What’s your rejections narrative?

Rejected ideas, funding applications, papers, conference abstracts, applications to join panels and groups… this is a core feature of academic life. Especially of mid-career stage, where I am broadly at. It’s roughly one rejection per month, of one sort or another.

Over time I’ve kept a bit of a reflective account of the different narratives that I and others seem to weave around the rejection. As another rejection came in last night, I thought I’d share it.

The undervalued. Sometimes rejections can feel like a signal that one as a person, one’s work, or one’s discipline is not viewed as important, are not valued, or are fundamentally misunderstood. For the first 10yrs of my academic training the ’undervalued’ narrative was the dominant way of explaining rejections in allied health. Pretty much every conversation I had with my discipline colleagues included ”No point in that, they don’t fund/publish/accept our kind of research”…. ”Sometimes this becomes a strong shared narrative among a group of people, where rejections that have happened to any one member of the group are cumulatively a symbol of the low value attached to the field. These shared narratives can become very powerful, and rejections become viewed through a lens of a permanent, marginalised position.

The undervalued narrative can feel very tempting and for sure, every now and then I feel the appeal of it too. But ultimately I try to remind myself that it’s an unhelpful narrative. It saps energy and does very little to move us forward. So I try to resist it, even when I know the marginalisation is factually true just now (e.g. when I knew that it was statistically and factually correct that there were pretty much no OTs with NIHR grants). I don’t want to believe that the current state is inevitable, or to accept that something I believe in just simply cannot be done. So when I emotionally feel the temptation of this, I try to ask myself and colleagues: ”They are not getting this at the moment – how do we change this, prove our case, and change the outcome?”.

Mini tests. I think that, until fairly recently, my dominant personal narrative has largely been viewing the entire academic career as a long series of tests. As if our education and working lives from school entry to senior professor where gates with locks that one needed to figure out. A primary school maths test. An end-of-school exam. Masters thesis. Job applications and interviews. PhD Viva. Test after test, pass or fail. Get through or get rejected. I just assumed they were part of what life is about. I assumed it was a case of content knowledge and skills, and if I applied those I’d pass. In this, I saw rejections as a signal that I had not yet mastered the right knowledge or skills, or that I had not yet developed the right approach to applying them.

For sure, there’s skills and ability involved in success, but thinking about this now makes me laugh out loud. For I now realise there’s a huge component of I might call ”intelligence” and others might call ”politics” or ”game”. Basically, none of the decisions and rejections are value-free, but a function of who is making them, how have they been briefed and what goals do they have in mind. Some of that is the official, published brief. But there’ll also be the unofficial brief. And having accurate, close hand intelligence about that is crucial.

Reading the game. Becoming more aware of the unofficial intelligence, I’ve started to think of rejections as a dynamic signal that we are not yet reading the game as it is at the monent. In this rejections begin to feel like a missed pass from a team mate, they are the wrong guess by the goalie, they are the blocking we didn’t expect. I tell myself that if we read the game well, we see these things coming before they happen. And we adapt, adjust, do something different. And so when we arrive to the point in game where the knock back is likely, we know how to navigate it, we glide on, and we avoid falling on our faces.

There are two major challenges I am experiencing with this. First is, where does the information about the game come from and how good is that information? Second is, the game is dynamic and ever changing, so each round is different and so it can be hard to prepare. How to get valid intelligence about all the relevant things, and adjust our play to the game at hand. It feels tricky.

The unpredictable system. This is the one consistent message I have always heard from the most senior people. That one’s application can be absolutely ideal – but something happens at the panel, and it’s rejected. I am not really sure what to make of this one. It feels a bit hopeless.

The biased system. That in fact the outcome is only in a very limited way a reflection of the quality of the proposals. And maybe more of a reflection of eg politics, the self-preservation of elites, biases, or just randomness of the system. This too feels hard to work with. For if I believe it’s random then I lose motivation to work with it.

I did like a suggestion I heard recently, that all proposals that pass a basic eligibility check would go in a lottery and be allocated from there. It would certainly save a lot of time and money, and work to lessen some of the persistent systematic bias related to e.g. gender, age, disability, ethnicity.

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