Monday, July 26, 2010
Rejection as a Staple of the Academic Lifestyle
One thing nobody prepares you for in grad school is that rejection will be an inevitable part of your life as an academic. You first discover it when you go on the job market where for every 30 job application packages you send out there are 27 rejections, at least 10 of which are worded in a very hurtful way. There is no reason or logic behind those rejections, of course. You get offers from places that were searching for somebody with a completely different area of specialization and then get rejected by departments who claimed to want somebody exactly like you. Still, those rejections hurt.
Then, the campus interview stage offers you yet another experience of being arbitrarily and often offensively rejected. You will perform brilliantly at a campus visit, only to discover that nobody was planning to hire you all along. The spot was reserved for somebody's spouse or best friend and your campus visit was nothing other than a formality aimed at keeping up the appearance of fairness.
As a result, young academics often start self-sabotaging. They apply for fewer academic positions because it's not the same when 100 universities reject you as when only 7 do. They stop filling out grant applications because reading yet another rant from a biology professor on why research in Spanish literature should not be funded is beyond what they can endure*. They submit less articles for publication because of the increasing tendency of journal editors to respond in a very offensive manner.
So if you are starting out your career in academia, I suggest that you prepare yourself for these constant and arbitrary rejections. The first thing to do is to remember that they are, indeed, arbitrary and you will gain nothing by trying to analyze them logically. Why does a brilliant campus visit result in a nasty rejection letter while a campus visit that was one huge failure from the first minute to the last result in an offer of employment? Why is an article rejected by a second-rate journal but is accepted by the leading publication in your field? Why is a university press that insists on being the opposite of all those vanity presses reject books whose authors can't or won't pay to be published? You just have to accept that there is no reason or logic behind all this. All we can do is accept that many aspects of an academic's life are completely arbitrary.
In order to counteract the effects of this constant and arbitrary rejection, one needs to work out mechanisms of psychological self-defense. One thing to do is to find some area where you receive regular and frequent confirmations that you are not stupid or crazy. Starting a blog will bring you into contact with many people who will want to hear what you have to say and will respond far more intelligently than most of your journal reviewers and university press editors. Write reviews on Amazon and see how many people find your input helpful. Start an electronic journal with your friends and use it as a place of a genuine intellectual exchange, unburdened by the considerations of spouses, buddies, and helpful individuals that have perverted most of the so-called peer-reviewed journals. Create a network of circulating research papers among friends and colleagues where you will get honest and helpful input from people who actually know something on the subjects that interest you.
There are many things in academia that lead to burn-out an disillusionment. We often accept them as a given and don't try to counteract them. There are strategies, however, that we can implement in order to counteract them. If you have your own methods of dealing with academic rejection, feel free to post them in the comments.
* All of the examples of academic arbitrariness in this post come from my own experience.