The resilient researcher

Is it just me, but in the last few years everything seems to have got really hard. It’s become particularly hard to get research funding, as the economic climate worsens and funds get squeezed, pots of money become more elusive and bidding more competitive. Already this year I’ve had three funding proposals rejected, and it seems sometimes that I’m in a constant cycle of writing and rejection.

Of course it’s not all bad news, every now and then we get a successful bid, and everything is good again. However, these instances are few and far between: our research office reckons that, on average, for every twelve bids submitted, one will be successful. Add to that the peer-review publication process, job and promotion applications, and that’s an awful lot of rejection. It seems to me that the most important skill a researcher needs these days is not creativity, critical thinking, or astounding insights. It is simply the resilience to manage the inevitable grind of submission and rejection, and to maintain confidence and a sense of humour during the process.

I have a number of techniques and strategies for dealing with this:

  1. Always have more than one project, idea, publication, etc. on the go at the any time. When I get a rejection, I take a break, stand back and do something else for a while.
  2. Try to learn something from every submission, particularly the failures, making sure that I always request feedback, and take it on board next time.
  3. Do not to give up on a good idea. I used to bury failed proposals, but now I use them as sources of inspiration and ideas, even if not as a whole, I can often bits reuse elements.
  4. Have a Plan B before Plan A goes wrong. So that it doesn’t seem like going right back to the beginning, I try to have an alternative funder, publication, etc. in mind when I submit, so that I can see failure as part of a process rather than an end point.
  5. Talk to other people to reassure myself that it really isn’t just me, it’s a hard process, and everyone has to deal with rejection. Reminding myself that it really is ‘just a job’ is helpful too.
  6. If the above all fail, a bottle of wine and a good cry usually hit the mark.

I’d be really interested to know if this is just me, and how others in the same situation manage to stay sane.


  1. Martyn

    All good advice. Some of my proposals are on their second or third iteration…

  2. nicola (Post author)

    That makes me feel much better! (Or does taking reassurance in the failure of others make me a bad person… ;o)

  3. John Kirriemuir

    It’s not you – it’s damned tough out there in academic funding land, for people inside and outside institutions. Has been for a good few years. From a pure numbers point of view, it’s pretty ridiculous; there must be a lot of people putting in large numbers of funding applications and all failing – which is a huge waste of person-resource time. The system is essentially broken. My good funding application run of c. 40% success, from about ’95 to ’10, am looking back with nostalgia. I doubt those days, or anything remotely close will ever return. Certainly not in UK academia.

    It also annoys, as a regular assessor of funding bids, to have to follow instructions and essentially fail large numbers of superb and flawless Games in Learning proposals, because of the sheer weight of numbers. One batch I marked last year – and this is in academia – had a success rate of 1:55. Or, less than 2% got funding. Which is, frankly, ridiculous.

    Staying sane: develop a skin as tough as an elephant (for games and learning a necessity anyway, as the more ignorant some people are the more opinionated they become); believe in what you do; keep a close circle of 100% trustworthy friends and everyone else is expendable.

    Also reconsider where you draw your personal line (your choice, no-one else’s opinion matters) in terms of what work you do. One big (financial) hit for doing something you may normally baulk at; whether to go for it, as it can support academic famine times (which is the fault of conventional academia, and not you), or not? Some of us were debating this at a recent conference – how much payment, per day, would it take to tempt us to do Games in Learning training for military drone strike remote pilots, in the very remote possibility we were approached? The tension between throwing hands up in horror, and remembering the need to put food on the table, roof over head.

    But what you are doing – always having several pots bubbling – makes sense.

    Also chocolate.

  4. nicola (Post author)

    Thanks John, very reassuring, but also very frustrating. Really good point about research choices, I find myself under increasing pressure to undertake work that is outside my comfort zone (although typically academically rather than ethically) but sadly I think that’s the nature of the profession now.

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