Life after Proposal Decline: Call Your Program Director

Headshot of Dr. Karl Thompson, Howard University

Of course there is a lot of emotion involved with a decline,” says Karl Thompson, Associate Professor of Microbiology at Howard University. He admits that when his proposal to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research (HBCU – EiR) solicitation was declined two years ago, he hesitated to contact Pamela Clarke, his university’s Director of Research Development. “I knew she would tell me to reach out to the program director,” he says. She did.

A week later, Thompson called Anthony Garza, program director in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB), about the declined proposal. The conversation with Garza helped Thompson recognize the need to improve an aim and to recruit a collaborator to supplement the specific expertise needed on the proposed project. The conversation also affirmed for Thompson that the division was interested in the research area covered by the proposal, he says. Encouraged, Thompson submitted the revised proposal to MCB’s core solicitation (NSF 21-509). This time, the proposal was funded.

Thompson first applied to the EiR solicitation after attending MCB’s first webinar-based workshop for potential applicants. Participating in the mock panel review was a valuable experience, he says, and the webinar overall helped him understand and work with NSF structures.

To develop as an outstanding scientist, you’re going to have a lot of failures—and all of that is learning. – Karl Thompson

“If you make it, you have a track record of declines. To develop as an outstanding scientist, you’re going to have a lot of failures—and all of that is learning,” says Thompson. A review of proposal submissions by 10 of MCB’s most widely recognized awardees indicates that of nearly 300 proposals submitted, nearly half were not funded.  

“I am resilient,” says Thompson, “but it’s not that simple, because I had people along the way who guided me.” He offers this advice to fellow researchers: “Do the mourning. Do the denial. Then snap out of it.” And, call your program director!

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