October 25, 2012

Your Resubmission—Application Act Two

Nobody likes bad news, but unsuccessful applications are a fact of life every investigator eventually faces.

But unlike the director of a Broadway play, you don't have to worry about your audience walking out on your second act. Your reviewers will play their part, keen on seeing how you addressed their critiques.

Before we discuss the ins and outs of resubmitting, let’s back up to earlier events where you judge whether resubmitting is your most effective tack.

After you learn your application is not fundable, you’ll first need to spend time to effectively deal with your anger and frustration.

When you've done that, you'll be ready to take a cold hard look at your options and do a thorough analysis of your situation so you can determine what to do next.

Keep in mind that summary statements don't tell the whole story. Be sure to discuss the comments and possibly get additional feedback from your program officer.

Besides resubmitting, other options include creating a sufficiently new application or, in some cases, reusing or repurposing the original one. If you’re unsure how to proceed, get advice from program officers and colleagues, and read more in these resources:
How to Stage a First-Rate Review
Now that you have decided to resubmit, you'll need to meet your reviewers’ expectations to elicit their applause. That means paying close attention to both the written and unwritten rules. Let’s start with NIH's requirements:

Rule 1: You can resubmit only once.

Rule 2: You must apply within 37 months of the original application's receipt date.

Rule 3: Your application must include a one-page introduction and a cover letter. See Create a Cover Letter in Part 4.

Rule 4: You must address all your reviewers' issues in your summary statement. Reviewers will look for this information and will evaluate your revisions. Providing any additional data requested by the reviewers is always preferable to arguing in your response why it’s not needed.

Following the official rules is important but not enough. You also must adhere to this essential tenet: remove all emotion from your writing, especially in the introduction.

Instead, you want to be respectful and stay objective.

To achieve that level of cool, put yourself in your reviewers’ shoes and view your application from their perspective. That mindset may also help you avoid taking disagreements about facts or choices as a personal affront.

In addition to presenting information in a thoroughly objective manner, you will want to acknowledge the good insights and helpful guidance of your reviewers.

You may not agree with all of their comments, but the reviewers have spent quite a bit of time evaluating your proposal and writing their critiques.

Tact is particularly key in such cases. Additionally, you’ll need to choose your approach to dealing with the comments: you could revise your plans to get around the problem or respectfully explain why you think you are correct.

That call can be tricky to make. For a difference of scientific opinion, you may not succeed. On the other hand, a missing or misunderstood fact can usually be clarified successfully.

And another consideration: you get only one page for your introduction, so make the most of it.
  • If you agree with the reviewers, say so and move on. Save precious space for justifying why you disagree with a point.
  • Refer to sections in the application with new information that strengthens your case.
  • Reviewers are human: if they missed some information, state where it is—and resist the urge to say it was there before!  
To get an idea of what a well-written introduction should sound like, look at our sample applications linked below.

Then after you finish writing your introduction, have a colleague or two read it to judge whether it could possibly be interpreted as defensive or argumentative.

Timing Your Entry
Say your application scores just above the payline or perhaps has been placed on our selective pay list. What should you do?

We often recommend resubmitting rather than waiting.

First, the advantage to resubmitting as soon as you can is that you get the application in earlier, and usually a resubmission will not hurt you.

Second, most resubmissions do better than the initial application. Our data show that more than 80 percent of resubmissions get better scores, and less than 5 percent get significantly worse scores.

Even if your resubmission scores slightly worse, that probably won't affect your funding chances because we can fund the earlier one later in the fiscal year.

Above all, don’t rush. Do not resubmit until you can send in the strongest possible application that adequately addresses all the reviewers' comments. If you can't do that, it's better to wait for the next receipt date.

And if you need additional preliminary data or new data are imminent, wait until you have them before resubmitting.

You can also begin drafting your revised proposal even before you get the summary statement, so you’ll be ready to apply for the next receipt date.

This approach works if you have promising new data, manuscripts accepted for publication, or other obvious improvements to make. Then, after you get your summary statement, you can add to the final revisions needed to address your reviewers’ concerns.

A consideration for new investigators: although you get your summary statement at least a month before the next receipt date, NIH data show that most new investigators are not ready to apply for that date. As we advise everyone, whether new or experienced, you shouldn’t apply until you are truly ready.

One final thought on timing: sometimes waiting has little impact on the timing of an award.
  • For Cycle 1 receipt dates (September-October Council), you often must wait several extra months for an award because we do not yet have a budget for the following fiscal year.
  • If you submit for the Cycle 3 receipt dates (May Council) instead, you could lose just a month or two before you get an award.
Read more in Timing Factors That Affect Your Application and Award linked below.

Give It Your Best Shot
You have only one opportunity to resubmit, so you’ll want to give it your best shot. Here are some tips for success.

Respond point by point to the reviewers' comments and suggestions even if you disagree. Carefully and respectfully address each point, stating how you dealt with all the criticisms in the summary statement.
  • If you disagree, explain the reason, giving additional information (or citing new published papers) if possible.
  • Even if you don't agree initially, consider changing your plans. For example, if a reviewer does not like an approach, see if you can propose a different one.
Keep in mind that reviewers are not wedded to their critiques, new reviewers may disagree with previous comments or raise new criticisms, and your summary statement is not an exhaustive critique—it may not list all the concerns the reviewers had or may have raised if the discussion had continued.

Identify all changes (usually). Make changes clear.
  • Highlight your reviewers' comments in your introduction and identify changes in the body of the Research Plan unless most of the text has changed. If so, state that fact in the introduction and don't mark changes.
  • Make new text in the Research Plan easy to distinguish.
    • Use arrows, brackets, indents, or a new (allowed) font.
    • Do not underline, shade changes, or use color.
    • Avoid italicizing large blocks of text—it's hard to read.
Capitalize on your strengths and throw out or revise the parts reviewers felt were weak.
  • Then, check that all the parts are still in sync, for example, that the new experiments in your Research Strategy line up with your Specific Aims and hypothesis.
  • Update your references cited.
  • Check cross-references to figure and table numbers. Reviewers get annoyed when they waste time looking for a Figure 5 that no longer exists.
Add new findings and improvements. You aren't limited to revising issues mentioned in the summary statement.
  • Strengthen the application by adding new information and preliminary data—including in areas your reviewers did not question.
  • Review and update your letters of support.
    • Get new letters to show continued commitment for your project or willingness to provide reagents or samples or to perform assays.
    • Make sure all letters of support still match your project: don’t confuse your reviewers by including a letter that refers to assays no longer proposed.
Check our Latest Funding Updates and Top Policy Changes, linked below, to find out about new policies or other changes that happened since you last applied.

The bottom line: many people do get their applications funded after revising and resubmitting. So be optimistic, careful, and as we say to any good Thespian—break a leg!

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding

Sample Applications and Summary Statements (look for "Introduction" in the navigation on the left of the PDF file)
  • R01—Adam Ratner, "Gardnerella vaginalis: toxin production and pathogenesis"—Full Application
  • R21—John Haynes Weis, "Role of Ifitm/Fragilis proteins as intracellular shuttles during cell activation"—Full Application

Latest Funding Updates
Top Policy Changes

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