Episode 3: Learning From Rejection with Dr. Peter Loock

Dr. Loock earned a PhD in Chemistry at UVic in 1996. He became a Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry at Queen’s University, and returned to UVic in 2020 as Professor and Dean of Science.

“The trick is to stay on it and don’t see rejection as a judgment on your character or your abilities.”

Dr. Peter Loock

Waving, Not Drowning


Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning, a UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples. 

In today’s episode, I talk with Dr. Peter Loock, professor and Dean of Science. Before coming to UVic in 2020, Dr. Loock was head of the department of chemistry at Queen’s University, where he had been teaching since 1999. No stranger to UVic, though, Dr. Loock received his PhD in chemistry in 1996 from the University of Victoria. In today’s conversation, Peter and I talk about the importance of forging strong and sustaining peer connections at university. We also discuss that very long and challenging project of figuring out how to manage rejection. And finally, we talk a little bit about how to build a healthy or perhaps, healthier relationship to assessment. That is, how can we separate out the less than stellar grade that we’ve all received in our lifetime from that feeling that it somehow says something very personal about us. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Peter Loock, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.

Hi, Peter, it’s such a pleasure to have the chance to speak with you today. How have you been managing through these past really challenging months of the pandemic?

Peter Loock: Well, thank you for asking. I usually I say, “oh, it’s okay, you know, I’m doing fine under the circumstances. But truth be told, though, it’s not that easy. I guess I experienced the same kind of two or three stages of the pandemic as most of us did. And when it started out, it all, we tend to shut teeth together and, you know, there were all these– for all of us, you know, let’s stick together, we powered through it, and you know, all of this is just going to be over in a couple of weeks or months and then gradually it sets in that this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and the initial enthusiasm wears off. And then it becomes drudgery. So, I mean, truth be told, now, I’m missing in-person meetings, and we’ll be doing this over Zoom, which is just as well, but I’d rather have you in the same room with me, right?

Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, of course. So, have you found anything, Peter, that has been helpful or sustaining for you these months?

Peter Loock: Yeah. So, I’m a new Dean, comparably new Dean. I only started in January last year, so I know UVic as an online university, which is kinda bizarre. And so, I know the campus mostly without students, and I have to remind myself every now and then that this is actually a proper university with the campus and students. I miss the students more than I thought I would, to be honest. There’s some people who say, “oh, the university is actually pretty easy to run without students, but I find it very hard actually. So, what sustains me through it is my friends and my family, probably more than anything else. I think it must be very hard to go through a pandemic by yourself.

Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, and I think Peter, too, what you’re saying about the students, you know, for you, being– I know you’re not new UVic since you were a student here yourself, but being here now, as you say, as a relatively new Dean and experiencing it when the campus is really emptied out of students. And I think that’s how a lot of students who might be coming here for their first year and are in residence and experiencing it this way. And I think it’s so important to remind students that, you know, this isn’t really how university is. This isn’t how UVic is, and that the students are really the lifeblood of this university.

Peter Loock: Absolutely. So, there was a survey, a national survey, done I think just a few weeks ago that said that almost 80% of the students miss the campus community more than anything else about the pandemic, right? It’s not that they miss the in-person classes or in-person labs– I’m in science– but it’s the campus community, right?

It’s the friends, the conversations you have, as you walk from lecture to lecture, that kind of thing.

Rebecca Gagan: It’s so interesting, cause I think it’s also– it’s all those moments that we perhaps took for granted. So, I think about, you know, just walking, as you say– walking between classes and you know, bumping into students and being able to– and colleagues– and being able to say hello, or going to grab a coffee, even just in between classes and the socializing that happens then, and the connections that are made. And I’m certain that none of us will be taking that for granted when we’re able to return to campus once again. So, Peter, you’ve pointed to already, I think, some of the challenges for students this year, and I think to be sure, this has got to be, you know, one of the most challenging times to be a student. And as you know, in these podcasts, I’m really talking to faculty about their own experiences as students. And, and having asking them really to share some of the. Challenges and difficulties that they experienced so that students understand that they’re really not alone in experiencing the challenges that they might be going through, and also, that we need to work to de-stigmatize discussions around difficulty or challenge. So, Peter, you know, maybe if you think back to the days when you were either a grad student or an undergrad, can you think of a time where, or an experience of challenge and difficulty, that you might have gone through?

Peter Loock: Well, yeah, sure, pretty much the entire time, right? I mean, so I was a chemistry student, so studying chemistry is not easy, or physics, or any other subject in the natural sciences, life sciences, or engineering. I got my undergraduate degree in engineering chemistry in Germany. You can tell by my German accent that 25 years in Canada is not enough to lose an accent.

So, I was a pretty good high school student, not top of my class, but you know, decent. In Germany at the time, you had to do a national service; it was mandatory for young men to either go military or to do national service elsewhere. So, I was a nurse in a rehab clinic for drug addicts and alcoholics for two years instead of military service, and I came to university when I was at the ripe old age of 21, which actually feels really young, but I was a mature student sort of, anyway. So, that was not a problem. What was more of the issue was actually that I was the first in my family to go to university. I was actually the first in my family to finish high school. My parents have grades nine and 10 education. And so, there was really nobody in my family who knew what a university would be like, and you’re pretty much on your own trying to figure things out. So right from the start, I found it important to have a network of friends or people who actually understand how any of this works, maybe not the years, and also in my peer group, and I think this is probably the most important thing you can do at a university, especially when you start out, is to find people with whom you can walk to. And I’m not saying that we could collaborate on exams because that would be illegal.

But what you should be doing a study together, you know, exchange information and update on each other on, I don’t know, research opportunities, you know, due dates for lab reports, that kind of stuff. You know, the kind of thing that is easy to miss when you’re on your own. And so, having this peer group– this network of friends– was incredibly important.

And I think this is actually why I stuck with it, and why I kind of went to a university and finished my degree. I mean, the other things that helped– it’s not everybody’s thing– but I was in the student union right from the start, right from my first year, and I was a student representative on a bunch of departmental committees and so on, and so I learned a little bit in that way, about how a department works. And I bet, as I said, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

Rebecca Gagan: And I think, right now, especially in the pandemic, students are really seeing the necessity of making those connections right through discord servers and–

Peter Loock: At the top now, right? Because usually you would bump into people in class or after class or over coffee, as you mentioned, and now you’ll have to make appointments. I guess, of course, if you just stayed on residence and it’s easier to bump into others.

Rebecca Gagan: So, peer support was something that really helped you throughout your undergrad and gave you a certain kind of kind of– sustained you. Is that kind of what your–

Peter Loock: Absolutely, that’s exactly what it was. I mean, I relied a lot on my friends.

Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. And can you think, Peter, of a time where you encountered, you know, an obstacle that perhaps, at the time, seemed insurmountable, and what did you do when that happened?

Peter Loock: Yeah. So, let’s talk about what happens after school, right? So, I finished my undergraduate degree, and I applied for grad school, a whole bunch of different places, and I could have stayed in Germany, actually had a pretty– I mean, I could have stayed at the same university, which I didn’t want to do. But I wanted to go abroad, and the idea was to go abroad for four years or three years, and then come back with a PhD and, you know, have that under your belt and then get a position as an industrial chemist somewhere in Germany. So clearly, for my biography, you can tell that didn’t pan out as planned.

So, I applied to a whole bunch of Canadian universities, and I was rejected a lot, actually. I was rejected a lot because my marks, frankly, weren’t all that great. And one of the universities that rejected me, and I still have that rejection letter, was the one that hired me later as a professor. So, I found it kind of amusing that I wasn’t good enough as a graduate student, but it was good enough as a professor.

So that should tell you something but never mind that. So, I applied with a transcript that had two A’s in it, a C and a D. The German transcript only has four grades in it. And I think there’s a fifth one for your research project, which in my case, was I thinking—and sort of a combined lab grade for all the labs you’ve done in your five years of study, and that was a B. So, I had a, by all means, you know, a pretty mixed transcript and that was not good enough to get into a lot of schools, so I collected a lot of rejections. UVic gave me a chance. I was a graduate student at UVic and had to do entrance exams, and when I passed those, I became a grad student here. So basically, this is a long way of saying that it’s hard to deal with rejection, but that is part of what it means to enter the profession a lot. You apply for jobs, and chances are you don’t get them, but then there are some that you do get. And the trick is to basically stay on it and do not see rejections as a judgment on your character or your abilities. Because really what schools do— and I really can’t blame the other universities for rejecting me– is they, you know, they look at a hundred transcripts, and they try to see which ones make the cut, right? That doesn’t say anything about me…That says something about, you know, how they value your transcripts and what is important for them.

So, it is important to kind of deal with these rejections, so decouple from, you know, this is judgement on me. I’m not good enough. Sure, I’m good enough. They are just some universities that have different values.

Rebecca Gagan: Well, and I think that you know, students might be surprised by what you just said about your transcript, right? Applying to grad schools with a transcript that– am I right, so it had a D on it?

Peter Loock: I got to say though, I mean…

Rebecca Gagan: Do you want me to retract that?

Peter Loock: These were all oral exams, and it was my first oral exam, and I botched it. I just never had an oral exam before. I didn’t know what, and actually, I came out being reasonably happy because it was the first guy that day that passed. The other people who went in the exam earlier were all failing, right? So at least I passed my exam, and I didn’t have to come back next year. So, nobody cares about that when you apply. They just see the transcript; they don’t know the backstory.

Rebecca Gagan: But I think that you know, for many students, I can imagine– and certainly, you know, felt this way too– it’s that you get a rejection and you do just start to sink and feel like, well– you know, you take it personally and then there can be a way in which you actually start to give up on what you want to do with your life. Because you think, well, I’m just not cut out for this. And I love hearing that, you know, not only were you able to decouple those rejections from some sense of yourself, but also that you kept applying. And I mean, there’s something so sweet now about that, you know, you are here at UVic and are the Dean of science and that the transcript, that initial piece, it didn’t hold you back.

Peter Loock: Rebecca, it doesn’t stop there. Right? It’s not that just because, you know, you’re a prof and Dean of science doesn’t mean rejection stops. It don’t– I mean, you know, I write rounds– some of them get rejected. I write papers. Some of them get rejected, and I have to basically have to get the criticism as it comes back and realize, okay, well, I mean, yes, we made a mistake. Right? And, and it is always us. I always say, you know, even if the referees didn’t– clearly didn’t get what we were writing. It’s still my fault because I could have phrased it in such a way that referees will understand what it is that I want. So, yes, I mean, you try to learn from it, but yet you have to understand that this still is a learning experience.

And I’ve been in this game now for over 30 years, and I still improve on how I pitched things, how I write letters and how I write grants and papers and so on, but yes, rejection is common. Right? And I don’t think there’s anything particular about this in sciences. You have this in other disciplines as well. Not everything that you apply for works out. I mean, I got rejection letters rejected. Okay, I got to explain that. So, I was in the review panel right where I had to reject grants. And there’s a certain fraction you just have to send back because there’s only so much money you can give up. And so, I wrote a rejection letter of somebody else’s grant proposal and that my rejection was rejected–so I thought this is really too much now.

Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. Well, I think the moral of the story is you have to get good at dealing with rejection, right? And I think as you say it, hasn’t just– you know, can start as an undergrad, and it continues on. I mean, I remember being a graduate student, and I sent an essay away for publication, and you know, one of the reader’s reports said,

“This is academic razzmatazz.” And I figured whatever that is, that can’t be good. But I couldn’t– so it was, you know, of the three reader’s reports, just that one was negative, so it was a revise and resubmit, but I could not get over that comment and that rejection. And so– and I’ve actually told this story to my students–and so, I lost the publication because I couldn’t cope, you know, as a young graduate student with that kind of rejection and then there’s a consequence that, you know, as I say, I lost the publication, so I think that it’s something that you may, as you say, start to encounter as an undergrad in various ways. And that it’s so important to start to figure out how to deal with rejection in a healthy way, I guess because you will keep encountering it.

Peter Loock: Yeah. That’s, I think– that’s my point. Be prepared for that. I mean, even if you’re a star student and you kind of sat through your studies that you can still hit a brick wall. And as I said, I mean, even as you put it, some of the rejection letters may read personal, right? It appears that they are rejecting you as a person or a scientist. But in fact, it usually is just one aspect of your personality that was deemed in quotation, not good enough. Right, and so that could be, you know, like my D in my oral exam, or it could be something else. And then, you try to recover from them. So, I think resilience is one of the attributes that students need to build, and I don’t really know where it’s coming from, but I think it’s unhealthy if you’re deriving all of yourself value from the academic performance.

I mean, there has to be something else that contributes to how you value yourself, and that could be recognition from your family and from your friends, boyfriend or girlfriend, although, you know, that can also be fraught with problems if you’re in your twenties and those change a lot. So, you have to derive basically self-value from more than one source, right? Because things will not always work out professionally and academically, and then you need a second thing to stand on, so I’m a reasonably social person. I always had a group of friends that were very close, and together, we were powering through, and we would prop each other up as one or the other, on and on.

Rebecca Gagan: And so, I think Peter, you’re also suggesting the importance of not going through any of this alone, you know, going through that, you know, the importance of peer support. But if you– what advice. I guess, in terms of some concluding comments here in our conversation, Peter– what advice would you want to leave students with? And you don’t necessarily have to speak to science students, but if they are listening it might be helpful for the to hear a little bit of your thoughts about, you know, just some guidance around what might be helpful for them.

Peter Loock: Giving advice sort of implies that I’ve got an all worked out, and I don’t want to give that idea. I can tell you what works for me. It is to– if you’re submitting your best work, which you always should be prepared that that may not be perceived as sufficient or the best by others, in other words, be prepared that, that there may be blowbacks and disappointments, and it’s good to kind of have that mindset when you’re doing well, right? As opposed to, you know, when you’re down in the dumps. So just prepare yourself mentally, you know, that there will be some headwind, but it’s not about thing. If you work with the wind, you can actually become faster. You can become stronger, and you can build that resilience. And if you work with a group of friends, then you know, all of you can become better in the process, right? So, the university teaches more than just the academics and also teaches us how to work in a team. It also means how to– teach us how to deal with setbacks and with optic obstacles, and that may just be the most important thing you learn when you graduate, is how to acquire new knowledge and how to do it in a team.

Rebecca Gagan: Peter, you’re also saying here with your, just so– I know you haven’t got it all figured out yet, but you’re wise; very wise words about that– about how you are still figuring out. I mean, how to navigate new challenges as they come about, right? That this isn’t something that you reach some endpoint on, right. That you suddenly have it all figured out and then sail through life, right; that this is something you’re constantly navigating and negotiating and that you’re still learning, but that the work, as you say, of trying to learn how to cope with difficulty, it can start now, but that it does continue.

Peter Loock: Exactly. Yeah. So, I mean, right now, we are, of course, in a difficult time, as you said from the outset. It is difficult because we’re all working in isolation. We can’t really access our network of friends as much as we want to, and I think this is probably what students miss most. That, and the on-campus community. It is, though, probably a good idea to ask yourself, you know, how much would change when we are coming back to campus, in some form or another. And so, some things will become easier because you’ll have an easier access to your friends, but some problems remain. I mean, there would still be exams.

There would still be lab reports that are due, and deadlines and so on. So, what I hope this pandemic would teach us is that even now, we are able to work together in small groups, and we are building enough resilience so that we can come back roaring if you like, once we allow back on campus. So, I think what we’re doing now– it’s students and faculty and deans alike could use this opportunity as we’re building that resilience. We’re building a pretty robust network that allows us to come back and be better at what we’re doing once we’re allowed back on campus. 

Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely, Peter, and I’ll just let you have that last word here about I think the strength that we have really shown as a community; the strength and being able to deal with difficulties and challenges that, as you say, will bring with us when we come roaring back when we’re allowed to be back on campus.

Peter Loock: I gotta say, I’m so impressed with UVic students. I’m so impressed. They really– I mean, I do realize how difficult all of this is. And I really feel for the first-year students who haven’t really spent much time on campus at all, but I mean, from my perspective, you know, this group is amazing.

Rebecca Gagan: I would say the same thing. I’ve been teaching a lot of first-year students this year, and I find their strength, and their wisdom and just… they’re an inspiration, in terms of how they have been able to manage this. So, Peter, thank you so much for talking with me today. I have so enjoyed our conversation and learned from it, and I’m sure that our listeners have as well. So, thank you so much for being here today.

Peter Loock: It was a real pleasure. Thank you, Rebecca.

Rebecca Gagan: In next week’s episode, I talk with Kaveh Tagharobi, an instructor in the academic and technical writing program here at UVic, where he teaches engineering 110. Kaveh is also an English as an additional language specialist at the Center for Academic Communication. In our conversation, we’ll talk about the difficulties but also the necessity of establishing working and studying routines at a time when the hours and days all seem to blend together. We’ll also talk about how to become a super reviser, both of your essays and of your own life. And finally, we’ll discuss the importance of asking questions. I really hope that you’ll join us for this conversation. You can stream Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Please follow us on Instagram @uvicbounce, where you can send us your comments, your thoughts, your ideas. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks so much for tuning in.

Until next time. 

Be well.