‘No grant too small, no rejection too shameful to share’
It is easy to get disheartened when thinking about research in academic careers. The endless quest for funding, the sense of wasted effort, and feeling wounded when we are rejected. We tend to notice the people who seem to be doing better than us, having a better time of it. In this post, I offer an alternative, positive way of thinking about research in academic careers. This is based on two principles:
- No grant is too small to consider applying for
- No rejection is too shameful to share with others.
Two unhelpful messages about research in academic careers
Are you expected to bring in research income? Do you feel pressure to go for, and win ever-bigger grants? The star Professor X getting a new multi-million-pound project makes a big splash, but the researcher who got a few thousand in a seed grant might barely be noticed. Message #1: it’s the size of the grant that counts.
Have you had publications rejected? It’s much more common to hear about papers published than it is to learn that a colleague got a really nasty review or had their paper rejected (again). Message #2: rejections are shameful and should be kept secret.
I’d like to challenge those messages. Neither is helpful.
I suggest an approach based on two principles: no grant too small, no rejection too shameful to share.
No grant too small
In November 2014 I landed my first big external research grant. It was a three-year fellowship through the Australian Research Council. It was a huge relief. I had had a postdoc position and knew full well the expectation was to provide a return on the investment my university had made.
I wrote an email to a former colleague and informal mentor. He replied in characteristically blunt fashion:
“Congratulations, Nick. But how sad that you told me how much the grant is worth instead of what you’re going to do with it and why you’re excited about it.”
He was right. Yes, the money mattered, but what mattered most was what it would enable me to do. What I should have been excited about was the prospect of three years to work on ideas that I was curious about. I had lost sight of what was important.
Since then, I have failed to land a grant of similar size, let alone bigger. The many research proposals I’ve put in but not won, are all listed on my shadow CV. Getting one big grant hasn’t led to others (yet!).
However, I’m still working on ideas I find fascinating, with people who push and enrich my thinking, on projects that I think really matter in society. The No grant too small principle is key to this.
One of the researchers I’ve looked up to for a long time is Anne Edwards. She has developed concepts that many other researchers use to tackle important problems. Anne did this through projects in very different settings: one on a women’s drop-in centre, another on teacher education, and another on reducing children’s exclusion from schools. I remember someone asking her about these diverse studies. Her answer was something like this:
“Well, we might have a big ESRC project one year, and the next be working on something much smaller with a council or a charity. They might be in different contexts, but they’ve all enabled me to develop and test concepts and work on the problems I’m most interested in.”
This undermines Message #1. The value of the grant is not only what counts, or what counts most.
The No grant too small approach was a game-changer for me. Losing my attachment to the size or prestige of grants, I realised advancing in my career was about progressing my ideas, gaining traction on complex problems, and doing work that had positive social impact.
I had to figure out what concepts and problems I wanted to be working on for years, decades even: a consistent, long-term project that a series of studies, potentially quite different in nature and focus, could enable me to work on.
For me, this became about the learning that enables positive change in the lives of families with children affected by adversity. There are concepts involved in this that I expect still to be developing and refining in 10 years’ time.
It was very empowering to realise I could be advancing my ideas and contribution to knowledge while responding to opportunities that might otherwise have seemed irrelevant.
I ended up in projects that I would never have imagined being part of, most comparatively small in their funding amounts, some just a few thousand dollars. I would never have imagined applying for, let alone getting, a multicultural health grant. It turns out working to produce a website for Nepalese families to help when their children have feeding difficulties was a fascinating way to pursue my bigger questions about learning and positive change, just as when I ended up working with local schoolteachers on trying out new classroom practices.
Other researchers advocate a similar approach, thinking about how they can split up large (rejected) grants and target different sources of funding.
Others even talk about why academics do research that is unfunded. Indeed, No grant too small might sometimes include work that isn’t funded. For me, that’s often been about the long tail of projects that got a bit of funding but led us to interesting places where we carried on even after the money had run out.
All along, I’ve felt intellectually stimulated, challenged, and like I’m getting somewhere.
I’m still chasing my next big grant, applying for one or more every year. But that quest is firmly framed as about enabling me to do something that a smaller grant wouldn’t. I don’t attach my self-worth as an academic to getting one.
My plan for achieving what I want in research isn’t dependent on a big grant, either. I can still make conceptual and practical advances through smaller grants. I might never land another big grant. But I’m much more confident of being able to keep a suite of smaller ones going, particularly because when you’re willing to go small and beyond what seems immediately relevant, the possible sources of funding multiply.
A no grant too small approach can expand opportunities to work on what matters to you.
No rejection too shameful
Message #2: rejections are shameful, and we should hide them away.
I am increasingly of the view that this is not just unhelpful, but toxic. It perpetuates an academic culture that makes being successful visible, as if rejection were not part of it.
Success is so celebrated, and rejection is so hidden. So what we see is the swan gliding effortlessly down the river, not the feet paddling frantically in the murky water below.
A while ago, I took down all my articles that I’d stuck on my office door. I replaced them with summaries of my research grant and publication rejections. This rejection wall caused quite a fuss (which you can read about on my blog). Others have reclaimed rejection by creating gardens or even, making a skirt of their rejections to wear to their PhD viva!
I’m not suggesting everyone should be as brazen as this about their rejections. But I absolutely think we need to change the culture around rejection. Others agree, suggesting that sharing our setbacks offers valuable emotional support and constructive feedback.
Every time we share a rejection or nasty review with someone else, we contribute to a better academic community. Even if we share it with just one trusted colleague or student we are supervising, that person might feel a lot less vulnerable or useless when their own work is rejected.
When we share rejections, we also multiply the resources that help us cope and move forward. Other people might have different insights into why the work was rejected, and helpful suggestions as to what to do next (you can read an example of this here). Sharing rejections changes the way we can respond to them.
I seriously think that our colleagues will think more of us if we share our experiences of rejection, not less.
Rejections hurt. I’ve experienced enough rejections over nearly 20 years now to know the horrible feeling doesn’t really abate. I still feel useless, wounded, and frustrated every time.
However, no rejection is too shameful to mean you have to keep it secret. And that the more we open up about rejections, the more our whole community benefits.
The No review to shameful to share approach builds a better academic culture and helps us respond when our work is rejected.
How to implement this approach
The No grant too small principle works if you have a clear idea of how diverse studies might contribute to a larger, ongoing project that can sustain your interest and nurture your curiosity for years. Think about what matters to you, what would make a small project worthwhile for you. Think about different ways in which you might work on that bigger problem, concept or set of ideas. Go beyond the obvious, have an open mind.
The No rejection too shameful to share principle works if people share their experiences of rejection with others, and if those trusted in that sharing respond in collegial ways. You can make a difference just by mentioning to someone that you had a paper rejected or telling them when you didn’t get a grant. You can also make a difference when you learn that it has happened to someone else. Remind them how recently were rejected. Offer to help figure out why they got rejected. Ask if they’d like to talk through what they might do next.
Adopting these two principles can make it easier to do the research you find rewarding and important, and can shift the academic culture around rejection.