Academic rejection

By Quinn Webber

Webber_Reject photo

 Manuscript rejection letter from November 2016, title of the journal omitted.

In this post I’d like to talk about rejection in academia*.  My emphasis is on the experiences of graduate students and how we deal with rejection. In theory, we take our rejections in stride and move on. Maybe we try for that scholarship or grant again next year or re-submit our paper to another journal, but there is no escaping the crushing feelings of disappointment and personal failure that can accompany rejection.

Don’t get caught up in rejections

Preparing scholarships or manuscripts can be immensely time consuming, and subsequent rejection can be crushing. By necessity, we incorporate a lot of ourselves (our volunteer work, our passions, our interests) in scholarship and graduate school applications, and rejection may feel like a direct attack on you. This personal investment makes it even more difficult when we are rejected and can result in considerable doubt about ourselves. However, it is important that we put our applications in perspective. We are not our application and we also don’t know who we’re up against and what types of decisions are happening on the other end. In a recent blog post, my friend and former lab-mate Ally Menzies highlights how students are notoriously bad at being able to separate themselves from their projects and, by extension, their rejections. Ally points out that criticism and rejection of graduate opportunities, scholarships, and manuscripts do not reflect criticism on you as a person. This is an important distinction that can help us overcome a rejection. Your application was probably very good, and the fact that you applied means that, despite the possibility of doubt, you are working toward where you want to be and you are taking positive steps to be doing exactly what you want to be doing. Rejection is part of the process and, more often than not, rejection can lead to future success.

Reduce, re-use, recycle

One way to think about rejection, particularly scholarships, is as a stepping-stone. In my experience, scholarship application happens early in your degree, so the application period provides a chance to read about your new field and build the foundation for your project. The work that goes into a scholarship application can establish a baseline familiarity with your field and can clarify where you fit within the literature. But all that hard work does not go to waste just because an application has a disappointing outcome. Aspects of scholarship applications can be re-purposed for other things throughout your graduate school experience. For instance, the personal statement you had to include in your application can provide the basis for a future biographical statement you need, parts of your research proposal could be reduced into a conference abstract, the stellar CV you created can be used again and again. Re-using aspects of previously submitted applications for other purposes can help reduce the feeling that time and energy were wasted in the preparation of the application.

Similarly, any external reviews or comments you receive in the process may help improve future applications and provide constructive feedback on your work. An unsuccessful application to a graduate program or request to work with a specific supervisor might be returned with some insight into why you were not accepted – and while it is essential to reflect on this information and possibly incorporate it into future applications, it’s also important not to internalize it. In general, I’ve found it helpful to think of scholarship applications as the groundwork on which I can build future project and applications.

Everybody gets rejected, sometimes

To rephrase the title of a well-known R.E.M. song: “everybody gets rejected, sometimes”. Even established researchers and professors have grants and papers rejected regularly. This is important to remember, because we often see supposedly successful students, researchers, and professors who have fancy grants and many publications, but what we often forget, is that for every grant or manuscript they have received, there is likely anywhere from two to three times as many that have been rejected. Recently within the academic community, researchers and academics have been documenting their rejections and publishing them for others to see – a process often referred to as a ‘shadow CV’ –to normalize rejection. My own ‘shadow CV’ includes two or three major scholarship rejections, a grant rejection, and at least 10 rejections from academic journals. For instance, one of my first manuscripts was rejected based on methodological concerns raised by a reviewer. While it was an understandable rejection, the sting can be a bit more real when you receive a response like: “This study is fundamentally flawed and I urge you to go back to the drawing board”. This was not a particularly helpful rejection, but I felt like I learned a lot and the manuscript was recently accepted at a different journal with two positive reviews – a result which makes me feel somewhat vindicated after the original rejection.

As we work toward our long-term goals, it’s helpful to embrace challenges and set-backs as part of the process, but to also let them go. We can sometimes get caught up in the milestones associated with graduate school, and if these things don’t go the way we expect them to it can sometimes be demoralizing and disorienting. Despite inevitable feelings of failure, we can over-come our rejections. Be persistent, and, if possible, surround yourself with passionate and talented colleagues who will provide support and help over-come these hurdles.

*A similar version of this post was posted on the Memorial University Graduate Student blog in October 2017.

**This blog post was greatly improved by conversations and editorial help from my partner Julia.

Author biography: Quinn is a 2nd year PhD student at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, studying the links between social networks and habitat selection in caribou. Find him on Twitter @webber_quinn.

Categories: Career

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