Getting Accustomed to Rejection
When speaking to students, I elect to bring up how often we deal with failure in science. Prior to graduate school, the degree of failure that I would experience was not a concept that I appreciated. Between school, job, and grant applications, manuscript rejections and experiments, I feel that failure has become a commonality in my work. But with how frequently scientists endure failure, it is surprising that we do not share our experiences more often. Know that even the most accomplished and respected scientists will still experience manuscript rejections, triaged grant applications and failed drug discovery.
Recently, I was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Program award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. This is a program that will help to pay off student loan debt for MD and PhD graduates. This was my 5th application cycle, and it was quite a long road to this successful application. During my postdoc career, I have contributed to or written close to 50 grant or fellowship applications for my own salary or for the lab. What I think is important is that I do not regret any application that was rejected. With each proposal, the writing would improve, I would propose experiments that would later go onto future applications, and many times the proposal would be useful when assembling a presentation or manuscript. But yes, every rejection still hurts. Over time, you start to develop a thicker skin, and you must not take rejection personally. An unfortunate caveat that we cannot control for are the reviewers. Perhaps a reviewer had an unconscious bias toward your PI, your application was not given appropriate time for review when it is the last in the pile, or the committee wanted a specific model system that you did not propose. Simply do your best and focus on the next application.
I have been fortunate to receive fellowship awards and co-authored a successful NIH R01 application, but each award was after 3, 4, 5 or more rejections. I also believe that having a list of the next applications aided in my resilience for rejection. I would give myself time to be upset, then take a fresh look at the next application. The NIH Loan Repayment Program was particularly frustrating, as we do not receive feedback or comments after rejection. I did my homework, looked at what institutes rewarded the highest percentage of applications and where my application would fit best. But ultimately, what was most important was not giving up.
I have so much respect for Dr. Katalin Karikó, one of the key scientists who developed the messenger RNA SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. For the first 40 years of her research career, she was rejected from every single R01 application (Lloreda STAT News 2021). Yet, this did not deter her work or her drive to continue mRNA vaccine research.
So how do we normalize rejection? I believe sharing our experiences of rejection is essential. If 90% of your experiments fail, 10% still work. If you receive a negative result, that is just as important as a positive result. Recognize that this is as much a part of the scientific field as success is. Take every rejection as career growth and not a hindrance. Try to separate emotion when receiving negative feedback. You can always come back to an application at a later date with a positive state of mind. Turn toward your cheer squad; your colleagues, friends and family. Let them remind you how awesome you are. Finally, prioritize your mental health. We cannot make great strides in our scientific career if we are mentally and/or physically exhausted. Come back to your work when you are in the right state of mind.
Claudia López Lloreda. “Messenger RNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó shares her long journey to Covid-19 vaccines”. STAT News, July 19 2021. https://www.statnews.com/2021/07/19/katalin-kariko-messenger-rna-vaccine-pioneer
About the author
Danielle L Tomasello is a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, working with neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders. She completed a PhD in Developmental and Regenerative Biology, and she is the creator of The Social Scientist, a virtual one-on-one mentorship initiative for STEM career guidance and advice. She is also a previous Hello Bio travel award winner.
Connect with Danielle via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/danielle-tomasello-10566783/
More advice on rejection, failure & resilience from Hello Bio
For more articles on dealing with rejection and failure in academia, check out some of these other great resources on the Hello Bio blog:
- The Life Scientists’ Guide to Coping with Rejection
- Dealing With Feelings Of Inadequacy During Your Research Career - guest blog by Pearl Akazue
- Resilience and Success in Science: A Researcher’s Perspective - guest blog by Abiola Isawumi
- Building Resilience in Scientific Research & Academia - guest blog by Dr Enitome Bafor
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