On Thursday this week I heard from a funder that they had decided not to award me close to £1,000,000 for a new project. I’ve written before about the agonies of rejection in academic life, so I won’t dwell on the inevitable disappointment here. Instead, I want to think aloud about how to create a new research direction from scratch.
When I received the kindly-worded but ultimately final rejection email, I have to admit a part of me felt relieved. After all, the problem with getting a big grant is that then you have to do it! This one was particularly daunting. Five times more money than I’ve ever been awarded before from a single funder, and a commitment to a full-time programme of research for myself and a few staff and students, for five years. Not to mention the uncosted (i.e. not paid for by the funder) contributions of various senior advisors on whom the success of the project depended heavily. There was a significant part of me which felt like I’d been let off the hook by this funder’s decision.
So now what to do? Normally, perhaps, this wouldn’t be such a big question, but in addition to losing out on this grant, I have also recently re-located to a new department. Having undertaken my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Psychology departments, I’ve since spent time in a clinical psychology / learning disabilities research team, and then settled for about 4 years in a School of Education. Now I find myself in the dauntingly-named Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, where, as a friend joked, it sounds like I am going to do SCIENCE with my CLINICAL BRAIN. My neighbours in my new location are mostly psychiatrists and I am working ever-more closely with peadiatricians and neonatologists as well. All this is great – as this site (hopefully) makes clear, my research is tied together by a desire to apply psychological methods to questions of clinical, educational or social relevance, and this means getting out of the psychology box. But it also means that I am feeling slightly untethered at the moment.
Worst of all, my new department has offered me some start-up funding – enough to pay a part time research assistant for a year or so. Obviously this is, in fact, totally brilliant, but working out what to do with this RA time is making me pretty anxious. If I had won the aforementioned big grant, I could have bolted additional projects on to that – a big grant can act as a kind of spine, from which tangential research projects can spin off, like ribs. If I was still in my former department, I would have a much clearer sense of what my potential collaborators were doing and what would make the most effective contribution. But here in a brand new department, cut loose from my knowledge of the research climate, I am faced with the agony of choice. Whatever I decide to do, I’d like it to be interesting in its own right, but also build capacity for a future big funding bid. Imagine you are inviting guests to a party. There is a risk that not everyone will be able to come, so you need each guest to be fun on their own – you don’t want to invite someone who will only get on with a specific sub-set of other people, say, or only be good company as part of a bigger crowd. At the same time, you are hoping that other people will come too so you have an eye on how all the party guests will fit together. This is where I am now. I want to have a really great party, but who do I invite first, who’s going to be the lynchpin, the guest who holds the whole thing together?
In an effort to work out what to do first, I’ve tried mapping my research, both current projects and general areas of interest. As you can see, the result is pretty complex and I’m not sure I’m much closer to a decision! But one silver lining is emerging from the process – a renewed appreciation for the peer review process. This much-maligned system means that any grant proposal goes to a couple of experts in the field for comments before the funders decide who to reward with a grant. I am trying to set-up a project without the benefit of this comfort blanket – peers who have independently decided that my plans are valid, well-designed and have the potential to yield interesting results. What if I’m the only person who thinks my plans are any good? Here’s hoping that I can make a decision soon, and it will be the right one. Wish me luck!