The deadline of the September call of the Academy of Finland came and went – well, sort of. As per tradition, the submission system buckled under the stress of everyone, their grandma and their pet tortoise trying to upload or update their applications at the same time, and once again the deadline has been extended, this time by five days instead of the usual day or two. I guess I’ll use some of that extra time to put a few more finishing touches on my research plan, but because of the page limit I can’t add much to it without taking something away in exchange.
So yes, I did submit my application for Research Fellow funding, and I did exactly what I promised myself I wouldn’t do: I left it until too late to get started, finished my proposal just barely ahead of the deadline and submitted it without having anyone else read it first. Have I set myself up to be rejected? Yeah, probably. Does that bother me? Not really, not right now anyway. I’m just glad to be done with it, except of course I’m not quite done yet – I’m actually a little bit annoyed that they extended the deadline, even though it means that I can still improve my application, because that “can” almost feels like a “must” and frankly I’d rather just forget about the damn thing already.
Funding applications are curious things for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the psychological effect of the approaching deadline. Why is it that when the deadline is a month away, you feel like there isn’t a creative cell in your body and even an hour or two of writing is a gargantuan effort, but when there’s less than a week left, suddenly your head is full of ideas and working round the clock is no big deal? Just think of all the cool stuff I’d get done if I could be like that all the time! In all seriousness, though, I don’t think I’d take that bargain, because it would mean having precious few non-working hours and probably being too knackered to enjoy those most of the time.
I suppose a part of the answer to that riddle is that once you get close enough to the deadline, your inner critic slinks off to the background because you get so desperate for things to write down that you’ll take anything your inner crazy ideas guy can offer you. And that’s another curious thing, the mental rollercoaster ride you embark upon when the critic decides it’s time to intervene: you can go from celebrating something as the best idea you’ve ever had in the afternoon to condemning it as utter garbage late at night, trying in vain to get some sleep so you can replace it with something halfway-decent when you get up in the morning. If only you’d had those ideas sooner, you could have sorted the worthwhile ones from the ones best released back into whatever murky pool they crawled out of, but it’s as if your brain refuses to generate them until it’s too late to get too picky.
It’s also kind of strange how working on an application can get you so stressed that it starts to border on existential crisis. In a certain sense, you’re just applying for a job – but of course it would be more accurate to say that you’re proposing to create a job for yourself with someone else’s money, and therein lies the rub: a funding application is much more an expression of your identity and values than a simple job application could ever be. What is so important to you that you’d commit five years of your life to pursuing it, and so important to the world that you should be given hundreds of thousands of euros to do it? Why is it so important, and why are you the right person to get it done? These are questions that go well beyond what skills you have and into the realm of who you are, so it’s no wonder really that having your application rejected can sometimes feel quite personal.
With the application submitted, it’s time to move on to other things and wait patiently while the research councils and review panels do their worst. This year the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering awarded funding to 22 new Academy Research Fellows, representing 11 percent of all applications and 24 percent of those with an overall rating of 5 or 6 out of 6 – so statistically, even if the review panel loves your application, the odds are still against you. The percentages vary between different funding sources and instruments, but generally you end up submitting a bunch of failed applications for every successful one, which of course isn’t terribly efficient and it’s tempting to dismiss all your hard work as a waste of time and energy.
Still, there are always some things you can take away from the rejected ones. It’s good to force yourself to ask those big philosophical questions from time to time; they may not lead to any major epiphanies, but it can’t hurt to remind yourself of why you are in research, whether it helps you to stay motivated or gets you to consider your other options. It’s also a great social bonding ritual to commiserate together with your colleagues over your rejections, not to mention how much sweeter all the failures make it when one of you succeeds and you get to have a celebration instead. Besides, there’s bound to be stuff in your rejected application that you can reuse when you start writing your next one – which you will definitely do well ahead of the deadline, no procrastination this time, no sir! Right?