On dealing with rejection

Rejection is hard for everyone to deal with, but for a scientist, it is both hard and a pervasive part of our everyday lives: we have to deal with many many rejections for every success we achieve. This is true for grant applications, publications, positions we are applying for, promotions within our institutions, and various other competitions in which we take part; the answer is usually no (and when I say usually, I mean upwards of 75% for most journals in Ecology and Evolution, upwards of 94% for grant proposals to the National Science Foundation, and 99.5% for candidates applying for a given faculty position).

rejection letter

These odds can sometimes seem insurmountable. And to overcome them, there are many different strategies. For example, in terms of acquiring a grant you might consider applying for every opportunity that you can. This would surely raise your odds of success, right? Unless of course you are in fact trading off real productivity (i.e., the science you want to and were hired to do) for grant writing and gambling against the odds. Alternatively, you might try the reverse strategy– concentrating on being a productive, focused and dedicated scientist who waits until they have a great idea, some preliminary data, and the time to put together a really clear and exciting proposal (the so-called “eggs in one basket” kind of person). Again, this seems like it should raise your odds of success, given that you are competing against others who are scrambling to write as many proposals as they can. However, there is a component of the system that is truly stochastic (one reviewer who takes a strong dislike to your idea or method can easily sink the success of your proposal), and therefore all of that hard work (either quality or quantity) is not a guarantee.

Unfortunately, this is not a piece offering advice on how to succeed at grant writing – although if that’s what you are looking for, there are some really great ones out there (see here, here, and here).  Instead, I’ll discuss strategies for dealing with rejection and I would love to hear your thoughts/suggestions on others. I would suggest going through the following steps, in whatever order you feel is appropriate:

1) Pat yourself on the back (or hug yourself if you’re flexible). After all, you were brave enough to try! And you can’t succeed if you don’t put yourself out there. It can be very scary to craft your ideas into a proposal or paper and send it off to be torn apart by your competitors/colleagues/idols. You did it. Well done!

2) Scream/curse/cry/kick something – ideally something soft and not alive. You have a right to be angry. You put a lot of time and effort into that proposal/paper/application, and you did it out of love for the field, curiosity and in an attempt to contribute (as opposed to money or fame, since there are little of either available as rewards), and it’s hard to see this wasted.

3) Go commiserate with a friend/colleague. After all, every one of your fellow scientists has dealt with a similar blow and it can really help to know you’re not alone. Don’t worry that they will look down on you or lose respect. Everyone knows it’s part of the job, and it’s no fun.

4) Once you’ve calmed down and are ready, buy a nice coffee/tea/beer and reread your reviews. First look at the positive things that were said. Then think about the negatives. Are any of these good points? Points you could address in your next version? If not, is it because you may have thought the point was too obvious to discuss in your work (in which case, you now know better – there are some real numpties out there, and you need to convince them too).

5) Try and try again! And don’t forget to reflect on your past rejections when you finally do get that paper accepted/job offer/grant funded… you got it against the odds! Go celebrate.

6) Last but not least, we are of course on both sides of this playing field. We are authors, but also reviewers. So when you are dealing with rejection, don’t forget to take some mental notes about how you felt receiving the feedback so you can check back over this the next time you are rejecting someone else; constructive criticism and a spoonful of kind words can go a very long way in making the medicine go down.

3 responses to “On dealing with rejection

  1. Comments from the Twittersphere:

    1) “Rejection without feedback is getting under my academic skin recently.”
    2) “Not quite easy with PhD appli rejections thogh as in step 4 onwards as next version can b applied only after a year.”
    3) “Why dont they say do this or that.. or this is what you missed/lacked… will make dealing with it easier.”
    4) “My advice is to take the comments, change the grant/paper according to the feedback & resubmit. Rejection can be good!”
    5) “For one paper I considered reviewer rejection comments, changed the paper a lot & resubmitted & got accepted in a better journal.”

    Responses:

    1) Yes, the generic responses are the worst! Especially when they are somewhat patronizing, such as “there were many high quality proposals and competition was stiff. Therefore we were forced to only fund those projects that were both [e.g. great science] and [e.g. were unique].” Insult to injury, and I’d assumed your goal was to fund crap science?
    2) It’s true, we are often put in situations where we are unable to respond to reviewers comments or to reapply. These are the worst. But my only advice is to take it for what it is: a tough competition. Just keep trying! and focus on what you can do in the meantime to improve your CV and make your application stand out next year!
    3) Yes, there are definitely some lazy reviewers out there who don’t bother with constructive criticism. Part of this is because they probably have much to much on their plates, and it takes a lot of time to write a good/helpful review.
    4) Agreed! It is always wise to think hard about any suggestions made. But I would also say that you do not need to change something (e.g. redo an analysis or rewrite a section) just because a reviewer said so. You’ve been thinking of this for much longer and with more information than them. Indeed, as a reviewer I don’t mind at all when authors outline why they’ve decided not to do what I suggest. In the end, it IS their paper! If you do stick to your guns, though, you should have a good reason to.
    5) Well done!

  2. Will bookmark those guides to grant writing, cheers!

  3. Pingback: Lab up and running! | coastalpathogens

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