Accepting rejection

It seems peculiarly symmetric that just a week after my post on saying no to things to have more time to do research I would hear a “no” from a grant I applied to so that I can do research. Don’t worry about me, it was not a huge deal and I’m already over it (well, mostly). Also peculiar, and the reason for this post, is that all of this coincided with an article that came out last week by Michael J. Spires on the Chronicle of Higher Education about dealing with rejection from grants. I thought this was a sign from the math gods (Gauss? Euler?) that I should use this space to muse for a bit about the article and my own experience with rejection.

The first thing that the article states made me feel a lot better about myself: most of us get rejected from a grant at least once. For one, they are very competitive, as there are many of us who need money for research and there’s not a lot of money to give (especially these days). Secondly, and this is especially true for us newbies, we have to learn to write for grants, and a lot of this learning comes from experience.

I like that the article goes through the common reasons why a grant proposal might get rejected, and advice on how to fix it. Spires, a proposal-development specialist at the Smithsonian, writes very clearly and gives a lot of good tips. For example: “First, if you’ve gotten comments back from the grantor, read them over once. Then stick them in a drawer and go out for your favorite adult beverage.” But seriously, the article is worth a read so go ahead and read it.

From this last experience, I’m not sure what I have learned. First of all, I have not applied to any “big” grants (like NSF), so even though I have gotten rejected (and accepted!) before, it wasn’t a “make or break” kind of situation. But a rejection does make you think about what you could have done differently, and how you could be more competitive for the grant. Especially when you don’t get comments back, you need to figure this out on your own.

So after some reflection, I think that one thing that’s holding me back is that I haven’t published as much as some of my peers (especially four years after graduating). I have it good in that I landed a (pretty great) tenure-track job right after grad school, but some of the people I’m competing against have had two-year postdocs with very little teaching and a lot of mentoring. Of course they have done a lot more research! I am aware that this may be a “grass is greener” fantasy. The other side of this argument is that I am tenure-track at a (pretty great) college that has internal grants and support that these other (bigger, public) schools don’t have, I am now finishing a year-long pre-tenure sabbatical during which I have been living my post-doc dream without the stress of applying for jobs at the end, and the money from these grants is better used by people who don’t have as much internal support and stability as I do. So I guess what I’m saying is that I have a feeling that I am at a slight disadvantage when applying for grants, because I haven’t been able to do much research. But maybe I should be at a disadvantage! Anyway, this doesn’t help anyone with dealing with rejection, except that maybe I expect rejection a little more (at least for now). There are probably other reasons my proposal got rejected (as outlined in the Spires article), and I have my suspicions on things I need to work on. I just wanted to comment on one of them.

The only thing I know is that a surefire way to not get grant money is not applying for any. So I will keep applying for grants even if I get rejected more than I get accepted. There is no reason not to apply. I think that when I feel ready to apply for the “big” grants, I will get more outside help: from senior colleagues in my area, colleagues in other areas (in the cases that your proposal needs to appeal to the broader mathematical community), and our own Office for External Grants (your school has one too, I’m sure). I still think I have much to learn about selling myself and my research. “Grants are persuasive, need the good parts up front, have strict limits on length, and frequently need to be accessible to lay readers,” says Spires. I think other perspectives will help make my proposals more persuasive.

Finally, because I have both gotten rejected and accepted, I have learned to quickly move on. For example, my feeling is that I need to have a stronger research portfolio to be more competitive. This only gets fixed by doing more research. So, instead of wallowing in my misery for too long (you should always wallow just a little bit, it’s healthy) I have just gone back to my computations so that maybe I have something interesting to say before my sabbatical officially ends in September.

So, it’s your turn, dear readers. Any advice on dealing with rejection from grants? What do you do when you hear “no”? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

I now leave you with this great comic which is apropos.


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4 Responses to Accepting rejection

  1. Matilde says:

    In addition to a careful rethinking of your grant proposal as you suggest, knowing more about the selectiong process helps a lot in interpreting the results.

    Grants are not just hard to get or easy to get (and everything in between), there are many grants that depend on random data that you can’t control. Sometimes there is some politics involved in grant selection and you need to accept it as the rules of the game. It certainly goes both ways: a positive response may also mean nothing if there is a lot of politics involved. For example, for an internal university grant, they may try to be fair among different departments. This sounds good on paper, but it may backfire against people from the strongest department. Sometimes these rules are not written, but discussed vocally in the grant selection committees.

    Of course, all of the above shouldn’t prevent you from critically examining your own proposal and thinking about how to improve it. But it may ease the pain of rejection to be aware that there is a limit to what you can control.

    In the end, the best strategy is, as you say, apply to everything you can, and have experienced people read your proposals, specially those you really care about.

  2. Mark Daniel Ward says:

    My best grant advice is to volunteer frequently to serve on panels. You won’t always been needed, i.e., you might volunteer several times to serve on a panel and get turned down repeatedly, but eventually you will get onto a grant panel. After that experience, you will get some insight into the process for that particular program. I recommend serving on as many panels as you can. It’s an excellent learning process, and it’s a great way to serve the mathematical community and the scientific community in general. Also, it is helpful to keep a positive attitude. If the funding rate for a program is 1 out of 10, that means 9 out of 10 papers are getting rejected, and most people fall into that category, most of the time. Even the best grant writers get lots and lots of rejections, and that’s OK. Writing a grant is a growing process–a learning process–and it can be a positive experience, even when you get rejected, if you are just willing to learn from the process. I like your positive attitude! Thank you for your blog. It is very nice to read.

  3. Daniel Castañeda says:

    I am just graduate student now, here in Colombia we can applied from grants as “young researchers” both internally at the university and from the government. The time I applied for the university grant they said no, as their priority are the “applied fields” like engineering, economy and…international politics! My case wasn’t so critical but what I did was look for alternative sources of funding and applied for the govt funds. The government has emphasis on “ciencias básicas” and so our grants were given.

    I have been reading your blog from time to time and I really like it. I also like the fact that you’re from Venezuela (I am Colombian). By the way, happy mathematician’s day.
    Couldn’t find the article in english, here’s the spanish one.

  4. Ben Braun says:

    One thing that has always helped me with my grant-writing is to have a trusted mathematician friend read through it and give comments. Of course, this only works if you are willing to do the same for other people, but overall I think it is well worth it. While college grant officers can be very helpful with some things, nothing compares to having another mathematician give substantial and serious constructive criticism on a draft of the proposal. The other good thing about this is that it forces you to work on the grant early and get it done well ahead of time, to give sufficient time to gather and incorporate responses.

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