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A lesson in persistence

Academic life can be brutal at times. I became an academic because there were questions that I wanted to answer about why some children fail to learn their native language as expected. The only way to pursue this research question is to convince another group of academics that my ideas are valuable and worth funding. This involves writing a grant – a proposal that details how I will answer the question, why it is important, what methods and materials will be used, how many research staff will be required, how the findings will be communicated and what the impact of those findings will be. Anyone who has ever written a grant will know that grants represent a tremendous amount of work and a huge personal investment.

The seeds of the SCALES grant were sown way back in 2007. Gillian Baird and I were attending the 4th International Afasic Symposium and spent a pleasant evening discussing Bruce Tomblin’s talk and the epiSLI study (more about that later). We discussed the possibility of a UK population study of risk for language impairment, one that would take co-morbidity into account from the earliest stages and one that measured the impact of language impairment on the child’s everyday life. Conclusion: let’s write a grant…

We got a fantastic team together (more about them later!) but the first hurdle we faced was that a population study would require screening a large number of children in order to identify our target sample and none of the available screening measures were really up to scratch. So we decided to write a preliminary grant that would test two screening  methods, direct child assessment or teacher report of everyday language and communication. In testing the screen, we would also assess how many identified children had ‘specific’ language impairments and how many had additional developmental concerns.  It seemed a very straightforward proposal: theoretically interesting, clear hypothesis, clear implications for policy and practice.

The rejection letter and five sets of reviewer comments of varying degrees of venom and hostility arrived four days after the birth of my first baby. (Some of you may be wondering why on earth I checked my email four days after giving birth – I can only claim post-partum denial of reality).  Now every academic has experienced grant rejection and I suspect most find it quite upsetting. But in my hormonal, sleep-deprived state I was completely inconsolable. Convinced that my research career, indeed my life as I’d known it was over, I resolved to spend the rest of my days trying to feed my screaming baby. I sent my co-applicants another email. It went something like ‘our brilliant grant has been completely rubbished. Oh, and I’ve had a beautiful baby girl.’ Fortunately they are a wise and wonderful team and helped me to put things in perspective!

I put it behind me, wrote a different grant (that got funded), adjusted to parenthood and went back to work. About a year later we reconvened and decided to go with what we believed was the best available screening measure and write the grant we really wanted to do. Now, we knew that ideally we would follow children over time, but longitudinal projects are very expensive to run and don’t fit into the standard 3-year grant scheme. I was also a relatively new and untested investigator, so it was unlikely that anyone would trust me with such a large project. So we played it conservatively –screen at reception, assess in Year 1 and investigate language deficit and co-occurring difficulties.

This time I was more mentally prepared for the rejection letter and was somewhat cheered by the fact that the five reviewers were for the most part extremely positive. But my good cheer soon gave way to deep frustration – unlike other countries, here there is usually no option to revise and resubmit a grant. It now looked like our project would fester in the filing cabinet.

I don’t give up easily though – this was a project that I really believed in, we had terrific support in Surrey and it just had to happen. So I phoned Ailish Murray at the Wellcome Trust and I asked for her advice about what to do next. She was fantastic- she told me that the panel had been enthusiastic about the project but felt that a longitudinal design would be best suited to answer our primary research questions. Although they would not take a resubmission, we could submit a new, 4-year grant with different questions and a different method.

One more chance. As luck would have it, our last chance coincided with the last ever round of Wellcome project grants. Half of England would be putting a grant in to this round. I found myself in a big grant-writing slump – it seemed a completely hopeless endeavour and a total waste of time. I’m also not great at endlessly revising and rewriting things, but my very thoughtful and experienced collaborators sent back draft after draft with comments and questions and pushed me to keep going.

A particularly challenging aspect of this process is that we all know when the panel meets, so there is a period of time in which a hand full of people know your fate, but you are not one of those people. This purgatory was longer than usual this time, given the large number of applications received. At the very same time, my husband was waiting to hear about a grant submitted to a different funding body. We looked at the month ahead and realised we’d either be drowning in gin or swimming in champagne. We tried not to dwell on the other possibility that one of us would get funded while the other would be disappointed (again).

My husband heard first – good news! I was thrilled for him, but figured that was the death knell for my grant. (I know the two events are causally unrelated, but it didn’t seem possible that we’d both get funded). I stopped holding my breath every time I opened my email. Then one day I was on a bus in London, looked at my phone, and saw an email from Ailish Murray followed by messages from every one of the co-applicants. I didn’t want to cry on the bus, so for a split second thought I might wait until I got home to open them. Of course I didn’t do that. I must have shouted at an inappropriate bus volume because the woman next to me said ‘is everything alright?’ And it was! We did have lots of champagne and I was elated for weeks. Then I read the grant again and realised I would now have to do all the things I said I was going to do…