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.

What am I, and what should I do?

What am I? Where am I going? Am I actually achieving anything worth while? What should I be doing?

These questions have grown louder and louder in my mind over the past year, and as I recently read Jemma’s post it did not go un-noticed that some of these might be questions inherently built into being a clinical academic. So I thought I would share my ponderings of these questions, in what seems to have turned out a somewhat personal post. Continue reading

“PhD? Nice! (But what is it?)”

I feel we’ve sold PhD as an idea to AHPs. I also feel the next challenge is for AHPs en masse to figure out what a PhD is, and what to do with people who have them. 

I feel that seeking to do a PhD is now largely viewed positively among AHPs, and there is a genuine acceptance that having a PhD is (somehow) a positive thing. I still do hear some occasional mocking, and some unwelcome comments, e.g. about people with PhDs having a different brain size than the rest of the humans, but in my experience people making these comments are now a minority and are seen as making a fool of themselves more than representing a condoned majority view.

What seems to have changed much less is how AHPs understand what a PhD is (what does it make the person competent for), and how we can make use of people with PhDs to advance our practice, knowledge and impact. 

Over the next 12 months I’d like to take further steps to change this. To move more towards a point where people actually understand what PhDs are good for (and what they are not). To this end, I will run some dedicated posts to explore the question of “What do people with PhDs do once they finish their PhD – and what more could they do given a chance?”.

I am particularly hoping to publish posts by people who are at least 4-5 years beyond completing a PhD (but pre-Professors). That is because I want to focus on the experiences of people who are in full swing of hard core crafting of contributions to AHP practice, science and future (and skip the early post-PhD haze phase….).

If this is you, and you’d be willing to write a post – please do email/tweet me and let’s make a plan for your contribution!

Happy, and very exciting, 2017 to everyone! ☺

Forging through a PhD fellowship application

Guest post by Michael Sykes. I ask myself, ‘OK, so you have had your NIHR Fellowship interview; regardless of the outcome, what have you learnt over the last couple of years that might help others?’. It is likely that I will look back at this in a few years and think how little I knew. Just as I now look at who I was when I first started my clinical academic journey all those years ago!  Continue reading