On 19th January 2024, Prof Gill Haddow, Early Career Director in the School of Social and Political Sciences, brought together 3 speakers at different career stages to share their experiences for SPS’s Early Career Academics Network. I was joined by Dr Eve Mullins and Prof Sarah Childs. In our conversation, we all agreed that step one to handling rejections is to a) normalise them and b) depersonalise them. I’m grateful for the insights that were shared, and this blog summarises some of our key reflections.
‘Dear applicant, Thank you for your submission to the XXX programme. Unfortunately, due to available budget, your proposal will not be funded on this occasion…’
Almost anyone who has submitted a funding or fellowship application has received such an email at one point or another. When it lands in the inbox, the palette of emotional responses can vary from tears of sadness to frustration, disappointment to anger, desperation to feeling defeated or bruised. To be clear: it’s entirely normal to receive this email. With success rates for the most prestigious schemes ranging from 1% to under 20%, you’re in the majority of ‘the unsuccessful’. And yet, not 80 or 99% of research ideas are unfundable or rubbish though you might initially be tempted to throw in the towel. It’s important to acknowledge that the stakes of unsuccessful applications differ depending on personal circumstances. For those applying from a permanent / open-ended post the rejection email stings differently to those who are among the many precariously employed researchers. For the latter, the fall is harder and has greater impact. The precarious researcher is already restricted in access to funding opportunities due to contract type and a rejection might mean being unemployed or changing careers; a nod to ‘the quality and ranking of your proposal’ on a (sometimes lengthy) reserve list is little consolation. The bottom line, however, is this: rejections are normal! The question is: what to do with unsuccessful project ideas?
1. Know Expectations
Expect to be unsuccessful on first attempt. Let’s repeat again: rejections are normal. Building that into your project planning and research strategy can be vital in keeping the wheels turning and in building your long-term research strategy.
Know your institutional expectations. Familiarising yourself with the institutional and departmental agenda and plans for the Research Excellence Framework can be helpful to understand what structures of support are available to you and to shape your research strategy. Build your network of support that might include for example, your line manager, your head of subject, the local as well as wider University research office, and trusted critical friends. A diverse support network is crucial (see point 4 below).
Understand the expectations regarding your funding profile for recruitment into academic roles and promotion. Navigating the academic and research funding ecosystem within different institutional (and in international) contexts is a learning curve. Embrace it as a process where you deepen your knowledge about policies, processes, and procedures.
Share your unsuccessful stories. Our conversation brought to light the importance of transparency about unsuccessful funding applications as indicators of your ambitions, efforts, resilience, and vision. Indicating on your CV that you’ve been placed on reserve lists or rejigged a bigger grant proposal into a pilot study indicates that you learn from your experiences and believe in your project ideas. (You can hear some stories of rejections and successes in our video collection on #ResearcherRealities: Journeys to Funding.)
2. Research Strategy and Project Scale
Identify the obstacles. Don’t see a rejection as failure. Remember: it’s normal to be rejected for funding. Feedback can sometimes be disheartening (especially when Reviewer 2 really wanted you to do their project rather than yours). It’s your job to make a clear and compelling case. Take some time to reflect on the feedback you received. Draw on your support network to identify the obstacles to funding success and plan your next steps. Depending on the scale of the project you proposed, there might be value in breaking it into smaller chunks and start with a pilot or ‘proof of concept’ first.
Develop your funding portfolio. Build up to your big project brick by brick. Break up your big project idea into small, medium, and large scale and be clear about the interdependencies of these different scales in your narrative. Show that you have a long-term vision by building up incrementally. (The IAD offers a workshop for staff on ‘Developing your Funding Profile’. Link to next dates and booking.)
3. Timing & the Clarity of your Agenda
Don’t underestimate timing. There is an element of luck and serendipity. You can have a fundable and cutting-edge idea, but it arrives at the wrong time. You can have a half-baked idea, but it arrives at the right time.
Control the controllables. To increase your chances, you can put the finger on the pulse and understand how the funding landscapes operates, how funding schemes connect with wider social and political agendas. Certain things are beyond your control such as: who sits on the reviewing panel. But you can control how you tell the story for why your idea matters, and why it matters now. You can purposefully play the timing card when your idea aligns with an anniversary, event, or commemoration.
Create visibility for your ideas. In our conversation, we reflected on the fact that PhD projects are often by their nature cutting-edge and challenge the dominant voice. This might mean that there is, among the scholarly community, a certain reluctance to lean into new methodologies or explore the application of new concepts. This may require you to prepare the ground by creating more visibility for your ideas through targeted publications. (If you wish to have a conversation about ‘How to Build your Research Profile’, you can book 1:1 consultations here.)
4. (Re)Gain Perspective with the Support from your Network
Have a strong personal and professional network. This is particularly crucial when you have received contradictory or no feedback. Get over the sulk and initial emotional response and get a diversity of feedback. Share your application and the funding scheme’s evaluation criteria with critical friends and ask them why they would reject the project.
Have a diverse support network. The influence of others is not to be underestimated in how our decisions and careers paths pan out, both in positive and negative ways. Supervisors, mentors, colleagues, line managers, and critical friends are vital interlocutors to gain (and at times regain) perspective on what matters and how to proceed. One person telling you ‘you’re not ready for that grant’ might be countered by another telling you ‘go for it’! Taking time to reflect on who you listen to and getting alternative perspectives might well mean getting a big project off the ground or being promoted now rather than in 2 or 3 years’ time.
Your project idea might be unfunded but the intellectual work is still there. Any funding application means that you have developed your idea. You will have reached out to potential project partners and collaborators. Many an unsuccessful application leads to review or position papers and other publications, new collaborations, reworked projects and … funding success.