Dealing with Grant, Fellowship, and Grad School Rejection

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By now, many of our colleagues have heard news about the results of their applications to large grants and fellowships for the 2010-2011 academic year, and many hopeful colleagues have found out if this is the year they start graduate school.

"Don't give up!" Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And while we all celebrate the achievements of everyone that has heard happy news, let’s talk about those who haven’t.

The first thing I would like to tell them is: Don’t give up!

It’s easy to internalize the process, to connect your lack of funding with a perceived lack in your project, or even worse—a perceived lack within yourself. Step back and try to see the big picture. More often than not, the reasons for rejection have less to do with your CV and the flaws in your proposed project, and more to do with external variables you cannot control. The same goes for grad school applications; if you meet all the admissions criteria and wrote a smart and insightful application, your rejection may not be the result of anything you did or failed to do.

These past three years, everyone is blaming the economy , but it is worth saying again- there is much less to go around than there used to be, and there are more people fighting for what is left. Many grants and fellowship committees have had to trim down the amount of funding available , or temporarily stop giving grants altogether, and many universities have decreased the amount of graduate students to whom they can make a funded commitment. In addition to this, the bad economy means that many more highly-qualified candidates are coming out of the woodwork and applying for these grants, fellowships, and to grad school as a way of protecting themselves from a stagnant job market. This year, the competition for academic resources was more fierce, and sadly more people had to miss out on these opportunities.

Aside from that, there are internal politics at play in the decision-making process for grants, fellowships, and grad school admissions. It is nearly impossible to know exactly what those making the decisions are looking for, and what will catch their eye. When every candidate has a similar CV and qualifications, the smallest details stand out, and a lot of it often comes down to which qualifications the decision-makers prize over the others, which topics are the most timely (a study on abolitionists during an anniversary of American abolition, for example, or a diplomatic history of Chinese-American relations the year the Olympics were held in Beijing), or even which topics that would shape others’ opinions on the granting agencies. For example, if the granting agency wants to appear as one that promotes diversity in history and your project is along the same vein as past winners, it may have been skipped over in favor of a project that is equally diverse in a different way.

It’s very important to remember these things and to keep believing in yourself and your project. Of course it *is* possible that your project may not have been entirely thought through, or left some questions unanswered, or that the format required by the granting agencies did not allow you to portray your project in the best light. These are all things that can be fixed however, with help from colleagues and friends. Offer to do the same for them, and instead of competing with one another, support one another and help one another to be the best historians possible. Cast your net wider- apply for every possible grant, fellowship, or graduate program with which you feel comfortable. If you are already in grad school, speak with your department and any special centers on campus related to your project to see if they have any special funds squirreled away. If you aren’t, use this year of reapplication to strengthen your application—look for jobs (paid or unpaid) that will make you a better historian. If you can’t find any, take the initiative to offer your research services to historical societies, museums, archives or libraries in the area which are almost certainly understaffed and more than willing to take on a helping hand in exchange for a recommendation letter.

If you use defeat or rejection to inspire yourself to improve your credentials and your project, it’s likely you’ll see successes the second time around.

Good luck!

How to Handle Grad School Rejection

Handling a Grant Rejection for Dummies

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3 Responses to “Dealing with Grant, Fellowship, and Grad School Rejection”

  1. Jean Smith Says:

    I absolutely agree that you should both avoid taking rejections personally and use them as motivation to make your proposals better and keep applying. I have found that every grant application I have done helped to clarify some point of my project. Too many people don’t apply at all or cast their nets widely because of a fear of rejection. Timely post!

    • Angela Sutton Says:

      Thanks Jean. I’m happy to say that I wrote from personal experience– The slew of rejections definitely helped me to define the finer points of my project, and I was able to use them to create stronger applications. After several rejections, I’ve heard some very good news and can’t wait to spend an academic year with my documents in the Netherlands.

  2. H. Chung Says:

    most grant rejections are based the buddy system, nepotism, institutional bias, degree bias, and giving grants to friends at universitites or other “non profit” organziations. the system is mostly rigged–many do not provide reviews from the reviewers and just give a reject notice.

    you write up a 30+ proposal wait 6-9 months, all to to get a rejection notice. the ROI is simply not worth it. the academic pogo is an american joke, a hamster wheel for imbeciles. that is why many have resorted to private donations, or corporate donations than playing the rigged grant game.

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