How many rejections should scientists aim for?


Earlier this year an article on aiming for 100 rejections a year in literature was being passed around. The main idea is that by aiming for rejections, rather than accepted things we’re more likely to take risks and apply broadly.

Since reading that article, I’ve been pondering how many rejections I should aim for. What is a good number for a scientist? 100 seems a bit much, although if you’re on the hunt for a tenure track job you could easily rack up those rejections. Many  job applications are silent ones because you never get the cold hard truth in you hands (or in-box) but rather just assume that you’ve been rejected with the passage of time. So perhaps they will feel empty in your rejection count, I know they do for me.

Over the last year, my monthly reports to the Swedish unemployment office also made me more aware of the things I apply for each month in an attempt to achieve employment. Having to write something in the report has possibly lead me to apply for more things, even when I thought I would be rejected. It isn’t a bad habit to be in. And I’ve certainly gotten a lot of job rejections in the last year, including three after interviews which feel especially poignant. Added to that is two grant rejections (but one funded, so yay!). I haven’t submitted anything as a first author this year but have at least half a dozen manuscript rejections as a co-author.

Is it enough?

As my career has progressed I continually get more and more rejections. It might seem counter intuitive but it isn’t that I’m getting worse at doing my job (I hope!) but rather that I am more confident about taking risks. It sucks to get rejections, no matter what form they come in but it does get easier as you become more accustomed to it. It also matters at what scale the reject is. Last year when my Swedish Research Council was rejected, it meant that I was out of a job. This year’s funding means I have one. So I won’t suggest that I was emotionally neutral to either of these but things like journal rejections are much easier now. I’m still uncertain of whether I should aim for a particular number of rejections though.

An important caveat to aiming for rejections is that for me I think it is important to limit applications only to those things that I actually want to do. I don’t see the point in applying to jobs I wouldn’t consider taking if they offered, just to do it. The grants I write are always a combination of the kind of research I want to do and the funding agency’s goals. But it can be good to apply for things that you think you’re unlikely to get but would like to do if you did. This could mean submitted your paper to a journal with high rejection rates or that prestigious scholarship/job/etc. The thing to keep in mind is to make sure that these are at least in remotely possible because there is a time cost to aiming for rejections. Applying takes time and that cost should be weighed against other activities. Of course an important part of academia is publishing and getting grants, both of which often come with rejection, so we can’t avoid rejection in this career. There is a balance.

In general I like the idea of taking away the stigma of rejections and being proud of aiming for them. It means you are getting yourself out there. I’m still not sure what a good number of rejections is but I think for me I like to break it down into three categories: jobs, grants and manuscripts. When I have that holy grail of academia, otherwise known as a permanent position, I’ll likely stop aiming for rejections in that category. For now I think I will be pleased if I can say that I have rejections in all three categories each year. If I aim for that, I may just eventually get acceptances in all three too.

NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity


When I visited the SACNAS conference some weeks ago, I spent most of my time in the exhibit hall, chatting with students at their posters and scoping out the institutional recruitment tables. A few organizations had primo real estate, with a large amount of square footage right by the entrance. They had a small army of representatives, always busy with students. The ones that I recall include USC, Harvard, and NSF.

There’s no doubt that NSF is serious about its institutional mission to develop the most talented scientific workforce in this country, which means we need scientists from all backgrounds. If you think that NSF isn’t committed to the recruitment of underrepresented minorities (URMs), you probably don’t have a lot of experience with NSF. They not only care, but they also put a lot of thought into how to do it right. Continue reading


Recommended reads #92


Caring isn’t coddling: “While I’m not without gallows humor and can enjoy an ‘it’s in the syllabus’ joke as much as the next person, I also feel deeply that the best teaching arises in faculty-student relationships that are mutually respectful and that mutually honor the worth each side is bringing to the table.”

A shark that was (maybe) choking on a massive chunk of moose was (maybe) saved by a couple guys. Continue reading

Write anyway*


This month, I started a writing/productivity challenge for myself. I wanted to start tackling many of the projects that have floundered in my year of unemployment and intensive job searching. One of my goals was to start posting here every week again. Then the USA election happened.

As a Canadian living in Sweden, it was surprising how much this election affected me. Continue reading

Teaching in a time of professor watchlists


Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.

So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms? Continue reading

On the shrinkage of polar ice caps


When I was a senior in college, I was in a seminar dedicated to a new book, written by a US senator who had just been elected Vice President. The book was Earth in the Balance. It explained the science of carbon pollution, the greenhouse effect, and global climate change. To me, it was a revelation. I was aware of the greenhouse effect, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem and the massive global effort it would require, until Gore explained it. Continue reading

Negotiate authorship before collecting data


Authorship disputes are not uncommon. Even when there are no actual disputes over who did what on a project, there may be lots of authorship resentments. That’s because a lot of folks — by no mere coincidence, junior scientists more often — end up not getting as much credit as they think they deserve when a paper comes out. Continue reading

Diversity creates stability and resilience


Many inspirational people in my life are already charging ahead to meet our shared challenges.  If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, let me point you to some early wisdom that’s emerged immediately on the morning after the election: Josh Drew explained how  he’s approaching teaching the day after the election. Meg Duffy explains how she says “Yes” to make a difference. It’s taken me an additional day to reach that kind of positivity.

This election changed what it means to be a scientist in the United States. Continue reading

Confessions of an unemployed academic


I have had versions of this post topic rattling around in my brain for many months. There are various reasons for me not writing it but ironically probably the biggest one is that I am unemployed.

My story goes like this: I had a position as an assistant professor in Sweden that came with a 4 year contract with no extension possibilities unless I was to bring in my own salary from grant money. Long story short, I applied for grants and other jobs over the 4 years and didn’t get funded or a permanent position. So in January this year the money ran out and I was officially without a paid position. It has been a complicated year since then with a mix of good and bad. Looking back some things have gone as I thought while others were unexpected. Here’s somewhat random list of some of my confessions. Continue reading

Negative results, weird results, and other secrets


Science is a community endeavor. Much of our knowledge is unwritten, and subsists in the hive mind of our collective social unit. Some of the cooler and bolder — and perhaps more important — ideas are the ones that might not make it to print. My fellow ecologists don’t publish most of what we know, as Mike Kaspari recently reminded us with a quote from Dan Janzen.

We rarely share our piles of negative results, or the little curiosities for which we can’t find the time. Getting a peer-reviewed paper out the door is a non-trivial amount of work, and just mentioning it in a conversation is easier. But, hey, I have a blog where I can mention this stuff.

So let me tell you about two things that I find rather weird, but haven’t put more resources into figuring out. Continue reading

In defence of taxon-specific conferences


I have been going to entomology meetings (including those of the Entomological Societies of Canada (ESC), British Columbia (ESBC), and Ontario (ESO)) yearly since I started studying spiders in 2010 (we don’t have an arachnological society in Canada, so for these societies spiders are welcomed as honorary insects) and I went to my first International Society of Arachnology (ISA) meeting in Colorado this past summer. Continue reading


Recommended reads #89


A couple truly spectacular reads have already made the rounds in social media in the last week, but in case you haven’t caught them, be sure to do so:

First, the Washington Post published a long-form piece about Derek Black, former media star of white nationalists who grew to repudiate his views. How did this happen? The free exchange of ideas and mutual respect found in higher education. If you’re looking for a defense of a liberal arts education (which can be found in potentially any university), then this might be as great as it gets.

Second, the Arizona Republic editorial staff received many death threats because they endorsed a particular presidential candidate. (Okay, a let’s all take moment to breathe, to absorb this fact.) The response from the publisher is powerful and important.

How you might change as a professor as you get older. Continue reading

Towards better titles for academic papers: a hermeneutic approach from a blogging perspective


I think a lot of academic article titles are pretty bad. What do I mean by bad? The title doesn’t really tell you what the paper is actually is about. It could be buried in jargon, or overselling an idea, or focuses on details that most of the intended audience won’t care about.

Does the title of a paper affect how it gets read and cited? Probably. In what way? That’s not so simple, based on my short browse of some scientometric findings. Continue reading


A student-centered academic conference


The national SACNAS conference came through LA again. SACNAS is an organization that fosters diversity in higher education and runs a huge national conference each year. The organization does other things, but the national conference is clearly a focal point.

SACNAS has been described as a “mentoring conference.” From what I’ve seen, that’s a good description. Continue reading

Bias in graduate admissions


Yesterday, I received an epic comment on a recent post of mine about minority recruitment. I want to share it:

This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.

Continue reading


Recommended reads #88


Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep.

The terrorist inside my husband’s brain. This piece by Robin Williams’s widow, written for practicing neurologists, is an important read for all of us.

Why people wince at talk of “flipping classrooms.” This phrase has pretty much lost any specific meaning or utility, and that’s why I haven’t really used it. I’m a fan of active learning approaches but not a fan of flipping sensu stricto. Continue reading