Grant rejection didn’t improve my scientific output, but it did improve my scientific career.

I had a reasonably frictionless track from undergraduate to PI, which I attribute to personal brilliance and dashing good looks, but was more likely a combination of hard work, luck and privilege. I had had some rejections along the route but nothing that felt derailing. There were rejected papers, but by and large rejected papers always find a home, maybe not as prestigious as I’d hoped, but a home nonetheless. I had also put out a few speculative job applications for posts that I was dramatically underqualified for, and was rightly turned down. But essentially, I got to lecturer without any big career rejections.
But rather than being a #humblebrag, I am trying to set the scene for what came next. As a freshly minted PI, flush with my own self-confidence, I submitted a research grant to a popular medicine-based science council. It came back with what I thought were reasonable scores and so I answered the reviewers’ comments, resubmitted and went to a conference in Thailand (again an important detail not just showing off).
On day 2 of the conference, I made the terrible mistake of opening my inbox. ‘We regret to inform you…’. Cue full on meltdown. To quote Nick Hornby, ‘I lost the plot for a while, then the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits and the exit sign’. I attribute this to several factors. I was away from my support network, 8 hours out of sync and it was pre-Skype so I couldn’t talk to them anyway. Secondly, it was the first big thing I had applied for that I hadn’t got. And finally, being new, inexperienced and somewhat melodramatic, I completely over-estimated the importance of any single piece of research funding on my academic career. There were a number of sleepless nights contemplating my ruined career and how I would never get over it.
I did get over it.
And whilst I wouldn’t go as far as describing it as a blessing in disguise, grant rejections (and time) have changed how I do my job. Rejection has had a humanising effect, having been ‘there’, I know what it feels like to undergo grant rejection and can sympathise better with other people undergoing the same experience. Having had (many) grant rejections and still being employed makes each individual rejection feel less make or break. I now have a longer perspective to see that some of my ideas are just plain bad and don’t deserve to be funded (obviously none of the ones currently under consideration), some ideas went to the wrong place and have now found a home, and some ideas are worth fighting for so that they get done, one way or another.
My first failed grant laid the foundation for how I now cope with future rejections and I am now failing better. There is a mourning period, which may sound like a strong term, but I think appropriate – if you don’t care enough about a grant, you are never going to submit it in the first place. After the mourning period, which I have managed to contract to 24 hours, I try to step back and take on the reviewers’ feedback as constructive. This is a challenge, but I have made progress since writing profanities about each reviewer’s parentage on the grant and then accidentally leaving this tirade on my desk for my students to see.
However good I get at failing, getting my grants rejected is still tricky – but never as traumatic as that first time.

(This first appeared in Times Higher Education)