now I'm 10% away and they seem to now hate everything that they loved before. This life feels like a hamster wheel with the added feature of getting punched in the gut every 3 months. I don't know how you stay so upbeat.

    • Dr Becca says:

      I also had a grant that had a very good but not fundable score do (a lot) worse on the A1, despite a summary statement whose comments implied the grant was greatly improved. There is a ton of noise in the system, and it sucks, but I don't have any more energy for anger or being sad anymore. I just have to keep going.

      And trust me (or ask my husband), I was very, very not upbeat basically all winter. I haven't fully bounced back, but I've definitely turned a corner.

  • Ewan says:

    Well... the answer in my case appears to be 'get fired.' Last month the provost recommended against tenure. His note acknowledged that I'd exceeded all standards of excellence for research (and have a better record than all recent successful cases as well as my colleagues), have outstanding teaching including a bunch of awards, and have done a bunch of service at all levels; also that I have funding in hand for a couple of years. But "in the absence of a current R01, I cannot recommend tenure." This is after the case had sat at the provost level for four years - I came in with an R01 and several years as faculty, so the agreement was that I'd go up for tenure in 2010-11 which I did - but then the previous provost failed to act or respond at all for four years. The new provost just arrived a couple of months ago, so the delay is not his fault at all; but the R01-or-bust standard has come as a shock to everyone.

    What happens next... not sure yet. Right now writing an R15; an R01 is being resubmitted for July 5 that got 25% first submission, and an NSF full proposal for August, but all of that may just be tilting at windmills if the president accepts the provost's recommendation...

    • Dr Becca says:

      Ewan, that is insane! I'm so sorry. How can a provost just sit on a tenure decision for 4 years??? And how can they insist you have an R01 at an R15-eligible institution? The whole thing makes no sense, and I'm very angry for you. I hope something works out - either they see the error of their ways, or you get a fat offer from somewhere else.

    • Scicurious says:

      Oh Ewan I'm so, so sorry to hear this. 🙁

      • Ewan says:

        Me too :). But thanks. And in several senses I am lucky - my wife has an excellent non-academic job, so the mortgage is not riding on this, for example. My junior colleagues - a phrase I have been using a ton in this context and which makes me feel 670 years old every time 🙁 - not so lucky.

        There are the usual ironies - I think we got the notice of a SUNY-wide award for student research excellence on the same day as the notice of negative recommendation :), and my only in-person interaction with the provost was accepting a leadership excellence award this spring! By now I am mostly just angry at the failures of process rather than at my individual outcome: not only the multi-year delay but also completely ignoring the written tenure norms and expectations. With luck the Pres will override.. we'll see.

        Sci, need a colleague? 🙂

        • AcademicLurker says:


          That's terrible! Good luck with the presidential override option.

          This story would have given me gibbering nightmares if I'd read it 2 years ago. I relocated to a new institution with a handshake agreement that tenure was a sure thing when I put myself up at the end of year 1. I didn't relax until I had the signed stamped letter in hand.

          • Ewan says:

            Just to close the loop: the President *did* in fact override, and I was awarded tenure a couple of weeks ago. Which by that point came as a shock - I had clearly internalised that it was not going to happen 🙂 - but a happy one.

            Happy to discuss the process and what seemed to be effective offline if anyone thinks it would be useful. Now, I have to go rebuild a lab..

  • L Kiswa says:

    Good luck! Similar situation, 3 years in and only grants to date are as co-PI. OK \( (read: barely enough to keep lab afloat), but pretty sure will not fly with P&T committee unless \) come in as PI. Solid advice here....publish, publish, publish!

  • Namesaste_Ish says:

    My lab dropped to about 40% of its all time high about a year ago. Now it is 2x its largest size. Rollercoaster of insanity. You're doing great stuff. Chocolate.

  • another newbie says:

    Hang in there. I concentrated on submitting only 1 per cycle- simply could not produce 2 good quality proposals while also starting a lab, worked on the third try

  • Dave says:

    In my little soft-money world, collaboration is an important means of survival. 20% here, 10% here, 5% here. Not always ideal science wise, but it keeps the bills paid while one slogs it out in SS.

    I would also add:

    7. Exit strategy. You need options.

  • Optimist says:

    There's a lot of gloom here so I just wanted to say that someone at my (major state) university got tenure this year with no R01 so it can work out.

  • babyattachmode says:

    I have nothing constructive to add but I wish you all the strength and luck and grants in the world!

  • Ola says:

    Serious question... Who is your mentor?
    If you don't have one, get one (preferably more)

    You need to be having your grants read by someone who will give you the straight dope. We had someone here submitted 18 grants in 2 years and not a single one got funded. It's hard to say it, but with numbers like that, she needed to sit up and listen when someone said "the problem is not the NIH, it's you!"

    Serious question 2...
    How much have you published. A rant of a colleague just got a so so score, but they complimented the fact he'd been able to publish a paper with zero external funding. Reviewers look at this stuff - papers to grant income ratio. You had an R21. What did you do with it? If the answer is "1 paper and we're writing the rest up now", that isn't going to cut it.

    Anyway, regardless the answers, keep up your inspirational writing here and elsewhere!

    • Dr Becca says:


      Serious answer...I am pseudonymous, so I am not going to tell you. And frankly, I'm a little insulted that you think I haven't been having well-funded, honest colleagues read and comment on my grants from day 1. I have two official mentors and a whole bunch of unofficial ones. I am positive that they are giving me the "straight dope."

      I sat on study section this year and observed first hand the high degree of noise in the system. I also received an A1 score that was substantially worse than the A0 score (which was very good, but not quite fundable), despite the summary statement going on and on about how the application was hugely improved and how I was an outstanding PI. There are an infinite number of things that can contribute to a grant's final impact score, many of which the grant writer has literally zero control over, and many of which seem random or unfair. It doesn't matter.

      Serious answer 2...We have published 3 independent research articles in very well respected journals, plus a couple of invited review papers.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Ola: No doubt you're just trying to be helpful, but .... did you read OP? Because that answers your second point re: publishing.

    Also, the idea that the problem is with the grants/folks not getting funded these days is laughable! Even experienced folks are struggling. I seriously doubt that the problem in this case is DrB. Though if someone writes 18 grants in 2 yrs, then yeah, I'm guessing most of those were probably pretty half-assed.

  • Dave says:

    The knee jerk reaction that it must be grantsmanship problems can be very unhelpful and frustrating. It might play some role, but good grantsmanship is not enough, especially when so many young PIs these days can write very good apps. It sounds like Becca is doing everything right, but just hasn't hit pay dirt yet.

    @Ola: the R21 grant is for two fucking years and generally speaking is for exploratory/high-risk research, and you want how many LPU papers out of one of these?

  • Drugmonkey says:

    It is just the process. I remember very distinctly how angry it makes one to be told "write better grants" when one knows this is not the issue. In my case I had been through many rounds of study section when some helpful person tried this gambit on me. It is harmful to give people this advice. It rarely applies, I always found super-ridiculously-bad grant applications to be in the minority.

  • cindyscientist says:

    Dr. Becca, thanks for sharing. I've been following your blog for years now, and hearing about your experiences - both up and down - has been incredibly helpful. I remember reading about your job search and grant writing, when you were awarded your R21, and then your first paper - I felt so happy and proud for you! You're one of the good ones and I am sure you'll get through this. And, I'm sure I'll be there in three-years time, going back to this post for moral support and stiff upper-liping. Stick with it!

  • Hmmm says:

    One serious suggestion/question: if anyone has names of lawyers who are expert in tenure cases and have had good results, this would be a good place to note them.

  • adam says:

    Thank you for reminding me why I left academia!

    The private sector (industry) is also full of examples where sucking up is FAR more beneficial than doing quality work, but there are good options out there in industry. I hope tenure does come through for you, but if not, don't consider industry as a horrible option. Not every industry job requires selling your soul...although some do...depends on your area of expertise/interests I suppose.

    I am pretty technique oriented with interests that have always spanned different disciplines, but I actually have more freedom to pursue what I am interested in than most of my grad school colleagues who stayed in academia (and a better paycheck with more regular hours). I am not typical, but when planning a backup/exit strategy as someone suggested, think widely.

  • Lax says:

    I just moved to industry! In academic I often referred to myself as Voldermort since I was split among so many grants due to the soft money position. Finally jumped to industry and I am happy. There is a whole lot of things that you can do in industry and enjoy while not worrying all the time about adding up the % to make it 100.

  • 2btenured says:

    @ Ewan, I am so sorry for your situation. One of the members of my department just completed the process of appeal after being told s/he wasn't recommended for tenure. The denial came as a shock to our entire department and luckily the appeal process was positive for my colleague, now tenured after a nightmarish semester of waiting. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn't wait to see if the President overturns the decision. I would rally my supporters in the department and starting preparing my appeal documents. I imagine it will require effort on your part given how you're feeling right now, but it will be energy well spent (provided you want to stay at the institution). I would also start looking for other options, just as has already been said so that you have that in your back pocket.

    @Dr. Becca, I am sorry that you are in the valley right now. I know you will come out of it on top because you are one of the good ones! Your game plan looks great and I wish you continued stamina. A couple of ideas:

    1) Is your institution R15 eligible? That might be a viable route for you especially given you are already working with undergraduates. Also, there are some pre-tenure awards (e.g. NSF CAREER) that you are eligible for--again, your work with undergraduates makes this a good sell for you.
    2) Do you have mentors/allies at your current institution? I know it is easy to feel like you are alone and need to prove yourself going down this tenure road, but sometimes we just need to be honest with a trusted senior faculty member and get some good advice about how to work smarter (in addition to harder).
    3) You may be right around the corner. I've been told by numerous program officers at NIH and NSF 3 rounds is the norm these days. You've had a valuable opportunity sitting on study section, be confident in that. Are there other NIH institutes that would be interested in your work? Are there any calls for proposals that you fit? I'm sure you've thought of these avenues.

    I'm thankful for your honesty and the supportive community here. I am also on the road to tenure, so I certainly don't have all the answers, but know that I will celebrate your appointment! Remember to still live decently (sleep, eat, and take care of yourself). It may seem counterintuitive, but it is part of the working smarter not harder philosophy.

    • Dr Becca says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, 2bt, and great blog BTW! To answer your questions:

      1) We're not R15 eligible, even though the undergrads do play an important role in our research
      2) I have mentors here and they are helpful for the big picture stuff (esp. re: tenure), but I'm not sure my failure to get a grant is a result of not working hard or smart enough.
      3) I really hope you're right. I was so disillusioned after being on study section (and after watching my "much improved" grant get a worse score on the 2nd round) that I often feel like there is just too much noise to overcome.

  • E rook says:

    My last grant before I exited.... It was pre-reviewed by many senior level, straight-dope folks, and it was much improved from that. All the reviewers liked the writing, style, presentation, organization, structure, etc. of the document. One even wrote that I was "highly talented." The experimental design was great and well thought out to answer the research questions posed. And it didn't get scored. They gave veiled comments about the environment and basically told me I had no future. To critique the science, they said I needed impossible to obtain (with no funding) preliminary data.

    I stayed in the bizz for too long collaborating. I wasn't doing the research I wanted to do. I wasn't doing what I believed in. Funding me as a collaborator to function as a lab tech doing a crappy job because I prioritized my own career/projects/grants ahead of the collaboration is way less efficient than hiring a tech. Ultimately, I couldn't sleep at night taking tax-payer dollars for this crap and got out.

  • Established PI says:

    Good luck Dr. Becca - you certainly sound as if you are doing all the right things. I hope your institution does the right thing, too, by coming through with bridge funding. Junior faculty need this lifeline now more than ever.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Good luck. I am a few years behind you (was a non-tenure track RAP for 4 years then switched to TT), and I have yet to land substantial funding. My K award will run out this year, and I will just have a R03 left which isn't going to cover much of anything. I am a PhD in a clinical department, so I do not really have other means to cover my salary (like teaching). I took a chance and resubmitted a scored R01 (both A0 and A1) as a new R01 to a different study section which was a huge failure since it was triaged. So, I can completely understand your situation and worries for the future!

  • Susan says:

    Dr. Becca, I've been on the receiving end of "This is a much-improved resubmission ... and here's your worse score" too. I've been with you since the beginning of your blog and will hang with you through this. I got a job the year after you did, and your TT job advice aggregator was my bible. Now my colleagues assure me I'm a shoo-in, but I've heard one too many horror stories to drink that kook aid.

    Emaderton, I was in exactly the same boat -- scored A0 and scored A1 -- and sent it back (as A0) to the same panel (updated of course). All I can hear in my head is the PO who, when I asked him about that quandry, said "well, not SS, they clearly didn't like it!". But SS is the best place for it, and I don't think the PO was really giving it much thought, honestly. There's too much randomness in the whole process to conclude that. The few negative comments were technical and solvable, the positives were very positive. I just need to keep working and throwing spaghetti at the wall. And I've served on SS too, so I know it from that side.

    Ewan, what can I say, besides I'll keep some phalanges crossed for you for however long it takes?

    One thing I can think is this: your colleagues and chair, who have read your grants and know your work, can lobby the provost and president very clearly that you write excellent grants, and the current funding climate is too noisy to threshold. You had promise, you followed through, and you STILL have promise for future funding. And your colleagues can say: this is the person we want to keep as a colleague, rather than start over. We are invested in this person, for good reason. She is a vital part of our functioning department.

    There was a tenure denial here not so long ago, where those who where here then, look back and say: we wish we'd lobbied harder, tried to explain the context to the Provost better, because who could better than us?

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