Achy breaky heart: coping with academic rejection

This post is by Dr Judy Robertson who is a senior lecturer in computer science at
Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and Chief Cat Herder for the undergraduate computer science programme there. Judy is a blogger as well as a contributing author to the amusing collaborative internet novel in progress “Granite University”

screamMy academic ego is shattered. I recently had a ~£1m grant proposal rejected. I feel like a million dollars in the red. Academia is tough on the ego. The stakes are high, and for this particular funding stream, there is only one chance to get the proposal perfect. The proposal took me a large proportion of last summer to write and a huge amount of thought.

Fortunately, like most mid career academics, my ego is plenty big enough to cope. It could even do with slimming down. As Scarlett O’Hara famously said “I’ll write another proposal tomorrow”.

This attitude doesn’t emerge overnight. It took me about a decade of experience and rejection to get to the point where I can kick the cat (or a passing student), shrug and then forget it. I have shed tears over various proposals and papers over the years but it does get easier. If you’re an early career researcher struggling with rejection, here are some comforting thoughts. I have also provided some bracing thoughts, which you may need more depending what stage of the grief cycle you’re at.

Comforting thought: Rejection makes you a better academic #1. I know, it feels dreadful. But really, you will feel better soon. You can learn from your mistakes. Think of all that advice the generous reviewers have donated to you. How much better will your work be if you seriously consider it and take it on board? “Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you and go on to the next big opportunity” (Dennet, 2013;23)

Bracing thought: You probably don’t know more than the reviewers.You only think you do. If you peer into the depths of your academic soul, you will  see the truth glaring back at you. The reviewers probably don’t have axes to grind. They probably don’t hate you. They may be terse, time starved or tactless but they are unlikely to be stupid. You need to take the time to digest what they are saying and address each of the points in turn. Then you’ll have a better paper. Then you’ll have learned something.

Comforting thought: Rejection makes you a better academic #2. The pain you experience now will make you a better teacher. You’ll never be tempted to slash red pen through an undergraduate essay again. Actually you will. You just won’t do it because you’ll remember back to how you feel today and be constructive and kind instead. Your students will love you. Your colleagues will be in awe of your saintly empathy.

Bracing thought: Move on. You’re not going to remember about this for very long. People tend not to have their publications engraved on their tombstones. Or grant reference numbers. You need to move on to the next thing as soon as possible. Can what you wrote be recycled for another paper, or another grant application? If so, throw your tissue in the bin and back to your keyboard, soldier! The more you write, the higher the likelihood of success. As my boss once said, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not writing enough proposals.

I leave you with this thought from the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman: “I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” (Kahneman, 2012; 264) . I find this comforting and bracing in equal measure: life as a researcher is hard but if you’ve got this far, you’re delusional enough to cope.

Feeling rejected? Share your story below, and readers will comfort you. We’ve all been there!

Thanks for the reminders Judy!

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28 thoughts on “Achy breaky heart: coping with academic rejection

  1. Beth Dumont says:

    in response to the post on academic rejection.
    A vital element was forgotten – that of Power. The reviewing panel for the grant application possessed that, the academic doesn’t. There may have been nothing really wrong with the application – it may also be a case of the proposed project was not in the ‘radar’ or the interests of the members of the grant panel.
    I defy anyone on such a panel to tell me truthfully that they approach such things on a bipartisan basis with no preconceptions as to where and to what sort of the project they feel the money should go. For most of us our objectivity is a myth because we don’t realise the strengths of our subjectivity when it comes to our thought processes, and then consciously guard against it.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      This is certainly a valid complaint, and there’s a bit of feminist work that points this out. The system has power regimes that are, for the most part, invisible to us. I suppose the only way is to fight fire with fire. Get on boards, participate wherever possible in reviewing grants, speak up at government reviews and so on. And – keep doing the interesting and good work as best we can.

  2. judyrobertsonuk says:

    I see your point in general, but in my case the funder provided me detailed comments from five reviewers before making the decison. The comments were uncomfortable but true. 🙁

  3. fanthropology says:

    Thanks for sharing this at a time when I really needed to read it. I just got a pretty crushing rejection letter after working on a journal article for weeks, and I’m still stuck in the “You obviously don’t get my work!” phase of the greiving process.

  4. fanthropology says:

    Reblogged this on fanthropology and commented:
    I just got a pretty crushing rejection after working on a journal article for weeks. This is the part of the career path that I (and I’m sure most of my peers) struggle with the most. It’s often very difficult to get any positive reinforcement in a solitary career like academia, so each rejection or harsh criticism feels that much more painful. It’s especially difficult when running on the wheel of casual teaching.
    I’m struggling in particular with the “The reviewers do know what they are saying” section. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when your phd work is harshly critiqued.

    How do you deal with rejection and critique?

    • Reza says:

      I want to believe that we should deal with academic rejection and criticism the same way we deal with rejection and criticism in other aspects of life.

      The problem for academics though, is that rejection = wasted time = one less paper/grant on your CV = an incremental decrease in the chances of being promoted or getting a continuing position.

      Maybe, therefore, the trick is to not get rejected in the first place. Maybe academics can try to publish in the lower ranked journals (1 paper in Nature does not equate to 10 papers in the Journal of ‘insert your field here’). Maybe they can apply for the smaller grants (10 x 100,000 pounds instead of one big 1m grant). Maybe they can try to piggy back off more successful academics re: publications and grants.

      I guess what I am also saying is “know thy self”. If you know in your heart that the research and results are not that great, then don’t bother to submit a paper to a high impact journal. If you know your track record is less than stellar, then don’t bother to apply for the prestigious grants.

      Academia is a rat race, so academics need to approach it accordingly.

      • kitchem says:

        The Research Degree Voodoo posted something similar earlier this year:

        I’d strongly suggest reading Paul Silvia’s ‘How to write a lot’. Rejection is core to the peer-review process and a fact of academic life. Chapter 6 of Paul’s book is on writing journal articles and well worth reading. He estimates that the ‘rejection’ rate for articles in Psychology (his field) is around 80%, and a minimum of 50% across all journals. This includes outright rejections (the journal is not interested at all) and rejections with an invitation to revise and resubmit. The decision to revise and resubmit is yours, and will depend on many factors including how much time you’re willing to commit to the revision.

    • judyrobertsonuk says:

      🙁 that’s rotten. Your point about feeling solitary made me think that one way to avoid rejection would be to find a critical friend to do internal review before submitting papers. I am embarrassed to say I did for this proposal and managed to ignore the bit of his advice which ended up was the same as the reviewers’. Live and learn!

    • kitchem says:

      It took you *weeks* to write an article?! Wow, you need to tell us how you do it!! It usually takes us *months* or longer to get something written for publication!

      • kitchem says:

        2 months is still pretty good! I went to an ECR advice session a few days ago. The (highly esteemed, well published) presenter said he almost always sends his manuscripts to one of the top journals first. He figures they’ve got such a quick turnaround for full rejections (48 hrs for British Medical Journal which is in his field) that he really loses no time, and there’s always the small chance it will go out for full review. Food for thought…

    • RedHerring says:

      I completely understand Fanthropology. I had my paper rejected 4 times now. It is a humiliating experience and my first reaction is always anger: “the reviewers clearly do not know what they are saying”. I am working on the fifth version of it and I have to admit that when I muster the courage to reread the rejections, they did have a point. The paper can be better and yes, I have learned a lot, not only about writing but also about my research. The research angle that I am taking now is better than the one in the first paper.
      I sometimes feel like an artist, endlessly working on a painting, until it’s “perfect”.
      Comforting / romantic thought: I am like an artist

  5. judyrobertsonuk says:

    Reza, I think you’re right. It’s taken me a while to acquire that judgement of the quality of my work. Much easier to do it for papers than grants though because you see successful papers fom others all the time but successful grants are by definition rare.

    • Reza says:

      When you go to a bar, you are bound to see ‘losers’ trying to chat-up the hottest woman at the bar. The guys know full well that they have a snow ball’s chance in hell, but they do it any way because they have nothing to lose and it doesn’t take much effort.

      Writing papers and grant proposals is quite different. I just read a report that reported on a study that ANU (supposedly) did that says that each ARC Discovery grant proposal costs the university $50,000. Every researcher who has written a paper or a grant proposal knows that it takes scores of hours of hard work to write, and we haven’t even factored in the time to do the actual research!

      This brings me to another point: maybe supervisors, mentors, Heads of Schools etc should vet whether a junior/less experienced researcher submits a paper/grant proposal to a journal/funding body. This review process could potentially save lots of money, time, and heartache for researchers. This would be especially useful for ECRs who are not experienced enough to judge their chances of being successful in publishing or getting the grant.

      Judy, I think that a researcher who intends to write a grant proposal can get a feel for the competition. They just need to look at the recipients from the last round, Google their names, and check out their web pages with their publications/research track records. I think it is fair to assume that this year, the competition will be stiffer than last year, and next year it will be stiffer than this year, and so on. If every recipient in your field had at least 25 papers published and you only have 15 say, that’s a quick and easy reality check that could save much time, money, and grief.

      Now if only I had taken my own advice when I was an ECR. Was it Rod Stewart who said “I wish, that, I knew what I know now, when I was younger”.

  6. M-H says:

    I don’t agree about reviewers being more clever than the applicants. This may be an Australian thing – maybe there is a shortage of good knowledgeable reviewers for qualitative work here. I’ve seen grant reviews in which the reviewers had no idea what the application was about, and commented in a really unhelpful fashion, referring to methodologies which had not been contemplated and would be quite unsuitable for the project being proposed. It’s disheartening for academics, and frankly, its a waste of time (and ultimately money) when so many people are chasing so few dollars. This article in Nature explains it depressingly well:

  7. Jonathan Downie says:

    Nice to see a fellow Heriot-Watt-er here.

    This also applies for awards, jobs etc. I recently got nominated for an internal prize and didn’t even make the shortlist. Yep, I was annoyed, angry even and felt a bit devalued but in the end, Judy is right. The “no” can be another step to the “yes” and sometimes, although it might not make sense, the “no” might be better for you than a “yes”. In my case, a “no” for PhD funding has meant self-funding and a bunch of opportunities I wouldn’t have even thought about if I had been on a scholarship. Not receiving this prize has freed up some thesis and writing time.

  8. Sophie says:

    I’m a part-time PhD student and have had my share of rejections and pleasant successes. I recently quipped to yet another referee I’d approached for yet another part-funding application, by the time I get to applying for postdocs in 2-3 years, they’ll be a piece of cake compared to someone who was fully funded for their entire PhD! And I’m sure I rewrote part of an unsuccessful application into my Transfer of Status report (fyi, upgraded without condition last summer).

    And after 4 years of reformulation and rewrites I am finally going to see a very short version of my Masters dissertation published as a chapter in a book aimed at early career researchers. That was a case of finding the right outlet for my good but not white-hot research.

  9. Gordon says:

    There is also something in the view that grant panels should filter out out the more obviously untenable applications but of the remaining 20% or so grants should be allocated by ballot.
    A second point is that while refereeing is a necessary evil many journal editors could exercise considerably more control over the process. For example the “I would have written a different article” type of rejection is usually dodgy. Moreover referees are not infallible and journal editors need to take seriously and adjudicate legitimate differences of opinion.

  10. lifescientist says:

    Thank you for a well thought out argument.

    A point I agree with:

    “I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.”

    Brilliantly put.

    Two points on this post I don’t agree with:

    “Think of all that advice the generous reviewers have donated to you”.

    I am still waiting for these generous reviewers that actually provide useful critique that is past the proforma reply.

    “You probably don’t know more than the reviewers”.

    Actually what does it mean to know more. It takes someone to look at what is known to know what we know. Unfortunately those which know, also only think they know. The questioning ability of people is our most powerful asset and a lot of published literature, whilst published, is at best useless and at worst diversionary.

    The idea of a proposal (and almost how disruptive it would be) should be the single and only criteria by which a proposal is judged but too often its wrapped up in other inaccurate metrics.

    However you article highlighted some interesting food for thought whilst I snack on yet another rejection

  11. Jonathan Downie says:

    Thank you for that. I needed it. What makes the most recent rejection so hard is that the funder as much as said that we can’t get any useful feedback on it.

    Guess it’s time to get back to the keyboard.

  12. Lucille says:

    I just got my paper rejected by a top, interdisciplinary journal yesterday. Reviewers’ comments are very helpful and 90 % of their suggestions are the things that I could have done if I were given a chance to do a revise/resubmit. I am having a hard time understanding why they rejected the piece outright. Because looking at the comments, I feel like they are offering revisions to be made but the editors chose to reject the paper. I just wish that I had a chance to make use of these comments to revise the paper for this journal.

    • Stacey G. says:

      Lucille, I just had the exact same experience today! My paper was also rejected by a top journal — with several of the reviewers offering glowing praise of the paper and offering comments that I could address. But it was rejected outright, without an R&R. I’m confused and a bit hurt. I also wish I had a chance to resubmit. It’s hard to get back into the saddle but I assume we’ll just have to take those helpful comments, revise, and submit to a journal one rung down. But not today. Today I’m going for a long walk in the sunshine and then will nurture my tender ego with some dumb TV.

  13. Anonymous says:

    May be I sound ridiculous. But, it happened to me continuously for 2 years. My proposal was rejected whereas my colleagues who take it very easy and do research to exploit free travel and never seem to care about research got it again and again. I might sound jealous and immature. My question is not whether should I get it instead of them, it is rather only on how to deal with this situation? Since, I see this happening again in future.

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