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Coping with Rejection in Academia

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This week our blog post is from Dr Lauren Waterman. Lauren is a psychiatrist studying part-time for the MD(Res) degree at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College London. The MD(Res) degree focusses on research training and a substantial research project equipping doctors to participate in research as part of a clinical career. Mental Health Research UK supports Lauren by funding her fees on the course. In this post she writes about how she copes with rejection in research, something that is an inevitable component of a research career.


The thrills of academia


I first became interested in research during medical school when I undertook a 1-year intercalated BSc in psychology, which included a research project. I went on to publish the research in a peer-reviewed medical journal and present it at an international conference in Athens. It was quite a thrill to see my name in print for the first time, to have my work out there contributing (at least a little) to medical knowledge, and to speak about my work at a conference attended by academics and clinicians from all over the world. This gave me a taste of the thrills of academic research and I have not looked back since.


I went on to find ways of integrating academia alongside my clinical work at every stage of my medical training, both during and since medical school. I always wanted to continue with clinical work as I loved the face-to-face patient contact so I never wanted to switch over to academia entirely. Juggling the different roles was sometimes difficult, especially when a deadline was looming, but it worked.


Applying for research funding


I started my 4-year part-time MD(Res) doctoral programme at King’s College London in February 2020, looking at the mental health of asylum seekers and other migrants who had been released from immigration detention back into the community. With only 1 day per week to work on this (and 4 days per week clinical work), I set out to apply for research grant funding so that more of my time could be funded to work on the research project. I felt I could get the project and my thesis done with this 1 day per week, plus a healthy (or not-so-healthy) amount of weekend and evening working. However, having the extra time would make things a lot easier, and enable me to complete a larger project that would be much more impactful and lead to greater improvements in care for migrants who are struggling.


I led an application for a £150,000 grant from the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) in November 2019. This would have funded a large proportion of my time and paid for all the project expenses that we ideally wanted (such as paying participants in supermarket vouchers). There were 2 stages for this grant, and both stages of application took up a considerable amount of time. Unfortunately, we did not get through to stage 2 that time round, but tweaked the application as per the panel’s comments and resubmitted it in June 2020. This time it did get through to stage 2, and we submitted the stage 2 application in November. We felt so close – I thought we were going to get the funding as the application was good and it seemed to be what the funder would have been looking for. I could feel that my life was going to get a lot easier with all this extra time that would be funded for the project. But, alas, it was rejected. We were the runner-up. The feedback was that the project needed more funding for it to achieve what the funder expected in a particular time period, but we had already applied for the maximum allowed. So it seemed impossible that this funding stream would work – they wanted too much for too little money – and there was no point reapplying. Back to drawing board.


Next, we made the project smaller and were invited to apply to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation for a smaller 2-year grant. The Foundation funds campaigns work regarding immigration detention and, although they have never funded research before, our research was going to inform our dissemination and campaigns work. We got through to the penultimate round – we were almost there. Then the application was approved by Ben & Jerry’s Foundation in the UK – yes! However, when it was sent to the Foundation in the USA for final permission, it got rejected. They have never funded research before and chose to limit their funding to campaigns work. They did kindly invite us to apply again for funding in the future to support our dissemination and public engagement work, but once the research data had already been collected. Back to the drawing board again.


Rejection


It is hard not to feel disheartened when experiencing rejection in academia. And there seems to be a lot of rejection involved. Even if you research is extremely important and your grant proposal is brilliantly written, the competition is high and it is not always possible to know why funders have made particular decisions. Perhaps the panel just felt more strongly about a different research topic, for personal or professional reasons. Perhaps your project did not quite sit within the funding remit, or at least it did not meet the funding priorities as much as another application. We also know that mental health research unfortunately achieves much less funding than physical health research. Even so, it is hard not to take the rejection personally. As humans, we are programmed to feel rejection intensely.


This makes it hard to start again and apply to another funding stream, especially when an application comes so close to being successful. It feels like your time and efforts have been wasted, which is a difficult feeling to cope with. What helped me is to remember that everyone in academia experiences this kind of rejection; that every grant application or journal or conference submission is a learning opportunity where you develop key skills that will be helpful in the future; and that in preparing for a grant application I will also have refined and tweaked my research plan, which will be useful when I finally undertake that project. Also, a bit of self-love and TLC goes a long way, and it helps to have a break to process those feelings before launching into a new funding application.


Academia vs clinical work


With both academia and clinical work, I feel like I am contributing towards helping people who need it. However, like with anything, as humans we need a regular sense of reward and achievement to motivate us to continue to work hard. In my clinical work I get this feeling every day, every time I speak to a patient and know I am making a difference to their life. However, with academic work there are no quick wins. I do not get that daily reinforcement. A research project can take years, and then even longer to get it published and presented somewhere. In academia, we are working towards these delayed, long-term rewards, with ups and downs along the way, and we need to continuously remind ourselves why we are up at 3am on a Saturday night writing that thesis or that grant proposal. Especially when we experience rejection. But, even so, I would not change it.

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