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Coping with Rejection In Your Academic Career

April 24, 2017

 

This week I had a paper rejected from a journal. It was the fourth time this paper has been rejected and for the first time in my career, I'm considering giving up on an article. We did everything we could - we've made revisions based on reviewer feedback, we tried different journals that varied in focus and prestige. Alas, we still haven't found this fella a home. 

 

This is the first time I've experienced this much trouble getting a paper published. Sure, I've had articles rejected, we all have. In general, I've always stuck with the process every academic is familiar with: submission, rejection, revision, re-submission, success! As a result, I've been able to publish 3-5 articles each year. But this paper has been an anomaly and has caused me to reflect upon the role that rejection plays in our career, from start to finish. How do we continue to cope?

Early on in our academic careers, we learn about the sting of rejection. As graduate students, we approach our course instructors, advisors, and dissertation committee members with bright eyes and bushy tales, eager to share our ideas and thoughts with them...only to be told that our ideas need significant work or are not good altogether. As we move on into the early, middle, and advanced stages of our careers, we find that despite getting better at what we do, we still regularly face rejection in our work. We also come across special circumstances where rejection is particularly painful and stressful:

  • Consider the well-known "Reviewer 2 Problem," where you have multiple reviewers on a grant or manuscript and one loves it and the other trashes it, ultimately leading your work to a rejection.  

  • Unfortunate is the academic who experiences compounding rejection, such as was my experience recently when I received a manuscript rejection and a grant rejection in the same week. 

  • The academic job market is in a class of its own, with repeated rejections from numerous departments, some of which we may have dreamed about working for since our early days of graduate school. The words, "We just don't think you're a good fit" hurts the first, third, and tenth times you hear them.

  • Faculty approaching third-year review and/or tenure are well-aware of the stress and depression that surface as they fear potential rejection from their own colleagues whom they may have known for several years.

The advice of "toughen up" does not seem quite appropriate. Although I may pick up the pieces of broken manuscripts and grants, revising them into works to be submitted elsewhere, rejection still stings. I've known colleagues who have been denied tenure or received terrible feedback from reviewers on their manuscripts, causing them to question their place in academia. Most of these colleagues pushed through the rejection. They ultimately received tenure at other institutions; they published their papers in other journals. But how do we get through the initial sting of rejection? Here is some advice. 

Be reasonable about what you do and do not have control over.

There is fierce competition out there in academia! Each year, the academic market floods with hungry candidates fighting for jobs. Conferences can only accept so many presentations to fit in their 3-5 day schedules. Grant funding is tight and only so many projects can be awarded on current budgets. What does that mean? You could have great ideas and project designs and still face an ultimate rejection. Oftentimes, good candidates aren't offered positions and well-written papers and grants are not accepted. It may be a matter of fit, which you have limited to no control over. 

 

However, sometimes we can (partially or fully) blame ourselves for our rejection. Sometimes we miss the mark. We didn't prepare for interview questions we should have and therefore answered them poorly during a telephone interview. We missed an important detail in the grant instructions or forgot to include a section that was important for the reviewers to have to understand the project. The peer reviewers were right about the lack of clarity in parts of our manuscripts. Sometimes we need to take a good look at ourselves and our work to understand how we can improve our performance so we can be successful in the future. Rather than get upset about the negative feedback we receive, we need to put our egos and emotions aside to evaluate the feedback and assess how we can constructively apply it to our work. 

 

Remember that we are more than our research. 

As academics, it's quite easy to take ourselves and our work too seriously. As a gerontologist, I realized some time ago that I am not going to look back on my career one day and find my name alongside theorists, such as Erikson and Lawton. I'm okay with that. I want to conduct research that is helpful and meaningful in people's lives. I feel that this goal is basic and realistic. It helps me overcome rejection, because it reminds me of the big picture when my work is periodically turned down or criticized. Sometimes as academics we get too engrossed in our work - to the point that we may overlook our flaws and errors. Staying grounded and not taking ourselves too seriously can help us stay on course and overcome adversity. 

 

In addition, we need to keep up with other activities we enjoy so that we can fall back on other achievements when dealing with the pain of academic rejection. Personally, I enjoy running and prepare for 5K and 10K races throughout each year so I can focus on goals other than writing. I also read literature and occasionally take cooking classes. In academia, there is such great pressure to be productive. From time to time, colleagues have said to me, "I wish I had time to read for fun!" "How do you find time to exercise?!?" and, "I'm too busy for a hobby!" To me, this is sad. At some point I dedcided not to give into their criticism for taking time to do things other than work. I started replying with justifications, such as, "We can make time to do anything that is important to us. We prioritize our time. I guess staying exercising (or spending time with family, reading enchanting novels, etc.) is just more important to me." Such a response is not often challenged. 

 

Remember that it isn't just you. We all experience rejection. 

I recently wrote a post about the horrors of peer review, as a result of the lamenting and frustration I hear from junior scholars when they receive negative (and sometimes snarky) comments from reviewers. I felt that it is important for them to know that we all face peer reviewers and their comments can be negative, even for those of us who have been in academia for many years. So, the first thing to remember when facing rejection is:

  • Dozens of other candidates also didn't get the job you interviewed for.

  • Journal and grant rejection rates demonstrate that you are part of a large community that did not have your manuscript published or grant funded.

  • The other academics who experienced rejection also felt disappointment, sadness, stress, and/or anger about their rejection. It's okay if you have those feelings, too.

Knowing that our experience with rejection is universal helps motivate us to pick up the pieces and move forward. If everyone gave up after being rejected, we would not have the extensive community of scholars that we have today. 

 

Know that there will be success down the road. 

Thus far, I have published a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals and have received several grants of varying sizes. Behind these successes lies a number of rejections. Consider that all but one article I have published has received a "Revise and Resubmit" or flat out rejection (I'm still confused how I had one article accepted upon initial submission, but it happened!). My funded to unfunded grant ratio is probably around 1 in 5. Rejection almost always has led to success. Remember that a research trajectory is a marathon (or an Ironman Triathlon!), not a sprint. Therefore, focus on how your work - even your failures - contributes to this larger body of knowledge you are creating. So, after your receive a rejection, take some time to shake off the hurt feelings and bruised ego...then get back on that horse!

 

Rejection isn't always a bad thing. The colleagues I know who were denied tenure were very upset at first when they received the news. However, they secured new positions at institutions where they were much happier at, because their new institutions were a better fit for them. Similarly, I have colleagues who were not successful in securing an academic appointment following graduate school, but later found rewarding and productive careers outside of academia that they were very satisfied with. 

Rejection is difficult. But we can always work to avoid rejection by being better prepared in the first place! Need advice and support in your own academic career? If you are a junior scholar getting ready to navigate the academic job market or need advice about your current academic position, contact Nicole today and see how you can work together to advance your career!

 

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