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.

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