HOW TO BE A RHINO: Secrets for dealing with academic rejection

The title of this blog is somewhat (ok, grossly) misleading. I suspect that I am not going to reveal any profound secrets, but rather re-state a bunch of truths that we all know, but struggle to implement. None the less, it seems worthwhile to reflect on twenty years as a researcher and the tricks I use now to make it all a bit less hard.

Why the title? It comes from a seminar that I give to early career researchers about how to develop coping mechanisms for a life in research academia. Academia has a lot of rejection. Even the very best researchers are having their ideas dismissed, their grants rejected and their papers not published all the time. The peer review process has many flaws in both approach and implementation, but ultimately is the way in which research quality is judged. At its heart it is about your peers passing judgement on your ideas and it is VERY confronting.

The intent here is to articulate how to construct a set of armour to protect researchers from the slings and arrows of outrageous academia. I am struck by the number of people who are brilliant, but fundamentally find the constant rejections of academic life is hard on their sense of self-worth. This blog is for those people. In my experience a disproportionate number of people who are challenged in this way are female, which is an even more profound reason that I want to explore coping strategies.

It is supposed to be personal. If you are meant to be in academia you will be very personally invested in what you do. The best ideas, even if you set out aiming to be dispassionate, you will fall in love with. I find this particularly true of grant applications, where by the end of the time I have written a proposal I am absolutely enamoured of it. When it (almost inevitably) is not funded, then I am genuinely upset. Give yourself permission to be upset. Don’t be angry at yourself for feeling hurt. Rage at the injustices. But find ways to move on (see below). Remember that the fact that you care is a sign that this is the right job for you. Personally, I find this even worse when my students get a grant or paper rejected, or are hurt by criticism. If you are a supervisor, sit down with students (particularly after their first major rejection) and give them permission to be upset. It gets a bit easier as time goes by, but not much!!

Find ways to leave it at work. In many disciplines people put on a uniform at work (whether that is a suit, a set of overalls or a badge) and take it off when they get home. This creates a clear physical break from their workplace, and assists in shedding the psychological baggage of their work day. Academics in general are very poor at this, and allow workplace stress to bleed into their home lives. It is worth ensuring that you have an environment where you can put the stress and upset of academic rejection out of your mind. As an academic manager, I have found that taking my suit off when I get home and changing into casual clothes is a valuable part of de-stressing from the day.

Go through the stages of grieving. Ross and Kessler describe the five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Subject to all of the caveats that they describe, this is also a useful framework for dealing with academic rejection. If we accept that this feels like a personal loss or hurt, then we need to manage it like that. I can illustrate this best with my personal approach to having a paper rejected. I receive a rejection email. I open it. I get upset [GRIEF]. I close it and go home and drink wine [DENIAL]. A few days later I open it again. I started to get annoyed. I rant to my co-authors. I rage at the injustice of the peer review system. I accuse the editor (in my head) of cowardice [ANGER]. I take the comments and turn them into a table. I attempt to respond to the major comments – initially this is usually a bit of angry monologue, which morphs into a set of proposed changes [ANGER turns to BARGAINING]. I get over-whelmed by my own short-comings. The reviewers are right, this was always a terrible paper. If only I had communicated this better. Why do I always make these stupid mistakes? [DEPRESSION]. I force myself to continue to work on the table. I send the paper and the comments to a friendly face (sometimes a co-author) for some input. I identify the key weaknesses which can be addressed and do that. The ones that can’t I try and explain in a paragraph in the paper [ACCEPTANCE]. I resubmit and order some more wine. I find myself responding similarly (and perhaps more acutely) when grant applications are rejected.

Turn defeat into success. If you accept the stages that I outline above then there are some clear danger points in that pathway.

  • Getting stuck at denial. The first is simply getting rejected and not being willing to accept that there is anything wrong with a paper or proposal. In my experience, any review (even a negative one) can be used to make a piece of writing better.
  • Mis-directed anger. Externally focussed anger is ok. Suggesting that the reviewers and the journal are a bunch of idiots isn’t particularly helpful, but it does suggest that you have retained a sense of the value of the submitted work. Much more dangerous is anger which is self-directed (why do I always do this?) and which moves straight to depression. Those are the papers and proposals that are filed and never seen again. This may be justified, but most often it is a horrible waste. For many students (in particular) that rejection, and that unsubmitted piece of work, will hang over them for a long time, with an associated sense of guilt.
  • Losing faith. Most people find it very hard to retain faith in their ideas when faced with strident criticism from their peers. There are people with the self-confidence to do this, but in my experience they are rare. Look at criticisms, try and respond to them, but also test your ideas again on a friendly audience (lab group talks are an ideal forum). Was this a BAD idea or just an idea that wasn’t explained very well? Try and re-package it.
  • Not moving forward. The bargaining stage, as outlined above involves explaining away the criticisms directed at a piece of work. It is VERY hard to move to this point and it is best done in a structured way. Identify the key criticisms. Are they valid? Are they profound? Can they be responded to? Even if a paper or grant application has been rejected outright, this stage is critical to developing a better piece of work for next time. Even if you work is exceptional, but the reviewers have not understood it, then you must take responsibility for the failure of communication. Most importantly here, give yourself a deadline for when you will address the criticisms – a realistic one (a week??) but as soon as possible.

This is hard stuff, but don’t give up. I jokingly say every time that I have a grant rejected that ‘Once again the assessors have failed to recognise my brilliance’. Keep confidence in your ideas and your work, but temper that confidence with trying to understand why you weren’t successful this time around. Be sad. Be mad. But most of all get back on the horse and ensure that science benefits from your good ideas.

 

 

SO, YOU GOT AN INTERVIEW… (advice for the imminent academic)

Congratulations!! Most people do interviews really badly and you aren’t going to be one of those people!! So you have a better than even chance. Below is a summary of interview tips. They are pretty general and don’t apply to every position, but they are based on real experiences for academic interviews.

Before the interview…

  • In terms of timing, try and be really accommodating, as it shows your interest and willingness. For phone interviews be willing to get up at 3am to make timetabling easier for the panel if they are on the other side of the world. Rearrange your schedule around the interviewers.
  • For a face-to-face interview, ask whether there are accompanying meetings with other staff. If not, ask to arrange them, and have a list of people you would particularly like to talk to.
  • Whether you are doing phone or face to face, look at the website like crazy. I prepare a 1p summary for each relevant potential collaborator and look at relevant strategic documents. You don’t need to memorise them but have them with you. Overarching strategic comments from websites of Directors, DVCRs, Deans etc are really important. If you have a friend or colleague ring them up and ask what way the wind is blowing.
  • Always read up on what the unit offerings are and think about what you could teach into.
  • Look back over your letter of application and be very familiar with it. Many panels start with that document as they develop questions.
  • Look at the original job advert and prepare a written statement which addresses each of the key selection criteria. Have that with you and be prepared for the questions.
  • Have a one paragraph statement about what you are (e.g. community ecologist) what you do and where your research is going. Obviously align this with the job advert, but also be prospective – talk about what you will do as much or more than what you have done.
  • MOST OF ALL analyse your CV for weaknesses. If it is a teaching and research position and your teaching CV is weak, prepare most strongly in that area and have a response. If you are weak in the area of one of the identified key skills, have a polished response ready for why that doesn’t matter and what you will do about it. If your publications have been a bit slow tell them why and how that will change. Be self-critical in preparing.

Interview format

Most interviews will be a panel format (you can ask about this beforehand) and will include the leader of discipline, another senior staff member internal to the department or institute, an external member (from outside the department or institute, or even outside the university) and often an HR person. Some will include a student rep or a technical staff member.

Some PDF/RF positions will just be the lab leader… obviously if this is the case, then know LOTS about them – ie. Read their 5 or so most recent papers and their 5 or so top cited papers (well the abstracts, anyway).

Preparing for the interview

  • It is ok to take notes with you in an organised folder and to refer to them
  • Dress formally, particularly for a more junior role. Now is not the time for a quirky t shirt. Avoid sparkly distracting jewellery. Basically avoid distractions.
  • Turn off your mobile phone
  • Check your fly or equivalent.

 Starting the interview

  • Be polite, shake hands as you come into the room.
  • You may be asked for an opening statement like ‘Why did you apply for this position?’ ‘Tell us about your research?’ or ‘Do you know…?’
  • Ask for a glass of water – it is a valuable stalling device
  • Remember to take a deep breath before answering each question

 Questions

Research

  • Describe your research program (be prospective)
  • What is your result you are most proud of?
  • What is your currently funded research?
  • If you came here, what would be your first research grant application, and where would you send it?
  • If you came here who would you collaborate with?
  • What are your international networks?
  • What would your ideal lab look like (how many students, post-docs etc)
  • Would you consider yourself a project by project researcher or someone who runs a large program?
  • Where do you imagine your career taking you (be careful – if you are interviewing for a teaching and research position saying you want a research fellowship is dangerous. For a research position, I would usually say that is my aim).

Supervision

  • Make a statement about your supervisory philosophy
  • Do you have any supervisory experience?
  • What is your approach to supervision?
  • How would you deal with the following supervisory scenario?
  • Do you prefer solo or team supervision (make sure you know the local policy on this)

Teaching (if appropriate)

  • Make a statement about your teaching philosophy
  • What is your teaching experience?
  • What is your approach to teaching?
  • What is your approach to assessment?
  • What is your favoured mode of teaching delivery? Why?
  • Do you prefer solo or team teaching (make sure you know the local policy on this)?
  • Have you been involved in any novel teaching approaches?
  • What support software (e.g. Moodle, Blackboard) are you familiar with?
  • What courses would you be interested in teaching here?
  • (particularly in the US) what course would you teach if you came here, what would it’s structure be and what content would you emphasise?

Service

  • Make a statement about your service philosophy
  • What service roles have you held?
  • How would you contribute to the culture of the lab/centre/school/department/university?

General (many universities REQUIRE an equity and diversity question to be asked – read the policy)

  • Why would you want to come here? What are the best things about here?
  • If we offered you the position when would you be available to start?
  • Provide an example of when you have worked in a team that was particularly effective and explain why.
  • Describe a situation of conflict in the workplace and how you resolved it or would resolve it.
  • Describe your commitment to equity and provide an example of when you have shown this commitment
  • Describe an ethical issue in the workplace and how it would best be resolved.

 

From out of left field (real examples – from the easy to the weird to the plain rude)

  • If you could invite a speaker from anywhere in the world to visit who would it be and why?
  • Why would you want to live here?
  • Your research productivity has been pretty average – tell me why we should hire you?
  • What would your dream job be?
  • If we gave you $10 million – what project would you do involving as many people in the department as possible?
  • What do you want your legacy to be when you retire?

Questions for the panel (always have some – avoid detail on salary etc)

  • I note from your strategic plan that you are building strength in XXXX – how will that be enacted?
  • I would be very keen to build strong international collaborations if I moved here – do you have an international visitor program?
  • What lab facilities will be available to me? Start-up funds?

 

After the interview

  • Thank the panel for the opportunity
  • Don’t relax yet!! (ie don’t say something stupid on the way out the door)


Seminars

  • Take care to ask what the purpose of the seminar is:
    • Teaching and research? Research (prospective or retrospective)? Teaching?
  • Know who the audience is – just the panel? The school? For a general school make sure you communicate to a general audience
  • Stick to time – don’t try and do too much. Show the broad scope of your research then focus in on good stuff.
  • Save 10 mins of a 45 min seminar to look forward to what you want to do next.
  • Tailor the interview to the particular job … slip in little references to show this has been written for them.
  • Prepare prepare prepare. Practise your talk to a critical audience.

 

Meetings with staff/students

  • Don’t just talk about yourself
  • Have a 1p cheat sheet bio for each person
  • Make sure you know enough about each staff member to ask at least one good question about their research
  • If you meet with senior managers (heads, deans) ask them about strategic stuff – show you know the plan, but also ask them ‘where next?’
  • Student and technical staff meetings are tough – they will ask the hard questions

 

Social events (usually a dinner with the panel)

  • If you are allocated a minder or someone to walk you from one place to another be aware this is part of the interview.
  • Don’t engage with negative conversations e.g. I hate my grad students
  • All social events are part of the interview
  • Drink in moderation. DON’T RELAX.
  • Be polite and considerate.

 

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(Cartoon: Chronicle of Higher Education, December 17, 1999, Section: Opinion & Arts, Page: A68 Section)

TEN PRINCIPLES FOR ACHIEVING POSITIVE CHANGE IN A UNIVERSITY

Change is an inevitable part of any organisation, and the university sector in recent years has become more and more exposed to the same drivers of change as other parts of the public and private sectors. This has eroded some of the key elements that made universities distinctive. The concept of an ‘academic for life’ is still widespread, but increasingly tenured staff are being moved out of organisations for performance or strategic reasons. Traditional school or department structures have been subject to dramatic change, as universities explore solutions to issues of scale, efficiency, strategic flexibility and future-readiness.

While these changes have made universities more like other organisations in the public or private sector, they retain some distinctive workforce features that require a bespoke approach to change management.

  1. The coalition of the willing. In a traditional business, change essentially provides employees with two options; engage with the change positively or move out of the organisation. In universities a third option, to disengage but remain within the organisation, is commonly enacted. Many university staff have been exposed to poorly executed strategic or organisational change in the past and can be cynical of change processes. Consequently, there is a genuine risk that positive change may be undermined by disengagement rather than outright opposition.
  2. Talent can be highly individualistic. University academics are unusual in that their performance metrics are generated both by their organisation, and externally via sector-wide (and often international) measures of success. Thus, a staff member who is performing exceptionally on external metrics can largely operate independently of organisation strategy. This can make realigning the organisation strategically very challenging.
  3. Highly diverse deliverables. Universities are delivering to two main outcomes; training (at all levels from undergraduate to post-doctoral) and research excellence (publications, research income, innovation outcomes, commercialisation). Increasingly industry engagement is also an overlay that applies to those two outcomes. While there is a widely-held belief that teaching and research form a virtuous cycle, the evidence for this is relatively scant. Tension between the two ‘parts’ of the business is common, and staff experience challenges in delivering to both agendas. Because university governance is commonly divided between training and research from high in the organisation, strategic alignment between the two can be problematic.

Understanding these features alters the way in which change management needs to be approached to achieve optimal outcomes. Here I propose ten principles that apply to change management in any organisation but are critical to success in universities.

  1. Define the problem and make a genuine connection to the solution. Many change management processes in universities outline the intended change (particularly structurally), but do not generate a convincing narrative for how it will solve an identified problem. Two syndromes emerge. The ‘change for change’s sake syndrome’ suggests to staff that managers do not understand the value of existing structures and processes and/or are pushing personal agendas. The ‘shifting deckchairs syndrome’ occurs where a problem is identified, but there is no clear link to the proposed change. Both syndromes lead to staff disengagement with the change process. Commonly a belief emerges that management does not understand the problem or is pursuing a hidden agenda. Defining the problem clearly and in consultation with staff is key to gaining ownership over collective solutions, and in identifying any underlying drivers which should be managed directly. A clear ‘change narrative’ describes the identified problem, the factors driving it, and how the change process will address the problem. The best change narratives look beyond the short term and describe what a successful outcome will look like.
  2. Genuinely consult, or don’t consult at all. Engagement with staff via consultation is generally positive, and a key to successful change management. However, if the outcome is predisposed for any reason, then consultation is disingenuous and alienating. Consultation needs to be clearly scoped and driven by transparent processes. Where certain issues or questions are not open for genuine discussion, they should be clearly stated and not discussed. University staff tend to be much more forgiving of top-down edicts than they are of consultation which is not genuine.
  3. Communicate often but for a purpose. The oft-stated comment that ‘you cannot communicate enough’ is increasingly not true. While it is easy to send out ‘update’ emails, it is equally easy to delete them when the workforce is busy delivering to key business. Communication needs to have the objective of sharing information and mile-stoning change. In general, academic staff are sufficiently intelligent to see through platitudes and inspirational speeches and will feel condescended to by that kind of language. Face-to-face communication needs to be genuinely two-way and heavily managed to avoid individuals dominating the conversation. Managers need to be clear, calm and receptive to commentary. It is particularly critical that all managers are consistent in their messaging and do not go ‘off script’.
  4. Identify critical people. Through any university at all levels, there are change leaders and critical blockers. These individuals will need to be engaged directly and genuinely. Ideally, they form a group who articulate the challenges that the change management process will resolve. While there is a reasonable fear in change management of being lost in detail, it is important to understand the detail from people implementing change at all levels. Properly engaged, with an agreed upon narrative to achieve a solution, a small group of true leaders of change can be highly influential.
  5. Morale matters. Change should be an exciting time full of promise. Balancing this will be genuine fear of the unknown, vested interests in the status quo and personal uncertainty. In general, simply recognising that change is difficult and people will be worried is an inadequate response. Try and pick apart the concerns. Ensure that they are not genuine and communicate why. If they are genuine, then be clear on why change is still the best option even with those concerns in mind. Looking beyond the foreground to the horizon and talking about the features of the organisation after change should be inspiring and is a useful way of articulating what success will look like. Phrases like ‘change is inevitable’, ‘I know change is worrying’ or worst ‘There is no reason to be worried’ rarely reassure. Admit morale challenges and be clear on the change narrative.
  6. Identify the trade-offs and articulate them. Trade-offs are inevitable, and it is dangerous to ignore them. Any change process is likely to have costs (even if the cost is just the disruption of the change itself). Costs are often short term and benefits are often long term. Describing the trade-offs, and clearly how they are considered in decisions around change is critical. Denying that trade-offs exist, particularly for individuals, can lead to disengagement and the sense that managers do not understand their staff.
  7. Recognise the cultures in play. Cultural change is well accepted as being difficult to achieve. Total cultural change is also very rarely necessary. Assess the culture of an organisation and be clear on strengths and weaknesses. Be particularly clear on what aspects of culture need to be protected, and how to do that. Understand what or who is critical to different parts of the culture and engage with that activity or person. Breaking down culture is much easier than building new culture, so have a clear idea of how to transition from one culture to another. This may include trade-offs in the short term to ensure that some aspects of culture or group dynamics are retained to act as reassurance to groups being affected by change.
  8. Integrity. Change should never be driven by hidden agendas or with post-hoc justifications. Even if a change process is successful on those grounds, the loss of trust will make any future change processes almost impossible. If financial drivers are critical, then acknowledge that and do not promise that there will be no costs to balancing the budget. If redundancies may be needed do not promise that they will not occur. Operate with integrity as a manager and recognise trade-offs, uncertainties and your own motivations.
  9. Change costs, so resource it. A common driver of change is financial, but often the costs of achieving change are not adequately budgeted. There will almost always be a financial cost to change, even if large scale physical changes to spaces are not needed. Ensuring that spaces, websites and signage are updated quickly to reflect change is a key indicator to staff that progress is being made. Allow for extra expenditure on social activities, workshops and forums. Recognise that productivity may dip as staff focus on change management within the organisation.
  10. Recognise that change management is a discipline. The management of change is a real discipline, carried out by individuals and organisation with relevant experience and skills. Managing change using only internal resources can be very difficult, particularly where hard decisions are needed. Having an external party to work with managers on creating a convincing change narrative and to lead and manage consultation is costly, but ultimately will ensure that common pitfalls are avoided, and that the change process has a clear beginning and end.

Recognising these principles helps managers approach change in a structured way and analyse both failures and successes. Developing a clear narrative on the need for change is absolutely key but is by no means sufficient. Operationalising change can bring a set of challenges as diverse as understanding where staff will mingle to organising IT system updates. Failure in these details can often be much more apparent than success in more fundamental components of change. Understanding that change is complex, difficult to manage and hard on individuals is not enough. Change management needs to be a considered process, led by individuals with relevant skills, and responsive to the cultural and institutional history of a university.