Rejection happens to every academic. Papers are not published, grants are not funded, proposals are rejected, and jobs are not achieved. Most academics have many times more rejections than successes. Rejection is best thought of not as a failure but as a necessary step toward success. Knowing this information does not help. Yet rejection stings.

Experienced academics will say, “It is part of the job. Get over it.” This is as useful as classic useless advice like, “Calm down” and “Have you tried not being depressed?” There are many coping strategies that people use to address rejection. Here is how I think about rejection:

Rejection is part of life. A potential romantic partner is not sufficiently interested. You fail a driving test. A financial investment does not work out as planned. We rarely get everything we want. But some rejection cuts deeper. Imagine being a poet, actor, or artist where your work’s rejection reflects your ability to tap into deep elements of your soul.

Academic rejection is also personal as it reflects on our ability, skill, and suitability for a highly competitive career. I think it is a good idea to normalize rejection in academic work. But no matter what anyone says, rejection is simply terrible.

Rejected papers and unfunded projects are ego blows and reinforce our anxiety-driven imposter syndrome. Some reviews feature unnecessarily personal attacks. That style of review hurts the vulnerable and crushes the ego. I am not sure why mean-spirited comments about how “the author would benefit by having a native English speaker edit the paper prior to submission” or how “the author must be an undergraduate student” help improve a paper. When there are actual or perceived personal attacks, I seek consultation with an experienced colleague to ensure I perceive the review accurately.

I often bring less-than-helpful personal reviews to the attention of the editor. Reviewers need to be accountable for their work, and punching down on the vulnerable is not cool. A bit pedantic, but it does help to stand up for yourself and contribute to the productive tone of peer reviews in the future. More useful, mine for nuggets of useful information along with the dreck of personal attacks.

Other reviews and decisions appear to be arbitrary. Or the reviews appear careless and haphazard, which is not unusual for manuscript reviews. After all, reviewers are usually volunteers. You can challenge a review or appeal a decision. But seriously, don’t do that. Move on to another journal. Most appeals reek of late-night texts to your ex. They are just not that into you. You don’t want to publish where the people do not appreciate your work, and you can do better. Remember that are thousands of journals out there. Even worse is when a review is spot-on and perfectly identifies errors. These accurate negative reviews might hurt, worst of all.

The ability to cope with inevitable rejections may be one of the best predictors of success in academia. To continue to work and produce high-quality work despite a reinforcement schedule that is delayed in the best of times and is random and lean in the worst of times requires mindful consideration of what rejection means and how your work can benefit from rejection.

Basic Strategies

It is the work, dummy. I have a single-minded focus on improving. If the editorial decision is accept, then I hope the reviews improve the product. If the editorial decision is reject, then I hope the reviews improve the product. I am not better or worse at my job due to rejection. There is always another project. And there is a home for every paper. You were not rejected. Your manuscript was denied publication in a journal that likely rejects far more than 50 percent of submissions. Repeat after me: it is not me. It is the work.

Make the work better. After rejection, learn, get better, find a new home for your project, get help from a colleague or mentor, improve it, and persist. Even a paper that completely crashes and burns with some fatal flaw can be salvaged for parts for the next project: several paragraphs from the intro, descriptions of some methods, formatting of results, figure designs, and the like can be used to make the next project better.

Rejection is a luxury. Weirdly, I am usually grateful that a random reviewer volunteers their time and expertise to keep me from embarrassing myself by publishing substandard work. Yeah, it’s a love-hate thing. Thanks for teaching me some new things and for finding the flaws I missed, but I am still resentful of you, Reviewer #2. A bit absurd, but it works for me.

Think strategically. Many negative reviews are because little research was put into the fit of the work with the target journal. Carefully read papers published under the editorship of the current editor. Your paper needs to fit perfectly with the type and style of the topic and methods. If the thought is, “I want to publish in Top of the Mountain Journal X, so I will argue my paper that does not quite fit but is different and special….”

Then you are going to have a bad time. Your paper will be rejected. Moreover, a poor fit between paper and journal almost ensures that the reviews will not be productive, or you will receive the merciful rapid desk reject. If you think your work is so pure, brilliant, and perfect that writing in a tone or using a method consistent with the journal’s style and mission is below you, then you will have a bad time.

Editors not only evaluate the quality of research and manuscripts but also curate a collection of scholarship in a volume. Time invested in finding the perfect journal to match your work is time well spent. The same applies to grant proposals for funding agencies.

Have multiple projects rolling into the pipeline. I like to have at least two projects under review at any one time. I am not an especially prolific author of manuscripts, probably below average for a top research university. However, I want to have multiple projects under review to protect my ego. When an inevitable rejection arrives, I have the hope that the next paper will receive a better fate.

Having only one project under review is quite stressful. This is a highly motivating state for me to get something new into the review pipeline. Placing too many personal resources into a single paper that is “your baby” or “put your heart and soul” into a manuscript is a poor use of emotional resources. You produced a thing. Hopefully, you will produce more and increasingly better things.

Share the load. Share the load and the emotional blows of rejections with others. Co-authoring papers has many advantages. An underrated advantage is shared responsibility and commiseration when experiencing rejection. Being a member of an academic writing group that honestly shares ups and downs is also a therapeutic resource.

Being ground down. No single rejection bothers me anymore. A recent situation was that five consecutive projects were rejected. The cumulative effect of the rejections got me down. I wondered if I was experiencing some cognitive decline or was somehow blackballed from publishing. I was afraid to submit another paper. No less than eight people reviewed the next article before I clicked the submit button. I received an Accepted with minor revisions decision, and all was right with the world.

Stages

When that rejection comes, here are the stages I go through:

  1. Profanity. Then I put it away and go on with my day.
  2. I schedule an hour in my calendar within the week to review the comments carefully.
  3. I highlight the reviewers’ points, areas, and topics to be revised. Also, note when the reviewers got something wrong because that usually means I was not clear enough.
  4. Develop a submission strategy to the same journal or a new journal.
  5. The same journal means point-by-point addressing of the reviewers’ concerns. A new journal means documentation is not needed. But note that even in a new journal, the same reviewer might be assigned due to subject area expertise—and they want to see their ideas incorporated into a new draft.
  6. In my writing queue, I finish my current project before undertaking major revisions of a rejected paper (FYI—in my mind, Revise and Resubmit decisions are the same as rejections—a lot of work to be done).
  7. Make revisions (or reanalyze data, rerun the experiment, or whatever is required) with the new journal or improve the fit with the rejecting journal.
  8. Rework cover letter because the last cover letter didn’t work.
  9. Submit. Keep those balls in the air and juggle as fast as you can.
  10. Thank your co-authors. Toast your submission with the adult beverage of your choice. Celebrating submissions is far healthier than celebrating acceptances.

Conclusion

Rejections stink. No way around it. When I worked at a hospital, and my children were asked what their dad does, they would say, “He works at a hospital and helps kids.” When I moved to academia, and they were asked the same question, they would say, “He stares at his computer all day and swears a lot.” Laugh at your rejections. Learn from your rejections. And always have a new project underway. Then your rejections will lead to success.



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Coping With Rejection in the Academic World

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