It is amazing to get that “Eureka!” moment or finally get that assay to work, but the downside of those moments is that we do face a lot of rejection. Scientists push the envelope of human knowledge and that means we have to deal with a fair amount of negativity in our line of work. We all have times where the experiment fails, paper is rejected for publication, or that fellowship or grant application is triaged. Good researchers have to learn how to deal with the mental torture that accompanies being turned down.
There is no denying rejection is horrible, you open your email and there is a message with the stock standard “Due to the large number of quality candidates, you have not been chosen for this job/fellowship/grant”. Regardless of whether you thought you would get that grant, job or paper published, it still hurts. You always have a little glimmer of hope, no matter how bad the odds. It might help that you’re not alone: according to the NIH, the average success rate for all research grant types across institutes was 18.1% in 2014, although this can vary widely for different grant schemes and institutions. However, as scientists, we must persevere. As Thomas Edison said, “The most certain way to succeed is to try just one more time.”
So what are some strategies to deal with rejection?
1. Do Not Take it Personally
Although you put your heart and soul into your application or paper, the rejection or critique was an opinion that a group of people formed. Although it sometimes can be downright nasty or unprofessional, as shockingly demonstrated by this Buzzfeed compilation and the original Tumblr page, it is not meant as a personal attack on you – even if it may sound like it.
2. Do Not Get Mad
Hand in hand with not taking it personally, you should definitely not get angry at the reviewers or the organization for their decision. Realize that research is a complex, political, and convoluted system. Your application may have been rejected through no fault of yours. It’s difficult not to lash out when something disappointing happens, but try to take a walk and take your mind off it. When you are ready, try to move on. Definitely do NOT send a rash email or an aggressive phone call, it will not help!
3. Use It as Constructive Criticism
Once you have come to terms with the fact that you were denied, the best course of action is to try to get the most out of the experience as possible. Try this after you have completed strategy 2 above. You won’t be able to fully utilize the criticism if you are biased against it.
Start with any comments or written reviews. Did the reviewers not understand a concept very well and were confused? Could you clarify that by writing it in a different way? Did the reviewers suggest interesting experiments that could add to the manuscript (without adding too much time to the process)? Did they point out a hole in your idea that you could plug or amend with more information from the literature? Rather than seeing the criticism as negative, try to see it as a way to better your application or work to enable it to succeed in the future.
4. Do Not Give Up!
Research is hard and our entire system for publications and grants is based on the opinions of our peers. Sometimes that opinion is very helpful, other times it may be confused or biased. Recognize that the more you try and improve, the better your chances will be. Our job is to add new information, shake the current knowledge we have and propose new ideas – all of those things are incredibly difficult to do and nearly always encounter some kind of resistance. If a reviewer or grant panel is refusing to see things your way, either try to frame your argument differently or move on to someone that may be more receptive.
Being denied anything, whether it be funding, a publication, or an experimental result is a horrible experience. However, you can control how you respond to it and as a scientist you could learn from the ordeal and hopefully, next time you will be successful! As Charles Kettering, a notable engineer and inventor once said: “An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he’s in. He treats his failures simply as practice shots.”
Just keep shooting!
NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools: Success Rates. Data from Research Project Grants: 3. Research Project Grants: Success rates by type, activity, and Institute/Center (.xls) http://www.report.nih.gov/success_rates/index.aspx
Buzzfeed: 25 Brutally Honest Peer Review Comments from Scientists. http://www.buzzfeed.com/kellyoakes/more-like-smear-review-amirite#.lh0rnVM4n
Tumblr: Sh*t My Reviewers Say