Careers Grants 101

Fail Big: 100 Rejections

Jul 20, 2023

I learned a really painful lesson when I was a postdoc. I found the Mary Fran Myers Scholarship. The scholarship is for disaster researchers and practitioners. I was the only person I knew doing disaster research, other than my mentor. 

“It’s meant for me,” I kept saying to myself when I applied. “I’m a perfect fit. This is my ticket to making it.”

But I didn’t get the scholarship. I was crushed. I’d pinned all my hopes on one application. I wailed to my colleague that I wasn’t cut out for this career. 

My colleague’s kind, so she let me vent. Then she told me to pick myself up. Rejections are good. We should all aim for 100 rejections. Rejection is the norm in our line of work. Most people don’t get most things. Similar to being an actor, you can’t control whether you get chosen. That’s up to other people. But you can control how often you put your work out there and how you show up. You need to hear many “no’s” before you can expect a “yes.” In this light, rejections show you are working towards your goals. If you rack up rejections, you’ll eventually get opportunities.

This idea of earning 100 rejections has helped me a lot. Here’s some inspiration from others about rejection and grant writing. I pulled these stories from a thread by Dr. Jessica Rodrigues on how common rejection is for scholars: 

  • Dr. Vinny Arora said: “I was rejected 4 times for an NIH K award early in my career- so much so that I was told I wouldn’t make it as a physician scientist. Then I hit and got my R grants and even got a k24 mentoring award to train many others who now have made it to independent research.”
  • Dr. Giangregorio said: “Every grant proposal rejection is a draft for a subsequent submission. Reviews are feedback. Most grants I have received were not funded the first time around.” 
  • Dr. Lauren Godier-McBard: “A funder rejected my grant application, suggesting the methodology wasn't strong enough and the topic area wasn't a priority. I took the feedback and successfully got it funded by a much more prestigious organisation a few years later.”

So I hope you fail spectacularly this year. Failing big means you’re putting your ideas out into the world. You are working towards your goals. That takes guts. 

If you know someone who might want to fail big with us, would you mind forwarding this newsletter to them? As always, thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


Stay in touch: The Newsletter, TikTok, Twitter, and The Grant Writing Guide book.

P.S. I didn’t give up on the Mary Fran Myers Scholarship. I applied again and received it. And I now co-chair the scholarship committee. Sitting on this other side, I know that my assumptions as a postdoc were way off. There are many disaster scholars and practitioners around the world. Incredible people apply for this scholarship each year. I didn’t need to be crushed by that first rejection. I was in phenomenal company. 

P.P.S. Special thanks to Dr. Lori Peek, who used to chair the committee. Dr. Peek’s encouragement has sustained me throughout my career. I hope you have a Dr. Peek in your life.