Dealing with rejection in academic life

Recently I took part in a training session for postgraduate students on how to secure funding for their future academic progression.  Against a backdrop of dramatic statistics about the small percentage of science PhD graduates who remain in academia, (see page 14), UK-stats-640pxthe goal of the session was to help PhD students identify sources of funding but, more importantly, strategies for getting their hands on some of it.

My role was as a ‘successful’ early career researcher, to illustrate the pathways I’ve taken and what it took to get to where I am now – in a relatively secure job with the prospect of a lectureship on the horizon. I started with a slide listing all the funding I’ve secured both as PI and co-I since my PhD. It looked pretty impressive and the audience were probably a bit daunted. That was certainly the goal. The next slide was a list of all the funding I have applied for and not won.  Far more crowded, with sometimes multiple unsuccessful applications to the same scheme and an impressive array of failures. Looking at me from the outside, I’m guessing the PhD students in that session believed I had it all sorted out, and this slide dramaticaly proved them wrong.

My point in starting off this way was to show that one of the major keys to success is persistence.  Having confidence in your research questions, methods and a passion for your topic is essential.  Without these, the inevitable rejections will overwhelm you resulting in one of two possibilities – leaving academia or settling (if you are far enough advanced) into an academic role with minimal research activity.  This is absolutely not to suggest that these roles have lesser status, and many proactively seek to evolve their career post-PhD either in a commercial environment or focusing on academic activites outside the collection of new data – teaching, supervision, public engagement, University administration. However I believe there are also those who came in to academia to do research but have found themselves losing momentum and confidence, perhaps committing to departmental responsibilities to mask their lack of research achievements. Another reason why this situation is regrettable is that often the highest quality teaching, supervision, public engagement and indeed University administration comes from those who are also research active and use that to inform their other academic practices.

successful grant copyNow, of course, persistence isn’t the whole deal.  In securing research funding, we all need to ground our research in good quality literature, make use of peer review opportunities, respond meaningfully to feedback when it is available and so on.  Another factor is finding the right research question to build on your expertise, available resources in your host institution and country, and the priorities of the funding body. But luck is also part of the picture – who reviews your grant application? what are their personal biases and bugbears? how are they feeling on the day they write that review? – and rejection is an inevitable part of progress. The same process applies to publishing work once it is completed. On the whole, papers get out there sooner or later but this eventual success belies the agonising process of revision and rejection most manuscripts have been through before they finally make it into print.

For me, this month has been a gruelling one, with two grant applications and four journal articles rejected in the last four weeks. The result is exhaustion and a real reduction in confidence. After all, a little voice says to me, perhaps this isn’t just the usual academic process, perhaps your work is just rubbish. How can you tell the difference?  Thankfully there are people around me – peers, mentors, students, friends – who have boosted my confidence, giving me the wherewithal to re-submit the papers, re-work the grant proposals for new funders. I also think I’ve worked out why this recent spate of set-backs has hit me so hard.  I had allowed myself to believe that I had got better at being an academic.  I thought my success rate would change. I would get more papers accepted, more grants funded than before. I looked at the senior colleagues around me and observed that they appeared to have it easy.  They were able to get funding at the drop of hat, the journals were begging to publish their every word.  And I thought that I was somewhere along a road to a similar state of luxury.

Ridiculous. If only I were able to follow my own advice.  Rejection is a part of the process.  Your job as an academic is to learn to take it in your stride, respond maturely and effectively to feedback, keep going.  So that’s what I’m trying to do.