How to Deal with Professional Disappointment in Science

Science is a profession of rejection. My history is a wasteland of rejected manuscripts, unwanted grant applications, and failed experiments. This is completely normal. What matters here is not necessarily the outcome (e.g. failure), but how the outcome is communicated to you and how you choose to deal with that information.
I am tired of hearing the mantra to “grow a thick skin”. That advice is crappy and is probably a result of the myth that science is supposed to be an unemotional and uncreative undertaking. Professional disappointments received now as an Associate Professor are just as unpleasant as they were when I was an undergraduate student; age and experience don’t make these events hurt less. What has changed is that my ways of coping productively have greatly improved.
Here are some strategies that I use to deal with professional disappointments:
1) You are not your science.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid taking a professional rejection personally. For many of us, our scientific identity is wrapped up in and intertwined with our personal identity. We are after all a scientist and we study [insert your topic of research here]. It is very hard to tease apart our professional identity from our sense of self. I make the argument that it is healthy and useful to have as many other identities as possible in order to buffer yourself from the feelings that a professional rejection will engender. For example, in addition to being a scientist, I am also a parent, a spouse, a softball player, a reader of books, a polymer clay artist, a science fiction fan, a blogger, a Blue Jays’ fan, etc. When you have multiple identities, you feel less threatened by a rejection of an aspect of your professional work.
2) Educate yourself about imposter syndrome.
When I get a professional rejection, the first thing that I do is blame myself. This is not helpful and is destructive and paralyzing. I’ve found it helpful to education myself about the phenomenon of imposter syndrome. I also have an ego file where I store all of the great feedback that I’ve received on my research, teaching, and service which helps to combat these feelings of being a fraud.
3) Take a deep breath and walk away for a while. File away the rejection for 2-3 days and let your emotions stabilize. Then come back to things and do a post-mortem. What could you do better next time? Is it worth trying again, or is your time better spent moving on to other goals and endeavours? Rejection feels awful in the moment, but there are many things that we learn from failure. It is also worth remembering that you cannot fail if you don’t throw your hat in the ring or try for things. Science is probably 95% failure and 5% success; set your expectations accordingly.
4) Have more than one project/goal on the go at the same time. If one thing isn’t going well, chances are something else will pan out. It is easier to accept rejection if you have recently had a success.
5) Sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about them. There are many things in life beyond your control. Sometimes Reviewer #3 is a clueless idiot and nothing that you can say will change their mind. Let it go…
Let’s say that you are on the other end of one of these interactions. What if you have to deliver a rejection?
1) Be tactful and kind. It doesn’t cost you anything to be compassionate and polite.
2) Try to provide constructive feedback so that future disappointments can be lessened or avoided entirely.
3) Rip the band-aid off. Don’t leave people hanging once a decision has been made. The person may have other choices available to them if you impart the news in a timely fashion.
Professional disappointments are many in science and I’ve found that they don’t get easier over time. What strategies do others use to deal with rejection as a scientist?

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One thought on “How to Deal with Professional Disappointment in Science

  1. “I am tired of hearing the mantra to “grow a thick skin”. That advice is crappy and is probably a result of the myth that science is supposed to be an unemotional and uncreative undertaking.”

    It really depends on what’s meant by “grow a thick skin” – your points 1,2,3 & 5 encapsulate what I understand by having a “thick skin” – the ability to look at disappointments such as this in a dispassionate way and not to allow the understandably negative emotions to disproportionately influence the rest of your day/week/year/life. Having a thick skin is about having the sort of coping strategies that you describe, it’s not about having no reaction at all.

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