Everybody poops (and gets rejected)

Mar 20 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

In 2009-10--effectively, the last year of my post-doc, I applied for some things. A K99/R00, a NARSAD fellowship, and a small foundation grant, not to mention a few travel awards. And I didn't get any of them. By the time the last rejection rolled in (not to mention all the job application no-thank-yous), I actively began to think that maybe I was just not very good at applying for things, which did not bode well for my future as a TT hopeful, since a giant proportion of our job is to successfully apply for things.

But I did somehow manage to land this gig, and when I started in my new position, I applied for an R21 right away, which was funded. And with that, I thought maybe I can do this after all! I have overcome my badness at applying for things. Since then, though, I've applied for 5 grants and two travel awards. Three grants are still out for review, but 2 grants and the 2 travel awards have come back negative, and I can feel myself starting to lose faith again in my ability to compete for things. I know that this is silly, and that there are certain general principles of probability at work here, but still.

The reality is that most of us get way more rejections than acceptances, but we can lose sight of how normal that is, and allow ourselves to spiral down into self-doubt, which is v bad! So please use the comments here as an open thread to lament about all your recent rejections, triages, non-invitations to submit full applications, etc. It will make you feel better, I promise!

And to make you feel further better (or at least hungry), here's a picture from my honeymoon. This is the view from our flat in Aix-en-Provence. We ate more cheese on that trip than I have probably eaten in the last 6 months combined.


63 responses so far

  • Terry says:

    How about three desk rejects in a row, for entirely different manuscripts, from the same journal? And it ain't a top tier.

    • Dr Becca says:

      Ouch! Sounds like it's time to try a new journal--maybe you slighted the editor at a meeting at some point?

      • Terry says:

        Probably. Every time, it's been "this looks like a great paper but not a good fit for the journal" which at least twice was total bull. The first time this happened, I wrote back, seriously friendly, "if this paper by X and Y that came out last year was appropriate, then I'm just curious, how is mine different because it's on essentially the same topic?"


        I also publish all of my reviews (from all submissions) on my website, with names redacted but with the names of journals. So this cheesy desk reject is public, if not well known. Maybe that's why he might be pissed off.

        • Bashir says:

          um. I could imagine some people being very pissed about that. Is that typical in your field?

          • Terry says:

            It's not common at all. I don't know anybody who has ever done that, in any field. I've been doing it for a few years now, and it's never came up in conversation. But I've seen the files do get downloaded plenty. I don't think it's negatively affected my reviews or decisions at all, except for perhaps this one journal.

            There's all this talk about open science, transparency in the publishing process, and all that. This is one thing that I can do entirely on my own to promote openness about my findings and how they get published. Nobody's ever complained. I've rarely brought it up in conversation, but on the few occasions when I have with friends at other universities, people have mentioned that they've noticed and thought it was cool, maybe a bit risky, but probably a good thing overall.

      • Terry says:

        I haven't met the editor who keeps desk rejecting me, as far as I know.

  • The funding hurdle is ridiculously high. I don't blame myself for not getting funding, especially when reviewers write 5 ridiculous and 1 valid point about why I or my project don't deserve funding. It is obvious reviewers are looking for reasons to reject your proposal rather than reasons to grant funding.

    I started writing grants in my last year of PhD when I wanted to get a grant to go abroad and work at a specific lab. I wrote four applications, three were rejected, then I withdrew the fourth because I found a different position. Then I applied for the project I am working on right now and got rejected again.

    Altogether I got crap like

    'your high school grades suck' - I don't even know how to respond to that, my PhD grade, however, was almost top score.

    'not different enough from previous project' - it was, in fact, very different in terms of species, techniques and modality.

    'technical but not scientific qualification proven' - all the technical qualification of course was shown in scientific context - also, where is that qualification supposed to come from in a project that is totally different from what you've done before?

    'publishing two papers in the second year of PhD is a curiosity' - yeah, like, I can't just be good at what I do, right?

    'only two publications in total and low impact' - actually, most of my fellow PhD students did not have anything at that time. Today, this is a much more valid criticism.

    'you don't use $200k state of the art equipment' - yes. because I don't need to resolve synapses when studying whole populations of neurons. -.-

    On the other hand, everybody agreed that my projects made total sense and adressed pressing/interesting questions of the field in a thought-through manner.

    So, taken together, great projects were rejected because the CV was found weak - and often they went out of their way to find some stupid excuse to make that statement.

    I am not saying there were not good points, too. But it was obvious that they came up with a lot of additional crap to make sure the proposal wouldn't make it.

    That's why I don't take these things personal. There are some things I can work on to make my proposals less easy to reject, I do that and keep going.

  • I have to agree with you, cheese is the perfect thing to make anyone feel better!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm 2 for ~20 on federal proposals. Pretty much the going success rate. Of course some of these were my very first proposals that had no chance of funding for a variety fo reasons I know understand, but it's still a lot of writing.

  • eeke says:

    bitch, please. 40 grant applications or so (I lost count), 2 funded. And then they fired me. But I got a new job (not TT, but who cares, I am still doing science), and got more funding. In this climate, you just have to grow a thick skin, roll with the punches, and be creative about what you're going to do. Going to France to eat cheese seems like a really good idea. Congrats!

  • Dr Becca says:

    Impressive! Do I hear 60 applications, anyone?

    I'm glad you figured out a way to keep doing what you love. And yes, eating cheese solves most problems!

  • Rosco says:

    i'm curious to know ... 2 out of 20 proposals ... 2 out of 40 proposals ... in what time period? 3 yrs? 5 yrs?

  • miko says:

    I haven't won anything since high school (ok, as a student I got a poster prize at a really shitty meeting and a travel award, which, by the way, was awesome because it was in Japan and they gave it to me in cash when I checked in at the meeting). Everything else has gone well with my science, but I struck out for predoc (but "honorable mention"!!) and postdoc fellowships. My F32 critiques were ridonkulous (my project was both "too preliminary" and "already completed." Also, "no one should study that organism.").

    So, things have otherwise gone well with publishing, and I have a TT offer. In some ways, it just makes me more anxious about these things: I'll never get a grant! Also, I only made one short list, and the rejections continue to role in. The consensus is clear: I suck, or at least I suck at applying for things, and the place hiring me just made a terrible mistake, because my job is now to mostly apply for things.

    Now I feel like I am failing at negotiating the offer. I LITERALLY NEGOTIATED AGAINST MYSELF while the chair calmly said nothing. It's going better now, but every time I feel resistance, or feel like I'm not getting what others got, or whatever, I'm like "they've realized their mistake and want me to go away."

    Anyway, that's a fair chunk of time, another 1/3 of the time I'm like "I'm going to rock this" and the remainder I'm stressed about moving.

    • Dr Becca says:

      Stay strong, miko! I know you'll end up with the package you deserve. And the moving stress, well, that's unavoidable, but one of those things that you just have to push through.

  • miko says:

    And does that confiture actually say "France" on it?

    • Dr Becca says:

      Ha! No, it's says "fraises," which you probably know is French for "strawberries." It was so delicious--we carried that jar around with us from Paris to Mt St Michel and then to Provence and put it on everything.

  • Graeme says:

    My friend keeps a binder full of all his rejection letters right above his desk. He's got a tenured position now, and funding, but he says it kept him motivated all the way along and still does - to be able to look at all the times he got told to get lost, and yet still managed to keep going.

  • Pascale Lane says:

    There's no chocolate in that photo. Otherwise a perfect picture!

  • theshortearedowl says:

    I've almost never been rejected for anything - except my first choice university for undergrad. Got accepted to every grad school I applied to. Bursaries, scholarships, fellowships. First paper came back with minor revisions. I even won the only bet I ever put on a horse.

    I ought to quit now.

    • Bashir says:

      you must not by applying for much...

    • NatC says:

      you are in for a great learning experience.
      Lesson 1: appropriate forums for bragging.

      • theshortearedowl says:

        I was kinda setting up a joke at my own expense, I don't think that counts as bragging... I'm under no illusions. The next couple of years are going to have a lot of rejection of one sort or another. And unless I don't get accepted for anything at all, the years after that will have even more 🙂

    • anotherpostdoc says:

      My entire graduate trajectory was like that....and then I hit the job market. Fasten you seatbelt 🙂 .

      3.5 years postdoc and counting, 30-40 job applications, 1 interview, no cigar.

  • number of grants written = f(age) + f(time in the trenches)

    There is no glory to have written more than anyone else.

  • Charlie @crewilson says:

    I heartily recommend that you all come and live in France. Here in Lyon, the chances of getting a grant funded are hardly much better, but you can start applying for tenure much earlier, and when the inevitable rejection email full of petty comments arrives (and let me promise you there's nothing more petty than a French reviewer), at least I can walk to the fromagerie, boulangerie, patisserie and boucherie from my flat in order to purchase the necessary to console myself...

  • me says:

    can all the vice deans of new chairs be burned at the stake already?!....all this rejection talk is freaking this little trench worker out!!....(but im still pushin on cuz i just loooove bein an underdog and those priceless moments in life where u get to talk some smack to the big boys n gals!!)

  • MitosRock says:

    Such a timely post. Thanks for the perspective. And the pics of cheese.

  • I'm at 6 grant/fellowship applications; 4 rejected, 2 pending. And 5 travel awards, of which I got 1. In this perspective: not a horrible score I guess.
    Thanks for this post Dr. Becca!!

  • newProf says:

    Last week, the first NIH proposal I wrote with PI status was rejected. When I saw the study section roster and the absence of people who interact with my field, I knew things were bad, but it still hurts. What's frustrating is that I don't get comments for a few more months. It helps to remember that this rejection is barely informative and doesn't damn me as a scientist or prof; my proposal was deemed in the bottom 80-85%.

    Problem is, I don't know how to allocate my time between generating more preliminary data/pubs and applying for more grants. How many grants does the typical NIH- and/or NSF-funded (or wannabe-funded) TT prof write per year before getting funded? It would help if it didn't take so long to get scores and comments. It's hard to pivot and improve with 6-12 month lags.

    • drugmonkey says:

      it is not about what anyone else or the "typical" person has done.

      it is about doing whatever you possibly can do until that Notice of Grant Award arrives.

      my stock advice right now is that you need to have at least one proposal going in to the NIH for each standard receipt date. If you aren't hitting it at least that hard, before you have a major award, you aren't trying. if you think you can't get out one per round.... you don't really understand your job yet.

      my other stock advice is take a look at the payline and assume those odds apply to you. If it is 10%, then you need to expect that you will have to submit at least 10 apps to have a fighting chance. Apply the noob-discount and you are probably better off hitting twice that number.

    • Ola says:

      If the study section members aren't well versed in your field, then you sent it to the wrong study section. Write a better cover letter and speak to the SRA beforehand, to make sure it gets into the hands of competent reviewers (preferably ones you've shook hands with at all the meetings you went to last year - you DID go to meetings and schmooze right?)

      Nowadays comments will come a lot quicker than you think - for the top half of the scored grants it's within a week, even the bottom of the pile will get pink sheets in 2-3 weeks after the study section meeting.

      Re: how much time for pubs/data vs. more proposals, look at the comments in the Investigator section very carefully; terms such as "moderate productivity" will be a clear indicator you need to get more papers out the door (preferably senior author ones) before you submit a revision.

      One of the big mistakes I see new PI's make is not including prelim' data that's already in published papers. They see the old PI's just cite their own published work and think they can do the same. You're an unknown entity, so quite frankly as a reviewer I don't care if you have a paper in which you use method X - I want to see some data using method X, even if it's just a reproduction of a Figure from one of your papers. Asking a reviewer to "trust" that you can do it, and expecting them to go pull the PDF and find out for themselves if they don't believe you, is a sure fire way to piss them off.

  • dlistscientist says:

    Oh, it hurts so much...but I opened my 'Rejected grants" folder. Here goes...

    In grad school, I got a fellowship right off the bat, but when I applied for renewal after two years, they said 'Well, how come you have no papers after 2 years of grad school?!"

    My first year on the job, I applied for 10 grants. Got NONE. Second year applied for 9, got 1 NIH grant and 3 foundation grants (1 as a co-PI). Forth year applied for 8 grants, my postdoc applied for 3 fellowships. I got zilch, but my postdoc got a fellowship, so nobody got fired. Last year, I applied for 10 grants. I also almost lost my mind, sending something off every 2 weeks. Got a small foundation grant, and am hopeful that my NIH grant will get renewed, and another foundation grant will probably be funded.

    I think the strategy is similar to dating - you got to kiss a lot of frogs before you get funded by prince charming. Also, I found it really helpful to read the summary statements carefully, and addressing the critiques for resubmission to another source.

  • Joshua Gowin says:

    Beautiful photo. For me lately it's been: rejection of my first manuscript in my postdoc lab. Funding cut to my current position. Rejected for several postdocs even though I seemed "affable enough." I'm hoping a good piece of news will come along some day soon--mainly landing a new postdoc by August. In the meantime, at least wine still tastes good!

  • Bashir says:

    In some regard it's good to have a bad memory. I've applied for various fellowships and grants and been rejected by the vast majority. I've applied to >100 TT jobs, gotten a few short lists but ultimately all rejections. I don't keep track of paper rejections. I'm guessing on average each paper is rejected 1.7 times? One day when I'm bored I'll figure that number out.

    oh and I got in my first choice college. Which is totally like the best college ever.

  • sara says:

    Ooh, I got my first college choice too! That counts for something!

    It's been a rough week -- My husband and I both got fellowships rejected this week. I have two more grants pending. Even my hard drive rejected me (it's now fixed, but still!).

  • drugmonkey says:

    two undergraduate admits out of....4? 5? maybe? could have been just the two.

    four graduate school admits out of five (fuck you CU Boulder! I'm still bitter.)

    two graduate fellowships offered out of three-ish submissions (I think one of them was a single app for two opportunities).

    one local dissertation award funded out of one applied for.

    it has been a steep downhill process in success rate ever since 🙂

  • AnonPI says:

    DM is 100% correct. In 3.5 years of PI-ship, including 3 mo maternity leave, I have put in 23 single PI and collaborative grants to NSF, NIH, and foundations while building an entirely new research system from scratch. Exactly 1 NSF grant has been funded. Currently I have 3 pending NSF preproposals and an NIH R01 that scored 36% in the A0 submission that I am revising to resubmit. With NSF rates for some divisions hovering around 5% you better believe it could take 20 apps for one success. Whether that's a sustainable career path is another question.

  • Ewan says:

    Urgh. The good news is that my % funded rate is above-par; the bad news is that apparently my submission rate is below (10 per year federal? Holy cow. I struggle to get to 6-7, and that only in the past year really; I worry at this level about quality-quantity tradeoffs, too). I *could* get more out, I guess, but only at the cost of abandoning my kids, wife and any free time; maybe if I get denied tenure this year that'll be the trade-off I made. Fair enough.

    My favourite (ha!) recent rejection, though, was non-federal: scored 10/10/9/9 out of 10 from the 4 reviewers, no negative comments and both 9s explicitly stated 'would be a 10 except I never give 10s.' Funding cutoff - I asked! - was an average of 9.75. Silly.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    I get all this. I don't mind the rejection...well, I mean, I mind, but what are you going to do? The question I have is, when are the rejections just par for the course, and when are they a sign that you suck at science?

    Not, of course, that there aren't funded people that suck at science, but you know what I mean.

  • drugmonkey says:

    0 for 50? Maybe?

    It's kind of a ridiculous question, isn't it? Being unable to get a grant proves nothing about your science, impact and importance of your papers, etc.

  • Dr Aust says:

    I recall discussing this with an eminent British scientist (FRS) a decade or so back... I said we couldn't figure why we had such trouble getting funded when our papers went happily into respectable upmarket journals (we were on a good streak publication-wise at the time). His response was:

    "Oh well, getting papers published doesn't tell you anything, as of course it's FAR more difficult to get grants."

    Which was, I think, his way of telling us that if we weren't getting funded it must be because we sucked, published papers notwithstanding.

  • ohh this is easy:

    grad school: 3/6 fellowships funded...

    Post-doc: 1/3 grants funded..coPI on the grant that got funded, although I did all the writing and ideas were all mine (long story)

    TT applications: applied to >90 places...stats of success are on my blog. Here success is defined as "some one read your application and gave a shit about you by talking to you or emailing you". The real "success" will be achieved once I do get a TT offer (if ever). However, with my funding success rate, seems it would be a downhill trip 😛

  • anonymous says:

    undergrad apps: 7/9
    grad school apps: 3/3
    grad fellowships: 2/2
    postdoc apps: 2/2
    postdoc fellowships: 1/3
    TT apps: 1/3
    TT grants: 0/1

    my recent denominators should be much, much bigger than they are. time for the big leagues.

  • Failure-resistance is a critical trait for academia. I credit video games for my moderately thick skin: http://cellularscale.blogspot.com/2013/02/why-scientists-should-play-games.html

  • [...] One thing to keep in mind is that writing a grant by no means indicates that you’ll get funded. Even R1 researchers are used to writing a ton of grants in order keep funding rolling, as most submissions aren’t funded. Check out the comments in Dr. Becca’s post showing how many grants folks submit to stay funde.... [...]

  • r says:

    thank you. thank you for posting on this topic and for that amazing picture. jealous times ten.

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