In late November I was offered my dream job as an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick in the Faculty of Nursing (I enthusiastically accepted!). I am getting ready to board the train on the tenure track and plunged right into writing my first CIHR grant as a PI. Not for the reasons you might think either. While I do understand that obtaining funding is valued as a performance outcome for faculty members, having money to do your research allows you to – wait for it – do your research 🙂 That being said, being awarded the money which allows you to accomplish valuable work is not the only reason to write a grant proposal and it is not the only measure of success (although, again, it is super helpful and makes it easier to do what you are trying to do).
So what else defines a successful grant application? For me, success includes learning more about the research problems that I am interested in examining, learning more about what other researchers have done, and thinking about what we need to know and/or do to solve these problems (ultimately contributing to a healthier health care system and society I hope!). Building connections with other researchers, health care providers, and policy makers can also be a lot of fun! Over the last few months I have been able to connect with others who share common interests and also have unique expertise and experience to bring to the project that I initiated. Regardless of whether or not we get funded for the project, we now have developed a plan, a budget, and have a good handle on what we want to accomplish through our research.
As a new kid on the block in New Brunswick it has also been really helpful for me to start meeting people and getting a better understanding of my new province. I grew up in Nova Scotia but each province has a different approach to health care delivery and my training and experience in nursing has been in Ontario in an urban centre which is quite different than Fredericton. Making connections now will make it easier to fit in when I get there and I feel like it is a very welcoming place.
I do think our project is important and worth funding but I also recognize that there are limited funds and lots of great ideas worth funding. It also depends on who ends up reviewing our application and the other projects that are being submitted. At this point I’m not sure if you get “tenure points” for submitting applications that don’t get funded but it’s not like a straight-forward sport like track and field where there is a clear winner. Train hard, eat right, be the best, win, right? Research grant competitions are more like artistic sports like figure skating and gymnastics where judges (reviewers) assess the relative value of competitors/applications and assess whether or not you will be able to successfully do the proposed research. Comparing research projects and teams that are qualitatively diverse makes it harder to decide which projects should be funded.
For these reasons, I think it is important to define success not just in terms of getting funded or not. As a novice PI, I am uncertain whether that will go in my favour or not. After 4 degrees, 3 theses, and being able to balance all the demands of school, work, residence life, teaching, research, and being a single parent while also staying fit, I am 110% confident that I will be a good team leader and that we will be able to carry out the project as a team. Of course, when you submit a research grant application you can’t put “single mom/time management ninja” or “worked 10 part-time jobs including running a residence hall while completing my undergrad” as part of your accomplishments/skills (and if you did, it would probably count against you). Again, another reason why I think it is important to always do your best and see the process and the development of the proposal as an accomplishment and an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer and researcher.
Of course, if we do get the grant, it will be icing on the cake and I will be literally jumping for joy because we can start putting our research plan into action. There is absolutely no denying that actually getting the grant is a successful outcome too! And a very sweet one at that! However, if it is the only outcome that you focus on, I think that you miss out on a lot of other great things about writing research grants.