Bam! Rejoinder done!

This week, I’ve finally come to understand what a ‘rejoinder’ is. I’ve heard this word bandied about in previous years and nodded sympathetically at colleagues undergoing the grant writing process. But until writing a rejoinder myself, my knowing smiles were all bluff.

Back in March this year, I applied for an Australian Research Council (ARC) DECRA award. This is a three year funding scheme that provides salary and project costs for promising early career researchers.

Although I submitted my application in March, this was only the lunch break of a very long process. For a start, I began workshopping project ideas about six or eight months prior to this submission deadline. Then I spent a significant amount of time drafting and re-drafting and re-re-drafting my proposal, before sending it to various mentors and grant writing gurus for yet more polishing.

After I submitted my DECRA, it was then just a matter of waiting. And waiting. And waiting. The results of the funding round are due to be announced in November, but part way through the assessment of the proposal, applicants are given interim feedback and hence a glimpse of their chance of grant success.

This is the rejoinder process. After proposals have been assessed by our peers, candidates receive feedback and have the opportunity to write a short response. This response – or rejoinder – is part of the package that is used by a panel of experts to rank candidates and their projects against each other.

It is the chance to clear up negative feedback and reinforce the positive aspects of your project. It’s the last sales pitch you get to make before you get cruelly reduced to a number and rated against your friends and collaborators.

As I’ve just been through this, I have a few thoughts on the process.

1. Take some time to think over the feedback.

The turn-around time is very tight, I had a week between receiving assessors’ reports and having to have a draft rejoinder emailed to my university’s research office. Nonetheless, it’s worth sitting on the feedback for a day or two. My reports were more or less positive with just a few points requiring clarification, but this day or two allowed me to think through what they were actually querying. Whether you are rated as a superstar or your ideas are criticised, a bit of time to think through the feedback is worth it.

2. Be positive.

My assessors were both quite positive about my research track record and thought my project sounded interesting and useful. I wrote a draft rejoinder providing clarification of several points of the project design and thought that was nearly that. I had several colleagues provide feedback and they invariably advised that I should be more positive. More positive about myself. More positive about the project. More positive about the assessment. It’s a sales pitch! Sell yourself, your skills and your ideas!

3. Get some help.

When the email unexpectedly popped up in my inbox from the ARC announcing the assessors’ reports were available to candidates, I flew into a mild panic. When I was able to regain some composure, I asked a few trusted colleagues (and previous successful DECRA awardees) for their rejoinder tips. This was very useful for learning about the format and style. I also had several colleagues read through my drafts and provide comment, as well as seeking some pro tips from my university’s research office. This turned a long-winded, verbose draft into a concise and positive response to the assessments and reminder of my (hopefully) interesting project.

4. Don’t overthink it.

When I first got my reports back, I pored over them. I analysed every word choice. Did “unusual expertise” mean that my assessors were impressed with my work in several disciplines, or did it mean that they were unimpressed with my lack of commitment to a research stream? Did “ambitious” mean that they doubted my ability to bring the proposed project to completion in a timely fashion? Eventually I gave up on the word agony. It’s impossible to know what rating accompanies a report. Positive reports can be married to ambivalent ratings and vice versa. Furthermore, the assessors’ ratings and reports only go so far in ensuring a good ranking for a candidate. I also came to accept that I’d invested lots of time and thought into my project, proposal and rejoinder. I’d researched the process and used the resources and talented people available to me. When I submitted my rejoinder, I realised that either I’ll be successful, or I’ll be disappointed and try again next year. It’s done now!

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