Working in Research Requires a Thick Skin. Here’s How You Build One.

dealing with rejection in research

If you have chosen a career in research, then you are likely drawn to the idea of the eureka! moment. Making discoveries, disseminating your research findings, working your way towards the Nobel Prize… well, maybe not that last one. The others, however, are part of the attraction of this exciting career path.

In reality, you should know that research is not always fun. In fact, it can be incredible disheartening at times. It is extremely important that you understand that at times, you will wonder why you chose this career path to begin with.

Working in research requires developing a thick skin. With so much pressure on you to publish your findings and gain financial support from funding bodies, you can easily be worn down without one. Let’s discuss why a thick skin is important, and how to build one.

A Successful Career in Research is a Competition

I’ve had many discussions with friends about my work in cancer research. After a recent round of funding applications, I found myself complaining about the stress of it all. I was asked, “Why is this a thing you have to worry about?” and all I could reply was, “So I can continue to have a job.” The shocked replies I got drove home just how little people realise that I have to work so hard to even get a salary. Here’s why working in research requires a thick skin in order to be successful.

I am swamped with fellowship applications that provide salary support and nothing. As stressful as this is, it is nothing compared to the project grant funding applications that are required in order to provide the finances to carry out a project. Those are my PI’s concerns, but will be mine, too, in the very near future.

With each competition (and it is a competition), you need to sell the idea of your project to a panel of expert reviewers. Your application needs to be the most innovative, the most feasible and the most impactful project in order to be awarded funds when compared to other applicants.

Even when you are not applying for funding, a successful career in research means that you still need to publish your work. This process involves a similar mechanism: your work is submitted to a journal after which a review panel decides whether it meets the standards of “publishability.”

You will face far more rejection than success in your early years. It is all part of the learning curve. You are in this field for a reason, and though you might feel the effects of imposter syndrome, you are smarter than you think.

Working in Research Requires a Thick Skin, So How Do I Build One?

Over the years, you come to realise certain things about being able to manage this constant rejection. Without a thick skin, you will start to wonder if this work is right for you. There are several things you can do to combat the despair.

Remove the Emotion

One of the greatest pieces of advice given to me in my early early career in research is that I am the one in control of how I feel. Sure, you feel crummy as hell when work that you put your heart and soul into is rejected. However, it only makes you feel that way if you let it. Be pragmatic and understand that it is not about you being wrong, it is simply that it wasn’t the right time. This aspect of working in research is why your thick skin is so important.

Take a step back from the situation and understand that when one door closes another one opens. Maybe it wasn’t the right journal. Maybe there’s just something more that you could add to really complete the story you are trying to tell. Use the feedback you receive to enhance your work and do not take the rejection as a personal attack.

Understand All Perspectives

We have mentioned that your work requires reviews from other experts in your field. Understanding that reviewers are just like you can help you realise why they reviewed you the way that they did. Each panel member has their own ideas, thoughts and opinions on the type of work that you are doing. Unfortunately, they don’t always agree with yours, and to be successful with your research, your thick skin is essential.

Your peers review your work in the context of their own. Often, they provide valuable ideas that you might never have thought of, or consider your work outside of the scope it was intended. I have published a number of papers. Many have received completely outrageous comments on something not even close to what I was trying to achieve.

Know That You Have a Chance to Reply

An early rejection is not the end of the road for your project. The review process will offer you the chance to reply to the reviewers should they allow you to revise. This is your chance to respond to each point they raise with your justifications for the approach you took. The reviewer may choose to accept your research if you provide extra context.

Writing a rebuttal has its own challenges, and we will provide a guide to that in the future. I enjoy doing it, but not everybody does.

Don’t Let Rejection Deter You

In research, we are all fighting the same fight. Every person you work with, even your PI, has suffered through this same process. You are not alone. Face each rejection as a challenge to become a better researcher. Your hard work will pay off, and though working in research requires a thick skin, you will soon be able to build the skills you need to enjoy your career in research.