I had a win the other week. I received an early career researcher award from the organisers of a conference I will be going to later in the year. Obviously I was well-pleased with this, especially as it comes with some money to pay for the trip – nice!
The point here though isn’t to gloat about my success rather to reflect a little on the nature of the hits and misses that are part of our work. Just a few months ago, in a bout of self-pity I wrote down a list of all the things I’d applied (and been rejected) for since my last successful application. These were grants, fellowships, committee positions and jobs. For the record, compiling the list felt good at the time but didn’t ultimately help with the self-pity much, in hindsight it was a sort of academic comfort eating I guess. Could lists be the chocolate biscuits of the research world?
Anyway, the list had 8 items on it. So 8 times; the enthusiasm, the idea, the work, some degree of satisfaction, the hope, the waiting and then… “Thank you for your submission, the committee received a large number of high quality applications, unfortunately yours was not selected blah blah blah”. For me the hard thing to work out is what to make of all this. Is all this applying for stuff (most often money) just part of job? Does this mean the system is flawed? Or is my CV just not competitive? Am I supposed to be learning something from filling in all these applications? If so, what? How to fill in the applications better, that I need to do something for my CV, that I need to come up with better ideas, that I am applying for the wrong things? Should I pack in this research game and return to my job in the fashion industry?
At this stage I’m not really too sure what the lesson is. Before I started my PhD I was given the advice that I should try and involve myself in as many projects and with as many people as I could handle. One of the reasons for this was to ensure that individual disappointments don’t have too devastating an effect. A second piece of advice I have received was to try not to become too emotionally attached to my ideas or projects, the problem with doing this is that it can be hard to separate professional rejection from personal rejection. When things aren’t going so well a failed fellowship application can seem to have all kinds of catastrophic consequences.
For me, the answer is to try and develop the thick skin of a Rhino and just keep applying for everything that I think I’m in with half a chance for. Rejected proposals get recycled and polished in case they can be sent somewhere else and work continues on whatever other projects are happening. Obviously all the factors mentioned above can be relevant and can (in my opinion) be best addressed by discussing ideas and applications with others – junior and senior – as much as possible. The final thing is to celebrate those wins you do have. Be happy with yourself, you’ve earned it. I’ll certainly be celebrating, so if you see me at a conference somewhere this year come and celebrate with me!
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