Were you declined? Me too.

No one likes to talk about rejection, but it’s a professional reality. In this post, Dr. Keri Colabroy shares candidly about her experience with a declined proposal. 

I know I promised you a post on how editors view PUI manuscripts, and I still have that post for next time…but I thought that some of you out there might be feeling the fresh sting of rejection this week. Me too. I got that email this morning. The one I’ve been waiting for…for months. I’m in the second round of an NSF RUI submission. And, guess what? Declined.


I read the reviews. Did it help? Maybe a little, that reviewer that gave the “excellent” – s/he was right on target! But what about the guy (I always imagine it’s a guy in my head…why is that?) who attacked my reasoning, claimed by ideas were only of “low interest”…what is his problem! (Sigh)

This isn’t a post about how the NSF sucks, or about how the funding climate is the fault of the current administration or the previous one…blah blah blah. I want to talk about picking yourself up after a kick in the teeth – the kind of kick that makes you feel like everything you’ve been working toward is just…mediocre. I can hardly even type it. I strive every stinkin’ day, I constantly fight a time deficit, I pour myself into my students, I carve out 4 hours a week for scholarly writing, I read the literature and teach awesome courses. I work so. incredibly. hard. And something like this, well it feels like someone is standing over me saying, “nice try, kiddo”. To me, the academic year feels like a marathon. And I’m 1-2 miles from the finish line. I am so very tired. And today, well today it feels like someone just handed me another marathon.

It would be easy to give up. So many do.

But I won’t.

Why? Because I’m in this gig for intellectual excellence. I want to do this thing called undergraduate research the best way I can, and I need that money (dang it!) to push things forward. Now, Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, maybe it’s because I’m a perfectionist, or maybe both – but when I get a rejection like this, there is a piece of me that feels the rejection is of me. Me as a person. I hear it saying “Keri, you suck” does anyone else hear that voice? I know you do.

Tell it to shut up.

It isn’t me. And it isn’t you. This is just how peer reviewed science works. Did you hear me?  In the two years I have been working on this proposal, I’ve received four “excellents”, two “very goods” and one “good/fair” (I know, right?). And it was that last one that took me down this round. I can look at this only in terms of the rejection, or I can see it as a validation. You know what – there are at least 6 people out there that think what I do is pretty darn awesome. Actually, there are more than that. I’ve met them at conferences, they’ve reviewed my papers, they’ve invited me to talk about our work at their colleges and universities. And I KNOW my students are benefiting. They are doing amazing things!

Rejection is part of life. It’s all about how we overcome it.

No one likes to talk about rejection. We spend our professional lives listing our accomplishments – and accomplishments are great, don’t get me wrong – but accomplishment almost always comes on the heels of rejection. No one starts out their career awesome. Sure, some of us have more resources than others, some of us have smaller  teaching loads, and professional grant writers to help us…but you know what?  Those things don’t guarantee success, and they don’t guarantee scholarly excellence. I’ve seen successful proposals from all types of institutions and PIs. And I’ve met outstanding teacher-scholars with 3/3 and even 4/4 (gasp!) teaching loads.

When asked about funding success, I have a PUI friend and colleague who wisely remarked, “it’s not that I’m so much smarter, it’s that I just didn’t give up.” Did you hear that? (I’m speaking to myself as much as I am to you). Don’t. give. up. Pursuing scholarship at it highest level is an academic lifestyle.

And a few years from now, when I am successful (because I will be), the CV won’t say “declined X times before funded” – no one’s CV ever says that. But it will still be true. I will take the scientific criticism – it was offered in scholarly honesty. And I will make the next submission stronger. But I’m beginning to think that funding success isn’t only about a strong proposal (because it is), it’s about getting the right panel of reviewers at the right moment.

Am I going to cry about this? Yes, a little.

But I still believe what I said. Grant writing produces my very best scholarship. So, In my pursuit of scholarly excellence, I will keep writing.

Right after I eat some chocolate.

KeriColabroy-0258~Dr. Keri Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. And she is just trying to survive to the end of the semester…

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