I wasn’t going to post anything about this topic as it feels like washing dirty laundry in public, but before I take a short break for the summer I need to get it off my chest…
I got one of those unfortunate letters last week from one of my favourite funding bodies. It was one of those letters which end with the statement:
We do appreciate the time and trouble taken to prepare applications for grants and I am sorry to write such disappointing news.
I’m sure any academic readers out there will know exactly the range of emotions that this statement elicits. Outrage, disappointment, stunned shock (is that an emotion?) all play through the brain in rapid succession as the world momentarily falls away from beneath your feet. It is a statement that has been written by the non-academic to try and acknowledge the disappointment and deflect any of that outrage that might be sent back via email. It is a bland understatement of the flipping obvious that just throws petrol on the flames. It is a nothing statement that has been produced by someone who has never received a grant rejection letter. What the author of such lines does not know is that:
GRANT REJECTION HURTS! A LOT.
It hurts like hell. The words informing you of your rejection are the knife that slips in under your ribs, hefted by a hidden assassin. Surprisingly you survive the assault, but it soon emerges that the knife was coated liberally in a slow acting poison. This poison targets your central nervous system and over the days and weeks to come you will suffer random bouts of anger at the reviewers who so cruelly provided the basis for your rejection, rage at the committee who could not see the positive points provided by said reviewers, fury at the funding body who have forbidden resubmission, and deep self-loathing for the silly mistakes that weren’t picked up before submission. Between the angry phases comes a feeling of utter helplessness. A great idea (usually your best ever) has been trashed (usually for the flimsiest of reasons). The overall effect is almost like a bereavement or the sadness at the end of a long-term relationship. There is a grieving to go through and a period where you question whether you’re really cut out for this academic malarky. Wouldn’t a proper job be more fulfilling? Do we really need to keep setting ourselves up for a grand kicking from our research rivals? Why not open a B&B in a pretty and far away place? Or sail away on a boat to where life is simple? Or (my personal favourite) work the land to support yourself on a Scottish croft?
The bland understatement from the administrator comes nowhere near to the truth of my grant-writing experience. Yes, I did take a lot of trouble to prepare my application. I would guess it was 6 weeks of thinking and writing and discussion, but that was the tip of the iceberg, because there were 4 years before that where we gathered the data that supported the application, got it published and refined the hypotheses that I eventually went with. I am also a lucky person. I have had funding before, I know how the game is played and I am not fighting for my career. For others at the start of academia, these rejections mean so much more- they can shatter careers completely and snuff them out before they get started. Grant applications are about peoples jobs and wellbeing.
I am pissed off. Dejected. Blue. I feel crushed and (yes, just a little bit) humiliated.
But the good news is that I still care. I will arise phoenix-like from the ashes and I will try again. I will triumph and crush mere mortals beneath my mighty research boots. This is what we do. Academics are a sub-species of humanity who have evolved to have a hide like a rhino, an immune system that can combat the poison on the assassin’s knife and a brain that keeps cycling through to the next big idea. I also make a vow- there are two grant proposals in my inbox as I write and I vow to be nice. I vow to respect the authors and include many positives in my reports and give them the fighting chance that they deserve.