Career, Science

How to bounce back from grant rejection – now with real tips

Nature Jobs had a recent post called “How to bounce back from grant rejection“. The article is nice but the title is misleading: instead of a how-to guide it rather is a list of the “six stages of scientific grief” directly adapted from Kübler-Ross.

Have a look at it, it’s a nice read, but afterwards you still don’t know how to actually make sure that you bounce back on track after getting your wonderful proposal slapped in your face.

We regret to inform you …

The situations I have in mind are like this: When you applied for a fancy-pants grant (like the orange circle ones) and you made it to the last round of interviews – and then you get rejected!

Or when you applied for a super-duper funded PI position, got short-listed and interviewed – and then you get rejected!

Your hopes were high, you thought you could make it, the champagne was already on ice – and then you get rejected!

What to do then? Here is the guide from the front lines.

Don’t rush into major life decisions

Maybe you will never be able to fund your group. Maybe you will never have a career in science. Maybe you are just not smart enough. Maybe ‘the system’ is a all about competition nowadays and no longer about real science. Maybe you should switch your field of research and do string theory instead. Maybe you should get a real job in industry. Or become a butcher like your daddy always wanted you to. Maybe .. Maybe … Maybe …

These are all important questions and a string of rejections can make everybody doubt themselves. But don’t act on these doubts while the pain is still too fresh. You will just make a bad decision.

First: sleep over it.

Then: talk to others, your peers, mentors, or bosses. That will help to clear your mind.

Admit that it hurts

Even if you are too vain to admit it to others, at least admit it to yourself: yes, it hurt! It hurts every time, no matter if it was a big grant or a small one, a long application or a short one.

Some people I know even seem to get some extra push out of every rejection. They collect their rejection letters in a special folder and when they feel unmotivated and like they are losing their edge, they read all these letters again to renew the spark.

Don’t ask me if that sounds particularly healthy, but -hey- if it helps …

Don’t kill the messenger

The last time I got rejected, the funding agency’s grants advisor told me the bad news on the phone. “The panel liked you,” he said. “Good,” I thought. “They liked your project,” he said. “Great,” I thought. “They thought it might be a game changer,” he said. “Wohoo!” I thought. “We are not funding it,” he said. “WHAT THE F&%K!” I thought — but did not say.

Always be nice to the admin people. It’s not their fault. They don’t have much influence on panel decisions – none maybe. But they can help you with identifying opportunities, can give you feedback and maybe even help you fine-tune your application. Plan for a long-term relationship with them, so don’t piss them off even if you feel really frustrated.

Ask for more feedback

Decision letters are often very short and will never be able to fully capture the discussions the panel had about your application. But you can always ask for more detailed feedback. Either from the administrators, who were responsible for you, or directly from members of the panel. That might give you a much better idea of which part of the proposal really needs to be strengthened and what their criticisms were.

The glass is half-full

Be aware of the little victories: every time you are invited for an interview is a sign that you are on the right track.

The dynamics of panel discussion are unforeseeable and I have never been judged by a panel that fully consisted of experts in my field. The last time I was happy to have a single computational biologist in the panel, but then everybody started their questions with the words “I don’t do cancer but …”

It’s not predictable how all these middle-aged men from other fields will judge your proposal – but just getting to the interview is already a badge of honour.

There is no multiple testing correction

At the end of the day, only the successes count. There is no section ‘Unsuccessful applications’ in anybody’s CV.

Use the feedback you got to strengthen your application, streamline and polish it. And then just keep on submitting your stuff until you are successful somewhere.



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