As engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, or computer scientists, we have a propensity to get caught up in our work. Because Science! When our work is rejected or criticized, we ask questions about how we can improve it. I write from experience as I type this: sometimes the critique is about the scientist as much as it is about the science.
For scientists, one of the most difficult things to do in grant and proposal writing is describing how we, the people underneath the lab coats, fit into the proposal. We always think we have a wonderful idea. And we usually do. But is good science all we need? As my NIH proposal was rejected, I thought, “What’s wrong with the science? What did I miss?” Then I read the feedback. Phrases like “great idea” and “novel concept” were placed in and around my reviewer notes. What was happening here? I kept reading. Their concerns were about me. I was switching into a new field in which I didn’t have extensive experience. I was working for a new faculty mentor who wasn’t as well established. All of these things didn’t really concern me as I was writing. I was completely absorbed in my “novel concept.”
I use this experience as a lesson. Hopefully, it’s a lesson I can pass on. Grant and fellowship applications are, by their very nature, competitive processes. The science is absolutely necessary, but it often isn’t sufficient. We also need to convince a reviewer that we and our advisors have the requisite experience and resources to properly tackle the issues we raise in our proposals. We do this by describing our skill set and perspective. What really motivates us? What do we really want to do with our research? What are we more specifically good at? Who are our mentors and advisors? Do we need collaborators?
We can’t neglect the other parts of research outside of the science itself. We should make a point to explore possible collaborations to help us gain technical proficiencies we will need in our work. When we write, we should make a point to mention and highlight these collaborators and the technical expertise they can impart onto us. We must pay attention to those personal statements. Pay attention to those biosketches. We don’t always control our specific circumstances. Unfortunately, grades and master’s thesis titles can’t be changed retroactively, but we do control how the information flows and fits together. The sooner we take proactive steps, the more competitive our applications will be.