About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

It's not you

As a straight, single, fortyish, academic woman I know a thing or two about rejection. I have lost count of the number of grant applications that have failed and men who have come and gone. I may not have learned much of substance from these experiences, but I am most definitely an expert when it comes to dealing with rejection. It is easy to look at my stalled career and comical lovelife and feel depressed, and from time to time I am struck down by hopeless self-pity. But when I look closer at this history of failure I find a strange sense of satisfaction, a kind of self-acceptance that can only be discovered through the experience of being unacceptable to the outside world.

Here is what I have learned:

1) Rules, schmules.
There are a lot of rules about how to write a successful research grant and how to find a mate. You should contact the funding body before starting your application and pay close attention to their assessment criteria. You should wait for him to call you and you should not have sex on the first date. I know of multi-million pound research grants that were funded on the basis of a drawing on the back of a napkin. Some of the strongest marriages I know started out as casual sex. Over the years I have both followed and broken all the rules, and I am still single and without major funding for my research. Follow the rules, or don't. It doesn't make much difference. What matters is how you feel in the morning. Do what you know to be right for you at the time. Personally, I sometimes regret sticking by the rules but I never regret breaking them. If I am going to fail I want it to be on my own terms. Likewise, true success does not come from merely following instructions.

2) Feedback is rarely helpful and often painful.
Like many young fools, in the past I tortured myself and former lovers with cringeing questions like 'why won't you love me?', 'how can I change?', 'what does she have that I don't?'. Similarly I have wasted many cups of coffee and pints of beer with colleagues asking 'why don't the reviewers get the point?', 'why can't the research councils deal with interdisciplinarity?', 'what is so special about her research area?'. Feedback is only ever useful if it helps you to learn what to do differently next time. I am keen for feedback on my writing, supervision, teaching, cooking, gardening, baby-sitting and other things that I do repeatedly for a more or less similar purpose. By contrast my research grant applications are usually so specific, and the reviewers and funding decisions so particular, that feedback is rarely useful the next time around. It is either pointlessly generic, 'the standard of applications was very high', or completely specific, 'the applicant should have referred to my paper in this arcane journal', and more often feeds a sense of injustice than provides useful ideas for future improvement. When the latest relationship fails to launch I have learned better than to try to figure out what I did wrong. There is usually no rational explanation. He just didn't like me or was otherwise unavailable. They just didn't like my research idea or didn't have enough funds. The morbid search for reasons has often kept me stuck in the past and has rarely led to insights for postive changes in the future.

3) Stop doing things you know don't work (or at least take a break).
Internet dating works for some people, but not for me. Many of my colleagues have been successful with the research councils, I haven't. There are plenty of other places to meet men and other sources of funding. There are plenty of other ways to have a happy personal life and do good work.

4) Keep trying.
In the past I have been very resentful of my own optimism. 'Why did you think this time would be any different?', 'can't you see that your ideas will never be funded?', 'when will you learn?'. The easiest way to deal with rejection is to avoid it. Unfortunately I have been cursed with irrepressible optimism. I am always convinced that this research idea really will change the world, is completely aligned with the funder's priorities and will be my big breakthrough. I always imagine that the latest beau will be 'the one'. I have always been wrong, but that is not to say I always will be.

5) So what?
I have a great job, lots of friends, a nice flat, a funny cat and am on good terms with my family (not to mention running water, the NHS, a stable government...). My successes outweigh my failures. The failures are significant - I won't be promoted to professor without a series of big research grants; being single and childless at forty is not how I imagined my life. But the space left open by these gaps in my life and career makes it easier to see the many things I have to be thankful for. Failure on external measures of success has helped me to avoid taking the things that really matter in my life and work for granted.

6) Find humility in humiliation.
Being married and having children does not make you a good person. Having a big research grant does not make you a good researcher. Neither of them makes you happy. This is easy to forget. Those smug couples and puffed-up professors who are full of advice for failures like me are not necessarily better partners or scholars. It is well known that people tend to attribute their own success to competence and hard work and their failure to bad luck or other people's incompetence. Luck, hard work, competence, confidence, good character, support from others and many more factors are at play in any form of success. That is more obvious to me when I fail than when I succeed. Every time a grant is rejected or a bloke disappears a part of me is grateful that my ego is being kept in check. I am not so special. It is good to be reminded.

7) Celebrate your niche.
At least part of the reason I have been rejected is because I am different. I don't have a standard academic discipline. I am three inches taller than the average British man, I have a PhD and short hair, and I like watching basketball on the internet. Normal people get married. Normal engineering professors have big research grants. I have worked very hard not to be normal. I have spent a lot of my life-force breaking out of categories that other people tried to put me in. I am niche. This is a good thing. If the consequence of living my life as I think best and pursuing research questions that I think really matter, rather than striving to fit a social or intellectual norm, is that the normal men and normal research funders reject me, then perhaps failure is really success. Groucho Marx said it first.

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