Dr. Crystal Rogers, Associate Professor, UC Davis.

Writing is hard. But that isn’t an accurate description of the problem, is it? Committing to sitting down in front of a computer for an extended period of uninterrupted time in this busy life is the difficult part of writing. When it comes to writing grants and research papers, it can be challenging to protect one’s time, but it is necessary to create the required mental space to provide the best possible product. Further, without specific deadlines, it is simpler to put writing tasks off, without accountability.

I am an Associate Professor at UC Davis, and my ability to sit and write without distraction ebbs and flows. On occasion, I can spend an entire day in front of my computer. Other days, I find myself scrolling social media sites or unable to focus on a task even if a deadline is looming. Unfortunately, I find that with higher levels of stress and anxiety, there are more of the latter days than the former.

I moved my lab to UC Davis in September of 2019 from a primarily undergraduate institution, and I was challenged by the scientific “jump” that was required to obtain external funding. Although I truly believe that good science can be performed anywhere and at all types of institutions, getting grants to fund that science is different across institution types. The average age of scientists getting an NIH R01 in 2020 was 44 years of age [1]. I am 44 this year and still have not obtained my first. Between 2019 and 2021, I had submitted six R01 grants to NIH, none of which were funded. After so many unsuccessful applications and running out of startup funds to keep my lab afloat, I felt as though it may be time to leave academia. I was not good enough to be in this role. It was at this time that I applied for the Life Science Editors Foundation (LSEF) Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Award.

I received my LSEF JEDI award in 2021 at a very important crux in my career. I worked with Dr. Angela Andersen, the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Life Science Editors and the Co-Founder of the LSEF, on a proposal that I planned to submit to NSF. I had previously submitted two versions of the NSF CAREER award that were not well-received, and as there is a limit on the number of applications allowed, this was my last chance to get it. For months, Angela worked with me, gave me deadlines, held me accountable, and provided comments and edits on my grant to improve clarity, impact, and significance. It became clear that I was not a bad scientist, but rather, that I was not an efficient scientific writer. Angela guided me in a compassionate and considerate way. After working with her, I submitted a grant that I was proud of, and I was awarded the NSF CAREER grant in 2022. Using the skills learned by working with Angela, I then wrote an R03 grant for NIH, and I received that grant as well.

Unfortunately, grant and paper writing skills must be practiced. Writing is a muscle that must be exercised. In my quest for securing continued funding to support my lab in 2023 and 2024, I have found myself back in the valley of “Not Discussed,” and I started to question the feasibility of a continued career. It was at this point that I found out that LSEF was offering another, more long-term award, called the JEDI Alumni Award. This new venture is focused on promoting career progression and retention for faculty from backgrounds that are underrepresented in STEM. As an LSEF Board Member, I was fortunate to be offered a JEDI Alumni award in recognition of my service. I plan to work with Angela to write grants and papers, ensuring that my career continues its upward trajectory.

What I have learned over the past few years:

  • Academia is challenging and rejection is a guarantee, not a possibility.
  • How you deal with rejection matters. You can either critically assess your own role in the rejection (unclear writing, improperly communicating significance, bad experimental design, etc.) or you can blame others.
  • Ask for help when you need it. There is a village of academics who are willing and able to aid those facing challenges. Find these people, ask for help, and be willing to help the next generation when your turn arrives.
  • Apply for opportunities that fit your needs. You will never get a grant you don’t submit, and you will never be given an award that you don’t apply for. However, see bullet number 1 to remember what can happen and to ensure that you are prepared mentally for all possible outcomes.

1.               Lauer, M.S. and D. Roychowdhury, Inequalities in the distribution of National Institutes of Health research project grant funding. Elife, 2021. 10.