The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist. We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column. Although we usually try to keep the column short, this month's question invited particularly lengthy responses. In our opinion, they are well worth the read.
I have written a lot of fellowship proposals since coming to grad school, but none have been successful. I find it difficult to deal with the rejections, in part because some of the reviews can get a bit nasty. I told my advisor that I don’t want to apply for any more fellowships, but he didn’t really take that well. Funding is tight in our lab so I can understand where he’s coming from. But the fellowships also seem like a waste of time, especially since I already have to help write grant proposals. Do you have any advice on how to avoid this pointless pain, or how to handle the rejections?
Rejected and dejected
Dear Rejected and Dejected:
Rejection is difficult, and it is especially hard when referees can't manage basic civility. Rejection is a part of academic life, however, so it is essential that you develop ways to cope, or even learn from it, and move forward. Understand that there is no shame in rejection. None of us is perfect (neither applicant nor referee). Being humble (but not self-effacing) about our own efforts and forgiving of others leads to a more collaborative approach. The primary task is to determine whether there is merit to the referee's criticism. Not every response, even by renowned researchers, is worth taking seriously. But good criticism is a great gift. If the critique is cloaked in nasty rhetoric, it can be hard to judge its fairness, so even if you want to rip the letter to shreds, ask someone who knows your work well (your advisor?) whether it is important to address the concern. If not, just reprint the proposal and send it off again. Maybe the referee wasn't up on the latest research, or was feeling threatened, or was grumpy due to lack of sleep. It isn't about you. If the criticism has merit, then consider this an opportunity to improve your proposal and your work. Articulate the criticism in your own words, removing the nasty parts; enter into the opposing perspective and develop the line of thought as plausibly as you can. Think hard about it. Figure out a response and, again, check with others you trust to see if it is adequate. Rewrite the proposal and send it off again. The proposal will be stronger and you will have learned something valuable in the process.
Kate H. has been a full professor at MIT for more than a decade
Dear Rejected and Dejected:
This is a great question! First, obtaining funding is a major plus in your career, and success breeds success. A fellowship will be a great thing on your resume that can help you stand out for the next step in your career, so it is definitely worth spending the time to submit applications. With science becoming so specialized, it is hard for people to accurately judge the publications of their colleagues, and a lot of emphasis is now put on money and awards, which are signs that your colleagues think your science is great. Funding also can mean the freedom to spend more time on your research instead of serving as a teaching assistant, or it could even save your project if your professor runs out of money.Remember that applying for fellowship is a competition, and you might have to apply for many fellowships to get one. You need to make your application competitive. Get suggestions on your research proposal, personal statement, and other parts of the proposal from your advisor, senior grad students, postdocs, other professors, etc. Your professor and other professors should be willing to spend the time to teach you how to write the best possible application so that you can bring money to the department. Also, make sure your application is written directly for the foundation for which you are applying. For example, if it is a cancer foundation, cancer should be in the first sentence of your proposal - don’t make the reviewers read a whole page to figure out why a basic science project has a link to a disease. Also, make sure that your letters of recommendation help make you competitive. They should NOT emphasize “soft skills” like being nice to work with. These letters should emphasize that you are a brilliant, creative, hardworking, successful scientist who will make great use of the opportunity provided by this fellowship.
When an application is rejected, and this happens to ALL OF US, remember, this kind of rejection is just business, it is not personal. Reviewers often have to select just a few winning applications out of hundreds of very good applications. Also, reviewers are people, and even the best, fairest reviewers make mistakes, for example, they may not be very knowledgeable about the techniques in your proposal. Use whatever helpful suggestions the reviewers make to improve your next application. Also, some comments are a sign that the application was not clear about something, so figuring out what needs to be explained better can also help you improve your next application. Finally, I will also note that reviewers are not supposed to be nasty, I have seen on occasion some inappropriate comments. Don’t let any insulting remarks get to you because your success in your career does not depend on one jerk’s incorrect opinion. Instead think of the opinions of the people that matter – your professor and the other scientists who know your work and are recommending that you apply for the fellowships.
Kate J received her undergraduate degree in Biology at MIT and has been a full professor for more than a decade.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate H. and Kate J.
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