Careers, Funding, Opinion, Resources

It’s not me, it’s you – taking setbacks in context

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to take the chain of rejected research paper submissions, grant funding submissions, studentship or fellowship applications deeply personally. The biggest, and for some the hardest, trick is not to take these professional outcomes to heart. So, whilst easily suggested and not so easily done the main thing to remember is – “it’s not me, it’s you (something else)”. You of course know how much intellectual rigour, creativity and work you threw into the application, but do you know how to frame that rejection note to limit its impact and moreover to benefit from it?

” Tough watching talented #ECRs getting grants rej’d. Remember it doesn’t make you a failure, just a scientist. Feeling down makes you a human ”
Chris Chambers @chrisdc77 Tweet from 17 Oct 2017, 22:43

What follows is general advice that I hope is applicable across discipline, research area, and application type…

Straight away – Be mindful of first reactions – The first thing to do is take a moment to reassure yourself that it is absolutely not a personal slight, these things are never a popularity contest and do not judge you as a person. Take time to take it in before composing a response or finding the first passerby to off load upon. That said don’t hold it all in, once that first flush of frustration has passed seek appropriate counsel (a theme I will return to).

” Someone gave me some advice once to always put response to reviewer comments in a draw for a few days and then come back to them once time has taken effect and hopefully you can be more objective ”
– Emma Yhnell (Health and Care Research Wales Fellow, Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute)

Perspective – look again at the odds, the level of competition, and the constrains the review / selection panel were working within. This is not to say you should adopt a passive “oh well never-mind” mentality, but it is to say, “bring some balanced realism to the situation”. This is really the fundamental first step here in “its not me, its ‘you'”, reminding yourself that you are a good researcher and the fact you were able to submit something reinforces that (particularly true if the application had to go through departmental peer review, or expression of interest (EOI), processes prior to submission).

” All is not lost, although it may seem frustrating the whole application process you can learn from and these ideas are still relevant ”
– Emma Yhnell

Keeping your rejection in perspective is greatly aided if your application formed part of your own personal development strategy. Lots of applications come about in the ‘last minute’ hubbub of research teams where you may have lacked elements of control, and perhaps counter intuitively those applications that were part of a self-driven scheme are often easier to keep in proportion. For example, you will very likely already have that other application in or on the launch pad ready to go if you have considered a medium to long term strategy to get you where you want to be.

Reflection – once you have taken a moment to consider some perspective begin a process of reflection and learning from the experience by asking myself things like:

  • did I truly squarely hit the brief? Employ some critical thinking around the preparation for the application, was it rushed, did it actually lack a component, would it have benefitted from extra collaboration, was an element overlooked for importance [1] (one common one tends to be an accurate assessment of the impact of the planned work)
  • what can I take from this into future opportunities?
  • what strengths did this process highlight for me?
  • what weaknesses did this process highlight for me?
  • can I get someone to review my overall approach to this opportunity and give me feedback? [2] – re-engage with your colleagues and mentor/s
  • is there a quick step I can take to swing this around? Is there another call that I hadn’t put anything in for but that this might also fit? Don’t mentally close off as a result of the immediate setback.
  • consider / recognise whether actually it is now time to move in a different direction…

” Those of us w/ senior posts have chalked up more failures than you can imagine. It gets easier. You feel bad today, move fwd tmrrw. Persist. ”
Chris Chambers @chrisdc77 Tweet from 17/10/2017, 22:45 

Direction – it can be easy, often tempting, to carry on tapping away like a crazed Woody Woodpecker on the same tree – each setback provides an opportunity to lift your head and check the forest to see if you are at the right tree. Of course, persistence can pay off but in carrying on in your efforts take some time to check where you are. To stretch the woodpecker analogy out, there is nothing wrong with changing trees or flying off to a new forest as long as you can evidence to yourself (your collaborators, mentors and funding bodies) why you should.

Mentors – mentioned several times already, can have profound impacts – connecting with one, or more, can be that difference between success and failure. Much is written in many fields inside and outside academia about the value of mentors, role models, senior colleagues, and their ilk and I am not going to explore the topic here except emphasise that if you are serious about progression it would serve you well to with engage at least one (three or four is not uncommon), they can form a personal external review board [3].

Resilience – Last and not least, resilience, it can sound like a ‘soft’ nondescript word but you will need to be kind to yourself and nurture your emotional resources [4]. After all you may feel you put your heart and soul into that application leaving you feeling exhausted, perhaps stuck, and not just a little bit ‘banged up’. Resilience is key in bouncing back well and being able to tackle the processing of a setback constructively. Look around research teams long enough and you will note that many senior researchers go through rounds of high and low application activity which is very often not deadline led. These people are giving themselves room to regroup, rest, and recuperate before the next effort. Any application done well is a big effort, very likely you will burn the midnight oil, spend every waking moment pushing ahead, and so like any effort in life recognise that no one can maintain them indefinitely.

In summary, whatever it is you are applying for remember that the assessment was not a critique of your worth as a human being it is an exercise in trying to tease apart scientific merit, fit to a specific funding goal, or most often identifying which of a group of highly similarly qualified people’s skill sets might deliver the fastest and most useful outcomes in a specific post… remember really is not you, it is the outcome of a professional process.

“Good luck with that next submission or application”


References / Links:

[1] “Five ways to kill your application” – Jonathan O’Donnell, The Research Whisperer
https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/kill-your-application/amp/

[2] a LinkedIn article by James Caan CBE (business person and former BBC Dragon’s Den investor) on how to take professional rejection
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-handle-rejection-james-caan-cbe

[3] Karen Fitzgibbon’s “Mentoring” RSG blog post (part of the RSG toolbox)
http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/biosciences-research-staff/2016/04/29/opinion-mentoring-karen-fitzgibbon/

[4] “World Mental Health Day: Mental health in the workplace” – Amy Sykes, Mental Health / Iechyd Meddwl Blog, Cardiff University; 10 October 2017
http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/mental-health/2017/10/10/world-mental-health-day-mental-health-in-the-workplace/

Acknowledgments – thanks to Dr Sian Armstrong and Dr Emma Yhnell for proof reading, helpful input, and suggestions.

Photo credits – Author’s images, graphics applied using Canva – design website


Andrew Hollins is an experienced post-doc researcher whose career spans over a decade. His work focuses on organoid technology platform development, with previous experience with primary cell models and stem / progenitor cell biology. He is a Research Associate based within Prof. Trevor Dale’s lab within the Cardiff University School of Biosciences, and works closely with lab groups based in the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute.

He can also be found on other platforms:
University profile page – https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/people/view/81192-hollins-andrew
Twitter – @AJ_Hollins
LinkedIn – http://uk.linkedin.com/in/andrewjohnhollins
ResearchGate –  http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Andrew_Hollins