Closed doors (photo credit: Massimo Pizzol)

Yesterday I got the news that an application of mine has been rejected. It hurts of course, I had put a lot of work into that application.

But I’ll make peace with that - as always. Plus, I had this post ready for the occasion, because when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Consistently with this food analogy, I have organised the post like a typical Italian menu.

Aperitivo: Too big to fail

If I don’t submit this paper to that great journal, I won’t publish there. If I submit, I might be rejected anyway. If I don’t send this grant application, for sure I won’t get any money. If I send it, it’s still more than 90% likely that I won’t get the money anyway. This is how research looks like. Kind of entrepreneurial. I must be proactive, I must be risk-taking, I must Be Water My Friend.

Then I open the social media and I read the success stories of fellow academics. What I don’t read is their failure stories. I know they exist too, no doubt about it.

Below I share some of my failure stories. Mainly rejections plus other small episodes. It’s not supposed to make my academic life look really hard or pitiless. I have a great job and these are petty problems compared to real life problems. Just showing that failure happens all the time in research and…one must learn to deal with it.

(In reality I am also following a sort of trend where academics share their failure CV, those written by Doug Webber or by Johannes_Haushofer are great examples. I am too lazy to write a full CV and I will only write some key stories. I also recommend this NatureJobs column on the topic.)

Antipasti: PhD studies

  • Sixt months into my PhD, I had spent too much time reading and I still had no concrete plan, no experiment nor modelling done, and I had written only review-ish work. My supervisors had to call for an emergency meeting to figure out what was wrong with me.

  • When I sent to my main supervisor the draft of my first paper, he (very nicely and politely) suggested me to trash it and write a completely new version.

  • One of the papers included in my paper-based thesis was rejected a few days prior to the PhD defence. When the opponents asked me how the paper was received, I had to tell them in front of the whole audience (eventually they appreciated my honesty).

  • My PhD thesis isn’t that special in all honesty (read my papers instead).

Primi piatti: Papers

  • I got manuscripts rejected at pretty much every journal and especially in the period right after my PhD when I was trying to became more autonomous from my supervisors.

  • I have submitted some good papers to ES&T but never got beyond their desk-rejection wall. I’ll keep trying.

  • Once a reviewer wrote 111 comment to a paper of mine, on the first round. 50 comments in the second round. 30 comments in the third round. The response to reviewers had a higher word count than the paper itself at that point…

  • I co-authored a paper that was rejected based on a six-lines review.

  • Over time I have received from anonymous reviewers plenty of unnecessarily harsh comments not only to my papers, but sometimes even to me as a person. Let us not speak of them, but do thou look and pass on (Dante’s Inferno - Canto III).

  • Had arguments for co-authorship issues. Happened to me a couple of times only, but it was truly distasteful.

Secondi piatti: Applications

Since 2011 I have applied to several (perhaps all?) calls for proposals where I had a reasonable chance to succeed (i.e., 10% success rate or lower) and I was eligible to apply. My current success rate? Not zero, but very low. It takes me weeks to months to put together these applications, I don’t do it for fun. And I don’t get good ideas every day! Deadlines are once a year and it takes 3-9 months to know the outcome, which sometimes is just a brief letter saying: You have been rejected and no other feedback. Only possible strategy to deal with this: get used to it and move on! Some name-dropping of places where proposals of mine have been rejected:

Public Danish funding: Danish Free Research Council (DFF)-postdoc (2 times), DFF-Project I (4 times), Aalborg Univ. talent programme (2 times), DFF-Sapere Aude (3 times once after the last stage of pitch interview, damn that was devastating)…

EU funding: Marie Curie International Mobility postdoc, ERC Starting Grant, H2020 Collaborative Project (3-4 times), COST Action (2 times)…

Other private funds: COWI Fund, Carlsberg Fund postdoc (2 times), Carlsberg Fund Associate, Spar Nord Fund, KR Fund…others? Can’t remember.

(Edit November 10th, 2020: I have stopped updating this. I got so many rejections at this point that I don’t count them anymore. Also some nice successes luckily. You get the point. Rejection of applications is just part of the job, suck it up and move on to the next proposal)

Dolci, caffé, digestivo

I hope reading about my failure stories was entertaining. I had quite some fun writing this too!

Kind of.

Let’s close with some random twitter wisdom: