After a Rejection Letter

April 11, 2022

Dear Graduate Students,

This is the season of award announcements, a time of year that I love and dread. The unfortunate reality is that most students who apply for funding do not receive it. So, at this time of the year, a lot of highly successful people are not successful in receiving an external award. After thinking about the many students who have recently, or will soon, receive a rejection letter, I thought I’d ask for some reflections from someone who has walked several students through this process. Dr. Brian Silverstein is an Associate Professor in the School of Anthropology and the Director of the Arizona Center for Turkish Studies. He is an excellent supporter of graduate students, many of whom have received prestigious awards. However, he has also helped students who have not received awards. Here are his thoughts.

You've received an "I regret to inform you. . ." email from a funder you applied to. It happens to us all. You're disappointed, frustrated, despairing maybe. While there's almost certainly nothing you can do to change that outcome, there are some things you can do to keep moving and try to get a different outcome in the future.

First, remember that securing funding from the major national and international funders in recent years has gotten incredibly competitive. The first time I was asked to be a reviewer for one prominent, prestigious funder, I read the first proposal and was blown away. "Wow, that's probably one of the best I was assigned," I thought to myself. Without scoring it, I read the next. Equally outstanding. "Hmm." Then I read the next. Yep, amazing. I was faced with 25 proposals, not all, but most of which, I would describe as outstanding. And yet my instructions were to use the scores at my disposal to essentially grade on a curve. About 1/4 of the proposals I reviewed (each was also reviewed by two other people) were going to be funded.

Remember, with very few exceptions, most funders support research in several disciplines, and the people who review your proposal probably don't work on your topic. The reviewers likely include people who aren't even in your discipline. Always ask yourself, and the earlier the better (like, when you're formulating your research topic), "Why would anyone not particularly interested in the topic, issue, or discipline I'm interested in, care about this?" "Filling gaps in our knowledge of _____" is an especially bad answer to that question.

By far the single most useful thing to help you be successful is to see a recently funded proposal. Do you know someone who has recently been successful with the funder? If so, ask if they will share their proposal. Usually, people will. Although the topic will be different, examine how the successful proposal differs from yours. How is it organized, with what sections? How specific is it in the research questions, methodologies, and literatures cited?

Sometimes it can be helpful to dig deeper into the review process. Can you find out where in the review process your application was cut? There's often a wiki or similar site where applicants post their experiences with different funders, and this information can be helpful.

Most importantly, if you received comments from the reviewers, read them carefully. Do they not see the point of studying what you propose to study? There are generally two reasons reviewers miss a project’s significance: either you didn't make the case well enough, or there's not much of a case. Not every idea has a broad enough significance to be funded. If you are in the second category, you will need to reformulate your topic and project. If the significance was understood, but the comments reflect a misunderstanding of part of the proposal, that can be corrected by revising the pertinent sections.

The good news is that once you have a solid proposal together, you don't have to put in the same amount of time and effort for every single application; you can probably reuse parts of one proposal for another application. There are growing numbers of workshops and webinars on proposal writing (sometimes even sponsored by the funder themselves), and those are usually helpful, so attend some.

In my experience, you'll probably need to apply to a major funder at least twice until you hit the jackpot, but don't submit something knowing you could do better. No one likes getting rejection letters, but I've certainly received my share (and I continue to, the last one I received for funding was about a week ago). And while it's not a really welcome thought while still smarting from a rejection letter, it's worth remembering that those are a big part of academia. Funding, publications--for all of us, involves rejection letters along the way.