I felt bad for him — rejection is a bummer. As a co-I on the proposal and one of his letter-writers, I was disappointed that we wouldn’t see the telescope time or the funding. But I wasn’t surprised — after all, the telescope in question is highly over-subscribed, and there were 300 applications for the dozen fellowships awarded. Though emotionally I was rooting for the postdoc to succeed, logically I knew the odds were slim, and therefore expected rejection.
The postdoc, however, was genuinely upset and discouraged. This got me thinking.
Astronomers were generally the smartest kids in school, got into most of the colleges they applied to, maybe even most of the grad schools too. Though grad school is hard, most of us got through. We think of the referee process as hard, but almost every submitted paper is eventually accepted.
But, when it comes to telescope proposals and fellowship applications, we’re losers most of the time. Roughly 90% of Hubble proposals are rejected. Somehow, me and many of my colleagues have learned this skill: how to work like a sled-dog on a proposal, for weeks or months at a time, then submit it and let go of it, with grace. How did we learn that? How can we teach our students and postdocs to put their most creative, rigorous energies into a proposal, and then to accept its likely rejection, without destroying their self-esteem or fueling impostor syndrome?
* Details changed to protect privacy.
Also, check out these other posts about proposals to increase your chances of avoiding rejection.