Fear of rejection

The fear of rejection is an anxiety underpinning much of academic life. But it is also its lifeblood.

Research quality is determined by academic peers – both before it is funded and before findings are published. The anonymous double-blind peer review system has been criticised, but largely remains intact as the main determinant of scientific quality. If a proposal is not robust enough to be funded, or if a paper is too poor to be published, your failings will be revealed to you in sometimes excruciating detail.

Sensitive reviewers can balance the merits of a piece of work against the aspects that need improving, and arrive at a balanced judgement. By communicating this effectively and with respect to the author, she or he can make revisions and re-submit. A poor reviewer will seek to tear it apart, but offer nothing constructive in return.

Social work academics’ work is subject to the same rigorous peer review process as in other disciplines. But we often have the additional complication of being reviewed by members of other disciplines, particularly when working alongside NHS colleagues. The need to address the perspectives of multi-disciplinary reviewers can be demanding.

Before I write a grant application or submit a paper for review, I assess the ‘rejection quotient’. This is the likelihood of success weighed against the likelihood of wanting to quit and go into exile for the shame of being a stupendous failure if the bid or paper is rejected. I have started to develop a thick skin and submit even when the likelihood of success is slim. Both the risks and rewards of this strategy are potentially high.

During the last week I have heard positive news about two grant applications. I’m not allowed to reveal any details because some issues are yet to be resolved and contracts are yet to signed. These grants were reviewed by large panels and many perspectives had to be satisfied. The ‘rejection quotient’ was high, but I took the risk and it paid off. I’ll be able to reveal more details about these projects in due course but, if they work out, we should be able to make a distinct contribution to the evidence base for social work.

I have also been presented with two new opportunities this week, where the ‘rejection quotient’ may be too high to be worth the risk. I will reflect on this while on holiday and decide what to do when I return. However, the deadlines are rapidly approaching and I can’t delay making my mind up for long.

When I return from holiday I will also need to address reviewers’ comments and tweak the applications to satisfy the needs of the prospective funders of my two new projects. I also have three papers being reviewed and may return to find further amendments are required before they are published.

The fear of rejection has the potential to paralyse an academic and prevent innovation. However, to generate evidence to inform social work practice and benefit those who use social work services, we must seek to overcome it.

So far in July…

There is a myth that in the summer months when term finishes and students go home, academics disappear from the university and are not seen again until September. This may be true for some, but it is certainly not my experience of academic life. With fewer teaching commitments and students finishing off pieces of work, there is time to catch up on papers, research projects and draft bids which have been languishing on the ‘to-do’ list. For me, July is a very busy month.

The month started with our fifth annual national continuing professional development conference for social workers. We hosted 300 practitioners for the day to discuss safeguarding vulnerable children and adults in plenary sessions and workshops. From my perspective the day went very smoothly (in contrast to a couple of years earlier when I passed out half way through the day!), but this was largely down to the excellent organisational skills of Julie Smith.

One of the highlights for me was having a conference artist to capture the essence of the day. Rather than having a photographer flashing in front of speakers and putting them off, Jolie Goodman discreetly sketched throughout the day and produced some lovely images. Here’s me kicking the day off…

 … and here’s Eileen Munro talking about her report (whose recommendations the Government have now accepted):

My attempt at tweeting throughout the conference was quite hopeless. To make up for it, we will have the PPTs up on the website soon.

The following day our first-year MSc students presented their research proposals for examination. They’ll be taking them to an ethics committee in the autumn, so this was their chance to practice justifying them and prepare them for submission a few weeks later. They’ve got lots of interesting ideas and I’m looking forward to seeing them come to fruition over the next year.

Our second year students are currently completing their projects and preparing them for submission in early September. There are some interesting findings emerging, which I will discuss in later blogs. In early July I met with students and their supervisors for a final time to check that they are on target for completion on time. In spite of working pretty much full-time and coping with the fall-out from the spending cuts (job losses and service re-configurations), most should submit their thesis on time.

As I have discussed on our Connecting People study blog, we’ve had some really interesting discussions in our focus groups in the past couple of weeks with those who work in and use mental health services about their experiences of connecting with other people. I’m really pleased with how the study is progressing as we launch into phase two in Somerset in August.

The other interesting experience I’ve had in the past few weeks has been to examine a PhD for the first time. It was nice to be on the other side of the table, but I think I was just as nervous as the candidate…

Well, that’s July so far. I’ve been able to complete amendments on a paper that’s been waiting for my attention; I’ve completed a draft of another one; and the second edition of Evidence-based Policy and Practice in Mental Health Social Work was published. So it’s been pretty productive so far. Only a week to go before a couple of weeks break and then I hope to spend the rest of August on some data analysis…