It Hurts When I Do This

Aug 09 2011 Published by under grants and grant proposals

A reader writes:

It has now been three days since the proposal was submitted, and I have been reading and re-reading the submitted version, each time finding minor mistakes (a reference in the wrong place, a typo), or places where I could have clarified my thoughts a bit more. I think the science good but the proposal falls short of the shiny, glimmering, flawless piece of work I had been shooting for, and this is devastating.

In an attempt to pull myself out of the mental dungeon I am stuck in right now, I am writing to ask you and your readers if you have experienced similar post-submission agony? And for those of you who have served as proposal reviewers or program officers, how do minor editorial mishaps factor into the overall review?

First of all, don't do that: don't re-read your proposal so soon after submission. I never do that. It serves no good purpose. It can be very useful (and necessary) to re-read proposals later, when it is relevant to do so, but don't do it now. (Readers: agree/disagree with this advice?)

As a reviewer, minor writing/technical mistakes are inconsequential to me in my review. We all make mistakes: some typos, mis-numbered figures etc. If there are an astounding number of them, including in the project summary and the first few lines of the proposal, it makes me wonder what happened, but I give the PI the benefit of the doubt and assume that there was a lot of last-minute writing and not much last-minute editing. I am somewhat more annoyed if a senior PI makes these mistakes, but if I can still understand the proposal, I don't downgrade it for this type of flaw. That is, I don't assume that because the proposal is sloppy that the science will be sloppy, unless I have other information/evidence to support that conclusion. (Readers: agree/disagree with that conclusion?)

It's fine to try for a flawless proposal and it's important to care about producing quality work, but don't beat yourself up about some minor and inadvertent errors. Maybe you will get the grant anyway, but if not -- and if it is reasonable to revise and resubmit -- focus on the constructive work of writing a (more) compelling proposal.

17 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Agree with the doyenne. Don't sweat the small stuff, it doesn't make the difference in your score. It's possible to be so sloppy as to really annoy the reviewer but most aren't going to kill you over a few typos.

  • TiredAcademic says:

    In avoidance of the stress and trauma described, I would never read a proposal or paper so soon after submission. But reflection or review at a later stage may be completely appropriate.

  • mathgirl says:

    I agree with FSP. Don't reread the proposal immediately after submission, what it's done, it's done.

    I also agree that small typos and such don't make a difference for a reviewer.

  • GMP says:

    I tend to reread proposals shortly after submission; I also reread most of my papers after they are submitted for publication. I know these activities don't serve a useful purpose, but it's a way to obtain closure and unwind as the adrenalin slowly drops after presumably many days of stressful writing. It's part of a ritual for me, helping the transition into the next big thing that needs to be done. So FWIW, the letter writer is not the only one out there with this "unhealthy" habit.

    That having been said, I don't think the reviewers sweat the small stuff (my CAREER was awarded and I had a few misnumbered sections and one figure ended up looking like crap). But well polished proposals do stand out, i.e. it shows if one has spent a fair amount of time perfecting the proposal versus if they threw it together in a week.
    So I think the letter writer's desire for a perfectly polished proposal is not misguided, although he/she should likely cut themselves some slack, as per the sentiments of FSP and the commenters above.

    • mathgirl says:

      It's a little bit different with papers, because you will have a chance to correct those typos. After submission may not be the best time to reread a paper, but it's still a productive activity.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    ...and never, ever miss your grant deadline in the pursuit of a "perfect" proposal.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    When I get to the point where I am having difficult writing something, I will get out a couple of old papers and read them. It encourages me that I actually wrote something mostly coherent and got it published.

  • BLG says:

    We had a specific policy in my graduate lab to NEVER reread a published paper - you will always find something that makes you want to die. And this is even after the damn thing has been corrected by about 10 people by the time it's published. Grants are way more likely to have errors - I wouldn't re-read one until I needed to for a resubmission or something similar.

  • (1) Agreed that there is no point to re-reading grant applications once they are submitted, but before receiving the reviews.

    (2) There are only two circumstances in which you will be criticized for editorial mistakes in a grant:

    (a) The grant is so riddled with them that it calls into doubt your ability to even think straight.

    (b) The reviewer didn't like the grant for substantive reasons, and is latching on to editorial mistakes because it's easy to do so.

  • inB says:

    I also make it a policy to not read my proposals or papers right after they are submitted/published. It just makes me cringe and stay up at night worrying about little things that don't really matter.

    I do care a bit about editorial mistakes in proposals. A few is no big deal but if they really add up it suggest "sloppy" to me, and I do translate that into sloppy science. I say this from experience, as I have noticed that in my discipline the people who are meticulous scientists have very clean proposals and those who are sloppy in their science tend to submit crap proposals. The latter often tend to get funded though... reputation and "fame" often counts for too much.

  • jen says:

    what physioprof said.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    PP's 2(b) is spot on. Don't make the mistake of thinking it was a few typos that torpedoed your grant. Those comments are just frosting. Heck, I've seen proposals with find/replace fails from the prior application sale through regardless...

  • Arlenna says:

    This is called "ruminating" (Raising Happiness by Christine Carter). It will only make you unhappy, and won't change your grant's experience in review. To be more happy, nip that rumination in the bud!

  • SC says:

    As a recovering classical musician (and unrecovered scientist), we were warned not to listen to recordings of recitals immediately after the fact. I've done it, and it's extremely painful!

    I assume the reason in both cases is that you're so immersed in the materials that all of the mistakes will "pop out" if you listen/read right after the fact, whereas if you let it sit for a while, you can process it as a whole piece of work. Sometimes when I read things I've written a long time ago, I'm surprised that I actually sounded smart.

  • DrDoyenne says:

    The time to reread a proposal (or paper) is before you hit the submit button.

    You have to ask, why you are rereadng? To reassure yourself that there are no mistakes? If you were rushed to submit and then waited until after submission to assure yourself of no glaring errors, you are likely to find some. Build time into your writing schedule for a final read by all PIs. Then, the urge to reread after the fact will diminish.

    After-submission rereading is a waste of time for proposals (until revising for the next submission). I tend not to do this even for papers, with the idea that I will possibly be making substantial changes based on reviewer and editor comments; minor edits on the original may not matter then. When I prepare to revise (papers or proposals), I do a careful read of the original and note any problems that the reviewers missed and that need to be addressed. Hopefully, there are not many because I did a reasonably careful job on the original!

    As an editor, I'm not too concerned with minor errors as long as they are not so numerous to raise doubts about research quality.

  • anonymous says:

    I reread and polish a proposal a lot before it is submitted. Then I do often, if I have time, reread it after it's submitted. But I have the opposite reaction -- I feel really pleased with myself for having written such an outstanding proposal that I feel very hopeful will be funded. Rereading the proposal is a chance for me to sit back and enjoy the intellectual product that it is. But these days, I don't have time to do this very often any more -- the person who wrote in with the question must have too much time on their hands. Later, when I'm ready to revise the proposal after it's rejected, I reread it again and roll my eyes at the glaring holes that need to be fixed.

  • Denis says:

    Great posts! If you go on official websites of NIH or similar agencies they tell that mislabeling and typos and other problems with formatting indicate that science may look sloppy etc. But its like with religion, we are all humans, not gods, we make mistakes. Having said that I am taking my hat of in front of those who are perfect (there are people like that for sure)