Rejection is part of academic life. I guess we often hide these discussions in local corridors or with colleagues who have a similar outlook. It is as common a phenomenon as end-of-semester marking. But just how useful is it in shaping who we are? Silly question? I don’t think so. Not anymore.

Over the last 12 months I’ve had two fellowship proposals, one open science proposal and one general computing support proposal rejected. On the fellowships alone, one got to interview whilst the other didn’t get past the final panel review after an initial sift. Both took a long time to write, taking precedent over many daily duties. You know – life. One was the third attempt over 8 years, the other involved engaging with 9 international partners to carefully construct a collaborative plan. In both cases, I felt a sense of real positivity in pushing a field forward, both scientifically and from a community perspective. Both were crafted according to requested feedback and call definition. I couldn’t have done any more. Ok, that’s one big box ticked.

But back to my original questions: what about the usefulness of rejection? Was it all a waste of time? Before we progress any further, you should know I have a full time position, so why the need to feel somewhat aggrieved? Well, it got me thinking more generally about the success/failure rollercoaster in research and the shifting sands of instantaneous gratification and metric driven success.

Lets break the process down. Surely the first point of reflection from a competitive round is through feedback. What do we get with feedback? At best, you receive an informed rejection based on sound scientific debate. From this position you can reflect on detail that might have been missed or muse at a community that simply doesn’t agree with the ideas put forward. You might even reflect back on this particular bid in a few months and think “ok, I didn’t consider enough risk mitigation here, they were correct” for example. That’s ok, it can be tricky to judge how a large community is shifting its stance. It can be tricky to project work over a number of years. At worst, you receive barely any feedback that makes sense; a commentary on your individual role or minor, yet, alarmingly negative points around costing’s and personal independence. From this position, feelings of doubt can pervade the entire reflection process. Typically there is some unholy blend of the two, with the fabled ‘reviewer 2’ throwing their misguided oar in!

Whichever experience you have, rejection and the processes leading to rejection is an important dictator of individual career paths as it encourages reflection. Whether that reflection is grounded in science or your personal energy reserves – it is important. Trends in rejection can also define the slow undulating path of an entire field. Is beating a dead horse a valuable use of your time, honestly?

I recall writing my first proposal. I had the benefit of working with a key champion of my goals and me. They have left, unfortunately. Opening up the process to younger researchers can pay dividends, even by exposing them to the process of rejection. When writing a proposal, try to involve PDRAs and PhDs in the process if you don’t already. Not only is it good career experience, these are the people who will hold the floor for future proposal debates.

So where’s the silver lining? I feel it is reflection and a refresh of strategic planning. You are a scientist. You can adapt. I firmly still believe that the ideas that I’ve proposed in rejected bids have traction. Of course, I’ve also had bids rejected that, in hindsight, absolutely deserved to be rejected. Who dosnt? If you feel you haven’t, maybe some other form of reflection is needed.

What about you? What have you had rejected recently?


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