Post 2. A bad news week, but still seeing and valuing the wins

As research active academics two of the most significant and valued things we are judged on, are peer-reviewed research outputs and external research grant income. Both of these are products of many months (often years) of work, not to the mention the time taken to actually craft and write the respective submissions. Once we complete the papers/applications we send them off for review by expert peers in our field and to a large extent, the outcome is out of our hands. As one collaborator described it to me yesterday when referring to the outcome of grant applications, “it’s a lottery”.

So, last Monday I finally submitted a paper that I started putting together in July (I know, that’s ridiculous, but it’s amazing how easily things can keep getting pushed down the priority list when a new academic year kicks in (not to mention taking some summer leave 🙂 ). Anyway, the journal in question was extremely timely dealing with the paper, and on Wednesday I got a polite “thank you, but no thanks” email letting me know that the paper hadn’t made the cut to be sent out to peer-review. Obvious disappointment, but as I mentioned in my first blog post, there’s no point taking these things personally, as it’s all part of the process. But still, months of work and it didn’t get past first base….

Yesterday was Friday and I was ‘enjoying’ a day’s leave as my wife convinced me it would be great to attack ‘Black Friday’ and get the Christmas shopping done in one hit. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hellish an experience as I expected and we were home by lunchtime, loaded down with shopping bags, and a badly hit bank account (teenagers seemingly can’t exist without designer clothing…). Anyway, I had a few ongoing work things to check on so I predictably opened my emails. Once I’d done this the term ‘Black Friday’ took on an additional meaning. The email subject line referred to the grant application that we submitted in June and for which we wrote responses to reviewer comments last month. I scanned through the opening niceties of the messages to get to the meat and bones:

“After thorough consideration by the Panel, I regret to inform you that your application has not been successful on this occasion. XXXX is grateful for your application, and I appreciate that this decision will come as a disappointment to you and your team.”

The paper rejection was one thing but this was a different level of disappointment. We had an international team of applicants with track records in their respective areas of expertise that were relevant to the proposal. We believed that we had demonstrated a strong case for the work, and the budget was justified but not unrealistic. The reviewers’ comments were positive and most had scored it highly. So, we had grounds for optimism and even though we knew how competitive the process is, the outcome was/is really disappointing, more so, because we won’t get any feedback for another 4-6 weeks (imagine returning work to undergraduate students and telling them to expect feedback some time in the next 4-6 weeks…a big TEF no-no…).

I thought I’d share this to illustrate that for all the effort and expertise that we apply to our work, sometimes (often?) the outcomes are somewhat out of our hands. This happens at all levels of academic research, irrespective of whether the author/applicant is a PhD student, Head of Department/Unit, Research Fellow, or Professor. No-one is immune. Therefore, it’s important to accept, or even embrace this fact, and not see the rejections as reflections on our ability or potential. It’s commendable to say you’ll put the disappointment to one side and move on, and even though this is the right thing to do, it’s easier said than done. I’d encourage anyone to be open about their lack of success and rejections with colleagues, mentors, and critical friends, rather than keep them bottled up. Most people have been through exactly the same thing, often many times before, and chatting it through with someone with an empathetic ear can be very helpful, and if the disappointment is really deep, those conversations might even help the healing process.

The other thing is to look at the process as a learning experience. Use the reviewers’/panel’s comments and feedback to help the next iteration of the paper or the next grant application. Although we may not always agree with the points of view presented, people with a certain level of expertise obviously have given the comments for a reason, and we should be open to reflecting on these alternative viewpoints, which in the long-run may help us and our development (adopting different analysis or methodological approaches, for example).

On the face of it then, the week commencing November 19th has been disappointing from a professional perspective. After I read the grant outcome email I went out for a run, which is always a guaranteed way for me to let the thoughts settle and for a bit of clarity to be sought. I concluded that there was no point sulking about the grant outcome, the only thing to do was to wait for the feedback and then decide how to use that (hopefully) valuable information with the rest of the team. The paper that got rejected was submitted elsewhere so that was one small win. I then thought about the other parts of my week. I’d had conversations with colleagues about their research plans for the year and I was excited that there could be some promising new internal collaborations formed off the back of that. I’d met with an external partner who is a firm advocate of evidence-based school-based physical activity and wellbeing programming. We spoke about plans for a forthcoming project, and also about the potential for a joint funding application to generate some co-produced impactful research with other local partners. In a corridor conversation, a colleague who has a practitioner background and is relatively new to research, informed me that a paper he had co-authored had been accepted for publication. That was a really pleasing achievement and reflected the research culture we are trying to develop. I then thought about the latest paper published this week from colleague Dr Rob Noonan (@RobJNoonan), a former PhD student and who is one the most productive early career researchers I’ve known. This work on the widening socioeconomic inequalities in childhood obesity in Liverpool was also disseminated through an article in the Conversation, which was more great external exposure for our group. This week a draft of the paper for the pilot work that formed the backdrop to our failed grant application was started, and we put the final touches to a research seminar event that we are hosting next week to showcase our work to colleagues and delegates external to our institution (including non-academics). And yesterday I even picked up a 40% discount on my favourite pair of running shoes (which I was breaking in at the time I was thinking about all of this)!

So, when I considered the big picture that didn’t just involve me, the week of disappointments had actually been punctuated with a series of small wins, which were each significant in their own way. In the long-term maybe a number of small wins are just as good as a few bigger ones? Next week will bring its own challenges, and hopefully more wins than disappointments. Whatever happens, we’ll learn from it, kick on, and be all the better for the experience.

Onwards and upwards.

Post-script to Post 2.

After last week’s disappointments I’m pleased to report that the wins returned this week. Two recently completed PhD students each had papers accepted for publication, our group ran a successful research seminar event, I got to spend some time with friend and mentor Prof. Gareth Stratton (@activity4kidz), and today we celebrated the graduation of three PhD students.

So, lots to be happy about this week, and another reminder that we should try and keep everything in perspective (highs and lows).

Right, off to put up the Christmas tree now…

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