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.

And then there is publishing and applying for grants. You will be constantly rejected for the most bizzare reasons imaginable: somebody didn't like your last name, they have a conflict with the Chair of your department or your former thesis advisor, they don't think your research area is relevant, your sentences are too long, your sentences are too short, they are tired of hearing the word 'gender,' your findings undermine the research they did 30 years ago, etc. And, once again, there is the ubiquitous spouse, best buddy, or an important acquaintance who will always be chosen over you. As somebody with almost 40 years of experience in academia said to me recently, "You are trying to get published by a university press where you have no connections? Are you really that naive?"

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.


Anonymous said...

I so agree with you!Unfortunately, this happens nearly everywhere in society. Not just within academic circles but in the corporate world, politics and even in sports. In any case, like you said, I agree that the best way to keep from being affected by this is to communicate directly to people without getting bogged down by all the middlemen.

Izgad said...


This post reminds me of my dating life. :p

Clarissa said...

I'm sorry to hear that, Izgad! I'm sure things will change soon.

Izgad said...

Well both sides of your model seem to be playing themselves out. Right now I am in the midst of a very positive relationship with someone, whom I initially thought I had little in common with and would be a straight personality clash. :)

Clarissa said...

That's really great!! You deserve somebody wonderful. :-)

Anonymous said...

I just read a scathing article rejection from a journal, had a good cry, and then tried to find something online to cheer me up. I came across your blog, and it really helped. Thanks in particular for the practical tips about building a defense system....

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael here from Australia on

I can't say I am so upset over the manuscript rejection. I had a conference paper in 04 rejected that got published in the 06 same conference. I also had an article rejected 3 times which has finally been accepted when I cut it from 5000 to 1400 words. Go figure, but that is what they want and the reviewer is at Oxford so I'm not argueing.

I think what brings comfort is when you casually mention when you are with a world famous academic or researcher, or your head of department etc about their experiences. Sure enough, even they, these 'gods and goddesses' who you look up to spent hours on a paper to have it rejected. It happens to those who have been professors for 30 years!

I think there is always an initial how dare they and I agree the reviwers can be horrible and uncareing. But take the comments improve it and resubmit to them or someone else.

I thank you for this blog, I just needed I think a moment to step back and be logical that this writing I did can appear in that same journal or elsewhere one day.

Anonymous said...

I re-read this post every couple of weeks. Just thought you should know that. Thanks for writing it.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Anastasia! Your comment means a lot. Especially as I'm bracing myself for another round of academic rejections.