Achy breaky heart: coping with academic rejection



My academic ego is shattered. I recently had a ~£1m grant proposal rejected. I feel like a million dollars in the red. Academia is tough on the ego. The stakes are high, and for this particular funding stream, there is only one chance to get the proposal perfect. The proposal took me a large proportion of last summer to write and a huge amount of thought.

Fortunately, like most mid career academics, my ego is plenty big enough to cope. It could even do with slimming down. As Scarlett O’Hara famously said “I’ll write another proposal tomorrow”.

This attitude doesn’t emerge overnight. It took me about a decade of experience and rejection to get to the point where I can kick the cat (or a passing student), shrug and then forget it. I have shed tears over various proposals and papers over the years but it does get easier. If you’re an early career researcher struggling with rejection, here are some comforting thoughts. I have also provided some bracing thoughts, which you may need more depending what stage of the grief cycle you’re at.

Comforting thought: Rejection makes you a better academic #1. I know, it feels dreadful. But really, you will feel better soon. You can learn from your mistakes. Think of all that advice the generous reviewers have donated to you. How much better will your work be if you seriously consider it and take it on board? “Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you and go on to the next big opportunity” (Dennet, 2013;23)

Bracing thought: You probably don’t know more than the reviewers.You only think you do. If you peer into the depths of your academic soul, you will see the truth glaring back at you. The reviewers probably don’t have axes to grind. They probably don’t hate you. They may be terse, time starved or tactless but they are unlikely to be stupid. You need to take the time to digest what they are saying and address each of the points in turn. Then you’ll have a better paper. Then you’ll have learned something.

Comforting thought: Rejection makes you a better academic #2. The pain you experience now will make you a better teacher. You’ll never be tempted to slash red pen through an undergraduate essay again. Actually you will. You just won’t do it because you’ll remember back to how you feel today and be constructive and kind instead. Your students will love you. Your colleagues will be in awe of your saintly empathy.

Bracing thought: Move on. You’re not going to remember about this for very long. People tend not to have their publications engraved on their tombstones. Or grant reference numbers. You need to move on to the next thing as soon as possible. Can what you wrote be recycled for another paper, or another grant application? If so, throw your tissue in the bin and back to your keyboard, soldier! The more you write, the higher the likelihood of success. As my boss once said, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not writing enough proposals.

I leave you with this thought from the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman: “I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” (Kahneman, 2012; 264) . I find this comforting and bracing in equal measure: life as a researcher is hard but if you’ve got this far, you’re delusional enough to cope.

Feeling rejected? Share your story below, and readers will comfort you. We’ve all been there!

Author Bio: Dr Judy Robertson who is a senior lecturer in computer science at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and Chief Cat Herder for the undergraduate computer science programme there.