Learning to Accept Rejection, the Likely Outcome for Most of our Proposals

by Jane on October 28, 2013

The other day a postdoc told me that his big telescope proposal was rejected. He’d also gotten a rejection letter for a scientific fellowship he’d applied for.* He seemed really bummed out.

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?

Chime in, folks. How do you deal with rejection? How do you help your students and postdocs deal with it? Here’s a related post by Jess on the Women in Astronomy blog to get you started.

* Details changed to protect privacy.

Also, check out these other posts about proposals to increase your chances of avoiding rejection.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Aleksandar October 28, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I think that a huge part of the answer will depend on what hopes you had in the science coming out of that proposal. The perspective is definitely not the same for a postdoc struggling to put out as much papers as possible in time to get that next position / fellowship, and for a tenured profesor.

Maybe comparing people from the same career level would provide a fairer outcome.

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2 Grant October 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Great post, Jane (and great post by Jess at the WIA blog)! I think this discussion is much needed. As astronomers I think we’re all in the same boat – we’re insanely good at getting our proposals and job applications rejected!

Rejection is a necessary and (I think) healthy aspect of any scientist’s career. All young astronomers (except for those rare 10-sigma outliers) need to get used to it, learn from it, and (most importantly) learn to not lose sleep over it. The first ten telescope proposals I wrote were rejected, and I was rejected from 12 of the 14 positions I applied to for my first postdoc. I’ll readily admit that many of those rejections stung, especially in the first few years of my career. Some rejections would cause me to mope around all evening, wallowing in feelings of inadequacy and worsening my already acute case of impostor syndrome. It takes practice to wake up the next morning and move on. Nowadays I open a decision letter with every expectation of reading “We are sorry to inform you…”. Expecting rejection helps a lot.

For me personally, rejections have been the most important part of the long and iterative process of getting better at proposing. I personally still have a long way to go, but becoming my own toughest critic and learning to understand *why* my proposals were shot down has really helped. Today, when I read some of my very early telescope proposals or job applications I stare in disbelief at how terrible they are. I find myself thinking “Of course my proposal was rejected!” / “Had I been sitting on the TAC or hiring committee, I myself would have rejected it!” / “If I were writing this proposal today, I would do ______ differently.”

Only then do you realise that those rejected proposals were incredibly important in your development as a scientist. None of them were a waste of time. And by the way: this year’s 4th quartile triaged proposal could be next year’s multimillion dollar grant winner. Never give up on a project you believe in just because of a rejection! I learned that this year with an HST program that was finally accepted after three tries.

Last quick note: every time I sit down to write a proposal, I now take 5 minutes to re-read Julianne Dalcanton’s insanely good advice: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/01/24/unsolicited-advice-xiii-how-to-craft-a-well-argued-proposal/

Anyway, I have to get back to work on this job application (which will almost certainly be rejected :)

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3 any October 29, 2013 at 6:37 am

I really can’t agree with the statement “Rejection is a necessary and (I think) healthy aspect of any scientist’s career”.

As far as I know it is only recently that rejections become so common in astronomical society. I only see it as the result that the general social situation in getting worse the the competition is getting more intense.

Unlike rejection for publication in a journal, if your proposals get rejected there is NO room for complaints. As a astronomer, no matter how decent and correct you are, you become powerless at this moment. Those who are powerful are those referees, who, hiding under the mask of anonymity have the power to reject without taking much responsibility.

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4 Marshall October 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Last year I found myself working for the first time on a proposal for a space project with a cost somewhere around $150M, which we had the special joy of handing in just after sequestration hit. Sort of like running at high speed into a brick wall of no funding. A painful disappointment for sure, but it was a valuable lesson for me to watch the reactions of those more seasoned in space mission proposals: Put it aside for a while, plan to come back to it later and try again, there’s always next time.

Kepler was proposed what, four times before it was selected? Spitzer I think three times. Servicing Mission 4 was cancelled entirely five years before it launched successfully. This doesn’t just happen in space: The University of California once found a donor to pay for their 10 m telescope but then she died and her heirs changed their minds, so the UC had to find another funding source and partner with Caltech before they could build Keck. Rejection rates are probably higher today but they’ve always been nonzero. Famously, if you read Barnard’s paper reporting his discovery of Amalthea (Barnard, 1892) he opens with a paragraph complaining (politely!) about being repeatedly denied time on the Lick 36″ refractor.

“Persevere” is perhaps not a fun life lesson to learn. But I think it’s an unavoidable and essential one, if one is to dare to do great things. For me, remembering how many other great people have failed, repeatedly, before their successes is an important part of keeping perspective — and hope — during the inevitable ups and downs.

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5 Jennifer October 31, 2013 at 2:23 am

I tell my students that no work they do on a proposal or application is ever wasted, regardless of whether that attempt is successful or not. If you spend the time to craft a careful argument, round up citations, make nice figures and tables, and write persuasive sentences, you’ll find yourself reusing those same components over and over again. Not just in proposals, but in reports, talks, abstracts, whatever else you find yourself writing down the road. I think of it as laying the groundwork for all kinds of future projects. So while it stings when I get rejected, next time around I’m always happy that I put in the work.

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6 John October 31, 2013 at 11:45 am

I want to write two replies, one as a proposer and one as a panel member. This is
as a proposer, but as a tenured faculty member at a place without major private
telescope resources. This obviously is a different perspective than early career.

The sad fact is that many proposals will be rejected because it is
impossible for us mere mortals to always be in the top 10%. With the 2:1 oversubscribed facilities,
I at least have a good chance to improve and succeed next time, but at 6:1 or 10:1
there is a lot of chance involved, or other astronomers just aren’t interested enough in the idea. I have been surprised by what gets selected sometimes. Personally I went through a phase where I was discouraged and didn’t write many proposals, and the result was my research career almost went into a death spiral.

This is not helpful for funding or job proposals, but for telescopes I learned it
is important to keep collaborations active and to continuously develop new ones. My Keck
proposal might have been rejected, but someone else might have easier access
or can get a little data that solves the problem or demonstrates feasibility. This in turn
means you need to read a lot, get to conferences, and meet people. Serving on panels is one way to meet people without having to pay money for the trip! Another strategy is that there are huge amounts of public data so it is important to have some projects that can be completed even without a new proposal.

A positive story is that my current funding and most interesting work
was all made possible by what I learned while writing an unsuccessful
Kepler PSP proposal, which I had put a huge amount of effort into. This knowledge
let me quickly take advantage of an opportunity that arose later that otherwise
I would have completely missed. In the end, I got a lot more out of writing the
best proposal I could in a new(ish) area than submitting the same old thing, even
though it was ten times more work.

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7 Eilat October 31, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I learned the lesson at age 17. I was rejected from nearly every college to which I applied. The only school that accepted me was my ‘safety’ school. I was unhappy there for three semesters and transferred to my state school (which I hadn’t even considered when I applied in high school) and ended up learning physics from amazing professors, finding good mentors and getting into the grad school of my choice (I also met my husband, so it really did work out quite well).
Even today rejection still stings, but I don’t take it personally. Being on review panels to see the other side also helps. But what helps the most is being able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and think of the next awesome idea that you will propose.

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8 TMB November 6, 2013 at 8:57 am

I would reiterate what John and Eilat said – experience on the other side helps. Reading through dozens of excellent proposals or job applications and having to reject most of them makes you truly realize that many excellent proposals have to get rejected. It’s hard to get that experience early in your career, but many institutions with small telescopes have a grad student on the TAC, and postdocs can certainly be members of telescope and grant review panels.

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