How (not) to write a successful DECRA – Pearls of wisdom, or fool’s gold?
In May this year I wrote a little post about my experience applying for a DECRA. Now that the results are out, I thought I should write a follow up.
First of all, congratulations to all those applicants who were successful! It is a great achievement.
Now, for those of us who were unsuccessful… damn. For those of you who are just interested in the process and want to learn more before attempting your own application… keep reading.
I had heard a lot of ‘horror stories’ about the rejoinder process. Basically, I was led to believe that I should be scared stiff about what the reviewers would say, particularly about my project and myself as a candidate. So naturally when the rejoinders were released I expected the very worst. I had mentally prepared myself to be torn to shreds and end up feeling quite defeated. Of course I put on a brave face and clicked the button to see how bad it was.
I was reviewed by three people. Overall, I felt the reviews were quite civilised. They seemed to be in favour of me as a candidate, they liked my track record and acknowledged my diversity and breadth of experience. One even said they were confident I would “hit the ground running”. Surprisingly, they even seemed happy with my host institution – this was the area I had expected the most resistance. Two out of three appeared in favour of my project idea. They noted a number of positives and even the few negatives they pointed out were fairly insignificant (at least a number of us reading them felt this way). One reviewer however, stated that they did not understand the project, and thought that my inclusion of a PhD student was a weakness as it meant the PhD student would be the main driver of the project.
Considering that you have 5,000 characters (yes, you read correctly, CHARACTERS) to address the reviewers’ concerns you need to think very carefully about what you will respond to and how you will word that response. The most favoured approach, and probably the most logical, is to pick common themes from the reviewer comments and address those that seem the most pertinent. Obviously you need to be concise, succinct, balanced, yet confident in your response. This is no easy task with only 5,000 characters. You will have to prioritise certain points and make concessions on others.
I felt that most of my comments were reasonably easy to address. But, that one reviewer who said they didn’t ‘understand’ my ‘novel’ framework… that was tough! If two out of three DO understand and describe it as ‘exciting’ and having the ‘potential for considerable new insights’, you start to wonder if it is your writing or the reviewer’s suitability to your topic that is the problem. Whichever it was, I needed to try and reassure the final assessors of my project’s merit.
The long silence
After a panicked week of studying, interpreting and addressing reviews, you write your response. Your institution will likely vet your response throughout a number of volunteer academic hands to ensure you aren’t being too sensitive/nasty or missing a valid point. A few more last minute adjustments and you submit the response to the system… then you wait. Then you forget.
I submitted the response in June. We did not expect to hear a result until the end of October. Initially, your mind wanders back to the rejoinder every so often. How could they not understand? What did that comment really mean? Should I have addressed it further? Did I say the right thing? Then, as the weeks pass, you get tied up in your own work again – no doubt panicking now because you have put yourself so far behind by attending all these writing sessions in the first place! Slowly you forget about the DECRA and life returns to pre-DECRA normalcy.
Finally, the day you have been anticipating… and dreading. Candidates and institutions are notified of the results. You receive a little box with a percentile for each assessable category, and an ultimate ‘normalised’ percentile. That’s it. That is all you get. Those little scores tell you where you sat in relation to the other applicants. It is deeply unsatisfying, even if your scores were reasonably good, because we always want to know more – exactly where in that percentile did I sit? Did I just scrape in? Did I just miss out on being a step above? What exactly was it in the end that put me in that group?
Inevitably, even if you ‘prepared’ yourself for not getting one, you will be at least a little upset. No one likes putting in all that work and not being successful. Many people will feel a sense of failure or inadequacy. While it is hard not to, we really do need to keep in mind that everyone who applied, and no doubt hundreds more who didn’t, are at the top end of their respective fields. We are all hard workers, with a number of successes in our own right.
Pearls of wisdom, or fool’s gold?
What did I gain out of all of this? Obviously, I was unsuccessful. Should I hang my head in shame and reconsider all my options? No, I don’t think so. What can an unsuccessful candidate share with you that might be useful? Quite a bit actually.
It is an extremely competitive grant. Don’t let the success rate of 14% fool you! That number is artificially inflated because each institution enforces their own selection process before anyone even gets to officially apply. You really are considered one amongst the best of the best to even apply.
It’s not really the reviewers that you are trying to impress. Aside from the rejoinder comments, you do not receive any feedback on your application. The value of the rejoinder comments is immense because it does give you an idea of how experts in your field weight your ideas. But, these comments don’t necessarily hold a lot of weight when it comes to the final decision. Those particular reviewers don’t actually see your rebuttal. So, while you do have to address their comments, it is not really your reviewers you are trying to convince, it’s whomever might be your champion on the College of Experts.
Feedback/no feedback is incredibly confusing/unsatisfying. As mentioned, the only feedback you receive is through the rejoinder. What I, personally, can take away from mine is that two people seemed excited and supportive, one person seemed unsure of what I was even proposing, but all three believed I was a good candidate with a suitable host institution, and that the project was feasible and beneficial. On the surface this seems pretty good. I definitely saw other rejoinder comments that were not so nice! What does this mean at the end though? I have no idea!! My overall ranking was lower than I expected for some categories given the reviewer comments, so I am uncertain where the real problems may have been with my proposal. It would be incredibly helpful to have some feedback from the College of Experts, but that is never going happen. It would be far too time consuming for the ARC to support such a process.
Perhaps being too ‘novel’ is a disadvantage. I was frustrated with the fact that there is no further feedback, especially when the rejoinder seemed ok. I made it my mission to go through the list of successful candidates and look for patterns that might provide me with some answers. I did notice that the vast majority of awardees were, in some senses playing it safe. This is in no way meant to be seen as me being demeaning or condescending. It is just what I observed and interpreted. For example, it seemed that a lot of successful candidates were proposing projects that were very firmly in their existing field, using skills that they had already acquired and methods that they already knew. Their proposals seemed to have, for the most part, a single, small novel element that showed they were diversifying. In contrast, my proposal was waaay out there. I was proposing working on a different species (same family, but different species), in addition to using relatively new technology, applying a new method, and tying this all together in a new theoretical framework. Apparently, my interpretation of ‘discovery’ is not quite the same as the ARC’s! In hindsight I think my proposal was too risky in terms of ensuring a product.
A lot of awardees already have jobs. This is a tough one because the DECRA is open to anyone who is within five years of obtaining their PhD. Of course to have a greater chance of success, most people wait until their final years to apply. This ensures that they have had time to demonstrate their productivity and position them well in the competition. But, it does seem harder to compete with people who already have a job. Jobs are scarce. If you can get a job, and by that I mean a Lecturer position, you are most likely already pretty good. Most lecturers I know have a great deal of familiarity with their department, they likely have some graduate students already, and a ton of teaching to do. These factors may put them in a better position to apply for a DECRA in the first place. It might be a different competition if early career were split into postdoc versus lecturer… it might not. I don’t know. But, I do know that if you are unsuccessful in your application, it can seem unfair that the grant designed to help you get a job is going to people who already have a job. Does that mean that people with jobs should be excluded? Would that be fair? Again, I don’t know. Those people obviously worked hard to get where they are. Ultimately, if they meet the criteria then they can apply with the rest of us.
Should you apply again? Also a tough one! For me, no I don’t think so. I am nearing the end of my current postdoc contract so I feel my time is better invested in my work in order to meet those publishing metrics that I continue to have a love/hate relationship with. This is my second postdoc now. I have completed one in Canada and this will be one for Australia. Living in a constant state of flux and moving from one side of the world to the other takes a toll on many things in your professional and personal life. For me, I will focus on continuing to grow my skill set and start applying for academic positions instead. For everyone else, the decision is yours of course. But, if you have the time I think it would be worthwhile applying again. You already have a proposal written up, surely this time tweaking it will be much easier than writing it from scratch! Besides, this time you definitely know what to expect, and most people that get awarded, they get it on their second round.
Don’t give up. Everybody says this. It’s hard to not treat it as a blanket statement. But, it is true. Everyone takes a few knocks along the road, even those who you admire. They kept going and so should you! Try to focus on the positive – you learned so much about the process of grant writing, you learned new skills, you developed a kick ass proposal. There are plenty more opportunities out there… go get ‘em tiger!