Melanie Stefan published a lovely article in Nature back in 2010 (vol 468 pg 467) highlighting that the majority of our efforts often result in 'failures'. This was picked up by other scientists including Johannes Haushofer who published a CV of failures which was publicised in The Guardian (here).
I have had many 'failures' (a longer list than some of those I've seen tweeted!) however these have by no means been a waste of time and effort. Every time I write an application I learn something new - often from peers and mentors who help me edit and improve the application or from the reviewers feedback. My favourite research paper for example was adapted and improved through feedback from reviewers over 2 resubmissions (in this case it was to the same journal which was a nice change) and is a definite improvement to the original submission.
Here is my summary CV of Failures!
Failed Fellowship Applications:
For every successful fellowship application I've had on average 3 failed attempts - that's nine failed fellowship applications - each application takes me about 3 months of work. - that's a lot of weekends and evenings!
I've had just one research paper accepted on first submission. Most of my research papers have been resubmitted at least twice before being accepted. One of the biggest lessons I learnt is that sometimes it's ok to question a journal rejection...I had a manuscript resubmitted to the same journal and two of the three reviewers were happy with the corrections, while the 3rd reviewer came up with a list of completely new arguments...the paper was rejected. I should have questioned the decision...as a postdoc at the time I didn't think I had that right (wrong!) and the senior authors on the manuscript have never been supportive for anything so I gave up. - FAIL! - however this was an important lesson to learn!
As a new academic this list is surprisingly short at the moment...I've had a few successes on small grants.
I have had bad reviews though. The most recent example was a reviewer who said on the one hand the grant was using too many old-fashioned methods (half the grant is for developing a new technique and plan to use the traditional methods to verify the new method) and the same reviewer said I should stick to 'basic biology'. The other two reviewers applauded the project and acknowledge the value of the techniques and that the project is too fundamental for industry funding which makes it a good project for a research council....Reviewer 1 was exceptionally harsh (my Co-I agreed it was an appallingly bad review). I suspect this will be a common issue with plant physiology in the UK where molecular biologists reign - also a good lesson!
Just the other day I had a rejection for a CASE PhD studentship,
Similar to the Failed Grants list, this list will no doubt grow in coming years!
As a PhD student I applied for a lot of awards that were unsuccessful (I can't even remember what's in that list!).
This list will grow continuously! But so will the lessons I learn and the experience I gain!
Those of you working towards an academic career, don't be daunted. It's hard work but it's worth it (well I still think so)! I do think it's comforting to know that others have had failures - feel free to bookmark this page and read it again when you receive a rejection!