Episode 3: Prof. Kate Laskowski

Professor Kate Laskowski joined UC Davis in 2019 having previously worked at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology & Inland Fisheries. Her research investigates how evolution has shaped the developmental processes that generate individual behavioral variation. She obtained her PhD from the University of Illinois and has received multiple honors and awards, including in 2017 receiving an Outstanding Alumna in the College of Natural & Biological Sciences award from the University of Maryland Baltimore County where she obtained her Bachelors. You can read more about Kate's research on her lab webpage. Kate tweets under the handle @KateLaskowski.

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Kyle Fletcher: Hello and welcome to the third episode of Lessons from Rejections. Today we are joined by Professor Kate Laskowski from the Department of Evolution and Ecology. Hello Kate, would you like to introduce yourself to the listeners?
Kate Laskowski: My name is Kate Laskowski and I'm a behavioral ecologist. I'm a new faculty, so I'm still figuring out this world of academics. I've had to deal with a lot of rejections and setbacks all along the way. I think, all of us who have made it this far, probably can speak a lot about this topic [rejections].
KF: Great. So, I contacted you to talk about a tweet you recently sent regarding not obtaining the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program award, whilst you were in graduate school. Can you start off by telling us a bit about the NSF GRFP?

KL: Yeah, so the NSF GRFP is widely considered to be the most prestigious fellowship you can receive as a graduate student. The goal of it is to fund people, to fund promising students. It gives you, I believe, three years of complete funding, including a very generous stipend. So, it is quite attractive, both from a professional point of view in that it's really a badge of honor, but also, from a personal point of view, it gives you bit of money.
KF: Sounds like a great opportunity and I bet a lot of work goes into preparing that proposal! How did you feel upon receiving your rejection?
KL: I don't know, angry, sad, upset, heartbroken. I mean, all of these feelings I think that all of us deal with, it sucks. It hurts at a very personal level because it does feel like somehow you don't measure up. So, it's really hard not to take it personally. I think in fact, it's impossible not to take it personally. But then the goal is to start sifting through those emotions and getting past that initial heartbreak phase and learn what you can from the experience and apply it to the next step in hopes that maybe you'll have a little bit better luck next time.
KF: Do you still remember any of the reviewer comments you received from your application?
KL: The honest answer is no. I don't know if that's a purposeful forgetting, that my brain is protecting myself or I've just had so many letdowns since then that new ones have taken up that brain space, which is quite possible.
So, the interesting thing, is that I have now been on the other side of the table. I have acted as a reviewer for the GRFP. I can safely say that it is a very difficult task to review these proposals because, by and large, they're all very good. And so, reviewers are really looking for things to ding you on because we have to make really tough choices. I know that the reviews that students get back are often really frustrating and they are frustrating. They're frustrating for everyone because there's just not enough money to give to everyone who deserves it.
KF: Thanks. That's really interesting insight! Returning to your application, how did you move on from this rejection, were there people who received helpful guidance from?
KL: So I think one of the things that contributes to my success is, whenever I get a rejection from something, I get really upset and I cry about it for a few days, and it's very painful. But then I've been able to cultivate my anger. So it's sort of this prove you wrong mentality that I've learned to embrace, because the week after I get a rejection, it pisses me off and I just throw myself into a flurry of productivity, with the goal of proving this reviewer wrong. And I mean, it's kind of a silly way to think about it, but you got to do whatever it is to protect yourself and make the best of a bad situation that you get yourself in.
In terms of who helped me, certainly my supervisor was integral in this. That was Alison Bell at the University of Illinois and I think her calmness in the face of this really helped me realize this is just one stepping stone on a very long path, and so this won't make or break me in any way. Don't put the weight of the world on your shoulders for any one thing.
KF: Can you tell us any more about these conversations you had with your mentor?
KL: Honestly, it was sort of like okay, we talked about it and she reiterated "this sucks, Kate, but it happens, it's honestly not so much in your control". "You did the best you could and then everything else you have no control over it, so let's move on!" It wasn't like the whole semester was ruined, if anything, it was just like, a week of pain and then a week of anger and then "All right, let's get back to work!"
KF: Despite the rejection can you tell us about any positives you took away from the experience?
KL: I think the act of applying for anything like this is valuable, because it helps you clarify your own ideas. Writing is thinking. The more you have to think about your ideas, thoughtfully and carefully and with a lot of clarity, having to put together a coherent argument, even if that proposal isn't funded, it's going to help you.
KF: Do you think being unsuccessful in this application affected your graduate studies?
KL: I don't know! No? It's tough to say. I don't know how it would have affected me, but I doubt it would have had a major effect one way or the other, quite honestly.
KF: So, looking at that question from a different angle, do you think the studies of your graduate students would be affected by being awarded the NSF GRFP?
KL: No, I don't. Honestly because the GRFP is really designed to fund a person. The majority of the money goes to their stipend, and they're going to get a stipend no matter what. Of course, it makes their life easier because they don't have to TA or RA or anything like this. In fact, I have two graduate students who are starting with me this fall, and they both applied for GRFPs, and neither one was successful. That sucks, but I'm still super excited to have them come to my lab. It didn't change my opinion of them in any way, I still have complete confidence in their success and ability to get work done.
KF: So, given the setbacks you've encountered, have you ever been tempted by a different career path?
KL: No. The honest answer is that every step of my career, in my schooling, I became more and more convinced that academic research was the path for me. We hear these stories of people who we deem are successful in academia and I think it's important to remember that this is all survivorship bias. We only hear from the people who, "made it". We are missing out on lots of stories of people who have taken other paths. There is no one path to success. There's lots of people out there who are doing different things now, and I think those they're probably as happy and doing as many cool things as I am.
KF: From your career, is there anything you have learnt from your experiences regarding rejection and professional criticism that you would like to share with us?
KL: That it sucks! It's not fun to deal with. It's not fun to receive it. But it's absolutely necessary. By and large, I think most people in this career give criticism with the right intentions. We want to help people, we want to bring up new ideas, we want to challenge the way we think. These are all good reasons. So, getting criticism is really tough, but it's also very necessary. Learning coping mechanisms of how to deal with that early on is pretty critical. It's always going to hurt. You're never going to be able to get past the fact that it's going to hurt your feelings when you get rejected. But I think learning to process those feelings and move past them as quickly and as you safely can is really where you need to focus your energy.
KF: Do you regularly discuss rejections and failures in your workplace? Do you wish it happened more?
KL: The short answer is yes. I talk about them with colleagues in my department. In every lab I've been in, I've talked about it with my lab mates and with my supervisor. I have multiple support groups in terms of colleagues and peers that I value and trust. So yeah, I think talking about these sorts of things is important. You realize that it [rejection] really isn't personal. No one will always be successful all the time and so getting yourself more and more used to that idea, seems like it has to be a good thing.
KF: How are these support groups established?
KL: For me, I guess they kind of establish themselves. My best friend is a woman that I went to grad school with, we had this shared experience of us both getting rejected for a lot of the same things at the same time. That kind of bonds you together. They [support groups] are your friends, they are people that you talk to, and you feel comfortable being open and vulnerable to them.
KF: Looking back is there anything you either wish you knew before starting or learnt quicker regarding rejection and negative feedback?
KL: The only thing you have to learn is that it's absolutely unavoidable. There is no way you can be successful in any career without getting negative feedback at some point. And if you are not getting negative feedback, to me it seems you are doing something wrong in the sense you are not aiming high enough.
I learned very quickly that I like to get frequent, small feedback. If I get small feedback every so often, then those are things that I can improve and work on. Versus, if I spent months and months babying this manuscript until I feel it's absolutely perfect and I've invested so much in it and then you get negative feedback, it feels a lot more painful because you're far more personally invested in it. So, for me, that's a method that's worked really well, constant, incremental, small feedback.
KF: And finally, what advice would you have for graduate students applying for early career fellowships in the future?
KL: My advice is to know that there is so much that is out of your control. You can baby your proposal or your grant as much as you want. You can make it perfect, in your eyes, but the fact of the matter is, is that there is never enough money for everyone, so cuts have to be made somewhere. You never know who you are applying against. There's so much stochasticity and luck involved, that it [rejection] is not a reflection of you in any way. So, do the best that you can, and then forget about it.
The other thing I would say is really important is to figure out how you cope quickly. Figure out what makes you upset and how you get yourself out of the upset mood and back into productivity mode. That's something that's very personal and requires a lot of honesty and self-insight, but the quicker you can figure that out and learn to embrace that I think, the better off you'll be.
KF: Thank you very much, Kate, for sharing these great stories and pieces of advice.