Science is… rejection.   6 comments

I just found out my National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER application was rejected- it was assigned ‘Low Priority’.

Everyone has to deal with rejection- not making a sports team, college applications, a date for prom, job applications, etc. So it is with scientific research- and most people are unaware of the amount of rejection a successful researcher must deal with.

There are two basic elements to having a scientific career: publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and obtaining funding to pay for the time/materials needed to obtain the results which are then published in peer-reviewed journals. Both of these components involve a lot of rejection- rejection by your peers. ‘Peers’ in the sense that they are researchers- they are anonymous, and I have no idea who reviews my papers or grant applications.

Dealing constructively with rejection is an essential part of being a scientist, and yet is rarely discussed. After all, every journal article you read is a successful endpoint- you never see rejected papers. And people don’t really like to discuss their own failures. I’ve seen what happens when a scientist can’t deal with rejection, and it’s not pretty. Some people start complaining about how the process is rotten with political back-room dealings, some people start to complain that nobody understands their work, some people just give up. I’m not going to deny that there is some social element to getting papers accepted and applications funded, but in my experience, reviewers are honest and try to be constructive, rather than adversarial. At least, the good reviewers are.

Most scientists have been “top 10%-ers” their whole life- in order to get into a competitive college, you need to be in the top 10% of applications. In order to get into a competitive graduate school, you need to be in the top 10% of applications. In order to get a research-type job or appointment, you need to be in the top 10% of applications. This is very stressful- especially since you are competing against a smaller and smaller population of peers, each of whom have also been in the top 10% their whole lives- and the stakes get higher and higher, since with each step along the career path there are fewer alternative options. People start to behave badly.

So, after 30 years of getting rejected from girls, colleges, grad schools, jobs, and more jobs, I arrive here- a tenure-track academic appointment. I am fully aware of the rarified company I am in, and am grateful for the opportunity. In a lot of ways, it’s not much different from getting drafted onto a professional sports team, signing a major record deal, getting a book deal, or any other objective mark of professional success. Believe me, I am acutely aware of all my classmates and colleagues that didn’t make it this far.

So now comes “securing research funding”. In order to be successful in academic research, I must obtain research funding from one of the major agencies: NSF, National Institutes of Health, NASA, Department of Energy, etc. There’s a lot of smaller agencies, foundations, state-level agencies, etc that provide research funding as well, mostly for new faculty- and I am grateful for their past support- but I can’t make a career off of those agencies. The success rate for the major grants is, as you can guess, about 10%. Rumor is, next year NIH is going to be at 5%.

Think about it- after 30+ years of striving and competing to beat out 90% of my peers, again and again, here I am again, tossed into the pool. Only now *everyone in the pool* has been in the top 10% of their peers for 30+ years. This is like making it to the Pro Bowl in professional football, or the All-Star game in baseball. Except, if I don’t get a grant within the next 5 years, I most likely won’t get tenure, which means I lose my job (most people don’t realize that getting rejected for tenure is the same as getting fired). Again, this is a lot of stress- unless I make it to the Pro Bowl, get a top-10 record, or something similar during the next 5 years, I’m out. This continued level of stress makes some people behave badly.

Now, this is not the first rejected application I’ve had. I’ve applied to NIH twice before, the first time the application was ‘triaged’, and the second time it got scored. This NSF application was ranked ‘Low Priority’, which is equivalent to getting a score- it was not give a ‘Not Competitive’ rank. It’s important to *read* the reviewer comments.

My first NIH proposal (two years ago), was ‘triaged’- it was judged to be in the bottom 50% of proposals and not scored or discussed during the review session. But, the reviewer comments had a *lot* of helpful information- what made sense, what was weak, etc. So, I gave myself permission to drink the pain away for a day or so, then sat down and carefully read the reviewer comments. I re-wrote my application addressing (I thought) all of the comments, resulting in a stronger proposal. And the next round, it indeed was a stronger proposal- I got a score. But the reviewer comments were *terrible*- there was nothing I could do to address them. The comments were essentially “We don’t think you can do the work you say you can do. Even if you are able do the work you say you can do, we don’t think you will get any results worth publishing. Even if you get results and publish them, nobody will care about the papers.” *That* hurt.

So, my NSF proposal was not “Non Competitive”, and the reviewer comments are helpful- nobody said my idea is worthless, but that my proposal was ‘immature’, and there are gaps in the logic. That’s something I can work with. I’ll resubmit next year, and I have a total of three chances to get this particular award (NSF CAREER)

One final comment, since this post is starting to ramble- I am *extremely lucky*. Many of my peers- new/new-ish faculty- are at institutions that require ‘salary recovery’. That is, in order to get paid, they have to get grants. I am lucky in that even though I have been (yet again) rejected, I can still put food on the table.

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Posted December 20, 2010 by resnicklab in Uncategorized

6 responses to “Science is… rejection.

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