Saturday, April 27, 2019

Rejection as a Condition of Employment (part 1)

Rejections letters are part of the academic condition. We don't normally hear about them in our formal channels. It's only in the informal complaints overheard in hallways, homes, and mailrooms. But rejection is part of the landscape of academic work (from our volunteer labour as students through to forms of paid employment).  Success -otherwise  described as excellence- displaces any discussion of failure or rejection unless it is framed in a 'pick yourself up, and move forward' parable.  Failure is a ubiquitous reality of faculty working conditions. We aren't really provided guidance on how to deal with rejection as so much of the talk in the academy focusses on success.

It is important to understand what failure means in our workplace. I want to be clear. I am not talking about cataclysmic failures that get people fired (criminal behaviours, or abject dereliction of duty). I am talking about the more mundane failures that structure everyday aspects of our work. From that I want to suggest some ways to deal with these everyday failures and think about ways to recast them.

I regularly get rejection letters.  Hmm. I don't like how that sounds. Let me rephrase. As part of my professional life I receive notifications from granting agencies, journals and publishers. Some of these letter writers will tell me that my work doesn't fit within their objectives or meet their standards.  Granting agencies typically either fund or or don't fund and the responses tend to be more circumspect than the journal editors. Also, the criteria for granting agencies tend to be more transparent and explicit.  Some of the letters from journals might tell me that, while they like the work and reviews were okay, some minor revisions will be required. It is the minor revisions (with long lists of changes) or the revise and resubmit letters that authors often find the most disheartening.

Grants and fellowships are the primary fuel of an academic career. Most of us need them in some measure. In today's world of performance metrics grants are particularly critical to an academic's career.  Students often find the process opaque, faculty colleagues often share similar doubts and questions as to the fairness of results (unless one is on the receiving end, that is).

My experience with grants is that they are fair and (for the most part) criteria are clear and evening applied.  I've sat on our federal Social Science and Humanities Research Council adjudication committees numerous times since the late 1990s.  Only once, over hundreds of applications for grants and fellowships, did I see anything that was even remotely untoward (an inappropriate choice of external reviewer) and it was dealt with effectively by the granting agency staff.

Failure rates for most grans hover between 60-80% of submitted applications. So when we don't get a grant we are very often in the grand majority. Of course, granting agencies ten to report these numbers differently and frame it as 20-40% success rates. Success, in this instance, relies upon failure.  Many academic institutions use metrics of selectively (sometimes called excellence) to indicate their high quality. The underlying ideology is that if everyone gets in or gets a grant then the quality can't be that high. Ideology promotes failure more than any measure against criteria.

When I started at UBC in the mid-1990s my colleagues had developed grant failure fatigue.  They had come through a period where federal granting agencies had reduced research funding to the degree that those of them who offered advice saw no relevance in submitting grant applications. The department head of the day, however, had explicitly told me I would need to apply for grants as part of the job.  So despite my colleagues' advice I applied for grants.

It took me three separate applications to finally land a SSHRCC standard grant. In the meantime I applied to in-house grants at UBC (the failure rate was low for these grants -at that time) and managed to receive small grants every year.   In my second year I secured a provincial grant of about $75,000 to study First Nations involvement in the forest sector. All along the way my failure rate was between 60-70%.  The ticket to improving the 'success-rate' was to expand the domain of potential sources to apply to and accumulate smaller grants to use as seed money and leverage for larger grants.

As I was working on preparing grant application after grant application I had a saying playing in the back of my mind I knew from my growing up in a commercial fishing family: "you can't catch fish with the net on the deck."  Another refrain that helped was "you can't get a yes if you're not willing to take a no."

In the realm of grant getting being willing to be told no and keep going is important. Each set of the net has to be done as perfectly as possible, making improvements, adjusting to tide and wind, but no matter what one can't always guarantee there will be fish in the net.

It isn't simply matter of brute forcing it.  Each 'no' requires thinking about what could be changed. One needs to learn how to modify an application to an agency (without selling out the soul of one's research). Just as important is being able to think laterally about the kind of work one wants to do and to be willing to modify projects to accommodate to changing funding directions and interests from government.  For me this has created a fairly successful grant record and has allowed me to pursue a lot of intersting ideas and publishing projects. Getting grants, though, is only part of the picture - we need to write and get that writing published so other people can read it.

[part 2 on receiving publication rejections
As a mentor of graduate students I have maintained a collection of failed and funded research projects for them to review. I also do the same with ethics applications. I learned this obvious teaching tool from my graduate experience at York University and the CUNY Graduate Center. Learning the genre of grant writing and ethics applications is an important writing skill that differs from the skills involved in writing essays. I have also shared these with colleagues who have expressed interest.

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