Not that Kind of Letter: Tales of Rejection
I have been thinking about rejections in science. Rejections come in all shapes and sizes, from the grant you need to build your program, to an awesome rotation student picking another lab, to a manuscript rejection at yet another journal. While I definitely had my share of rejection emails as a graduate student and postdoc, there has been an exponential rise since starting my faculty appointment. So how is a new principal investigator (PI) to deal? As always these days, n=me.
The first rejection of any type hurts the most: There is no magic pill to lessen the blow of the first rejection. Going into my faculty position with my successful K99/R00, I thought securing my first R01 would be challenging, but not impossible. Needless to say, when my first R01 submission swung the other way and scored terribly, it was a brutal awakening. I have put in numerous grants now and while annoyed and concerned about my lack of R01 funding, my recovery time with each unfunded grant has decreased substantially.
Rejections in science can feel personal: One of the more challenging aspects of rejections in science is that they can feel deeply personal. For example, in grants, not only are your ideas carefully (or perhaps brutally) dissected, but your entire training, publication, and funding history are examined and commented upon. While I do not believe most reviewers aim to be cruel, sometimes objective statements carelessly phrased cut deeply. Similarly, when a talented postdoc or rotation student picks a more established laboratory, it can feel like a judgement on your mentoring philosophy, potential, and research vision.
It is OK to be sad: Mourning the loss of possibilities arising from an unfunded grant, unsecured postdoc, or rejected manuscript is normal. I often mope for a day (or two) and then usually throw myself into something that reaffirms my skills in the area of rejection. For example, on grant rejections, I throw myself back into lab work and moving papers along or look at the holes in the data, which the reviewers pointed out.
Talk about it: Venting is good for the soul. Yes, the reviewer completely missed the mark and how dare they not see the brilliance of my research proposal? How could the rotation student pick that other lab and not see the vision of their thesis that you had outlined? Sometimes it is easier to see the validity of a criticism when you discuss it. Moreover, by talking about rejections we normalize them. Fifty percent of grants in a study section are not discussed! The majority of grants that are discussed are not funded! Rejection is the norm in this job. By talking about it, we accept that it is frequent, normal, and inevitable.
Make a plan and move forward: After you have gone through the five stages of grief, make a plan. How are you going to address reviewer comments on your triaged grant? Prepare to spend some time with those horrible pink sheets and figure out what really did not work. Not sure what went wrong? Ask for help from your peers, mentors, community members. Sometimes realizing that you are not competitive for a grant or your lab is not the right fit for graduate students in an important part of moving forward.
Find a community that celebrates wins: There are many more losses than wins in this job. It is simply the nature of our chosen profession, and one way to lessen the blows of these seemingly endless rejections is to find a community that celebrates each other’s victories, great and small. Be this Twitter, New PI Slack, your department, or a group of assistant professors, find your people. Knowing you did not get the grant, but one of your friends did makes the rejection sting less.
These are my approaches to dealing with rejection, and I am sure there are many more. Whatever your approach, do not let the fear of rejection keep you from applying for grants, awards, and recruiting talented trainees! The worst they can say is “no”. Stay tuned for more tales!
Still have questions? More confused than when you started? Need to vent about the process? Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org