The process of applying for research grants was specially crafted to remind PhD graduates that waitressing is still a serious option.
Different granting bodies have their own unique style when it comes to delivering bad news. Brussels is direct: No. Just – no. British funders will do everything they can to avoid using the r word: ‘We are pleased to inform you … that the assessment process is complete. It gives us great pleasure … to invite you to apply again next year.’
My next move is always to seek solace in Uniqlo’s online store. Today’s polka-dot shirt, for instance, was a post-Marie Curie purchase. I have entire outfits based on consolation buys. ‘Great shoes’, my friend Ruth will say. ‘Oxford rejection?’
The other thing I do after a no is cook: its outcome is both immediate and, importantly, edible. Recently, I decided to bake sweet potato wedges for the first time. But when I got to the grocer I realised I’d only ever seen them cooked. I found myself wandering around the vegetable section, thinking What does a sweet potato look like?
‘Excuse me. Is this a sweet potato?’ I asked an old lady, pointing at a swede.
So you went to Cambridge, said the voice in my head. Can’t spot a sweet potato though, can you?
It often does this, the voice. Quietly though, so no one else can hear it.
Not so clever now, are we?
The funny thing is, I started the application process full of bravado. You can’t lose: everyone knows the chances are zilch. So if it’s a no, well yeah, obviously. But if it’s a yes, you’re a star. As it turns out, it’s human to be bummed no matter the nature of the rejection. Say someone calls and announces, ‘Listen: we’re after a third on the spaceship to find out whether Pluto really is a planet. We’ve looked at your strengths and weaknesses, we’ve thought long and hard about you, but you’re just not quite right.’
What? Why not? I’m perfect for that mission! you can’t help but think.
Can’t spot a sweet potato, can’t go to space, says the voice. What can you do?