If there is one thing academics need to get used to very quickly it’s rejection. I’ve had a multitude of papers rejected, I’ve had several grants (large and small) rejected, and I even once had a conference submission rejected (yep – it CAN happen). There’s no other way to say it: rejection hurts. It’s difficult—sometimes it feels impossible—but I try to see the positive side of rejections where I can.
I clearly remember finding my first rejection less difficult than I had anticipated. It was within the first three months of my PhD, and I had the opportunity to submit the first experiment of my project as a short commentary paper. When the reviews came back, I was disappointed to see it had been rejected; in fact, this is likely an understatement, as I had high hopes it would be lauded and immediately put on the front page of the journal (OK, this is an exaggeration, but I thought it was a nice little paper). Despite my disappointment, I remember the next day reading the reviews again through fresh eyes, and smiling to myself. It was an unexpected smile; one of those that take you by surprise when you suddenly realise you’re doing it, and you’re not sure why. I had the sudden realisation that my work—yes, MINE!—had been looked at by three experts in my field. These researchers—whom I respected greatly—had taken the time to look at my work and provide me with valuable feedback. Was it all positive? No, of course not, but there were positive aspects. Was it all negative? No, of course not, but there were negative aspects. The point is, I had received critical feedback on my work from three experts in my field. What a learning experience!
That’s not to say I’ve always found rejection plain-sailing. Despite the positives to be gained from the reviews of a rejected paper, I’ve recently had a bad run of rejections which I found very difficult: seven consecutive paper rejections (not all the same paper). After a while (maybe the fourth?), it was difficult to not start questioning myself: Am I up to this job? Imposter syndrome had kicked in royally. This rejection-fest has recently ended, and I had a paper accepted the other day. This paper contains work I am most proud of to date, but imposter syndrome is still here.
It never helps my cause that I also have a very bad habit of looking at people at similar stages of their career to me and looking at their extensive CVs. I have an even worse habit of looking at professors’ CVs and trying to work out how I shape up in comparison to them when they were at my stage of career. Some of these comparisons give me hope; other comparisons leave me feeling even more incapable. (Does anyone else do this, too? If you don’t, DO NOT start doing it; what a complete waste of time and energy!)
These negative feelings are common, and the more academics I speak to the more I realise I’m not the only one who feels this way. My greatest discovery was finding out that other people have rejections, too; you can’t help but feel sometimes that you are the only one! This realisation came from when I started to review other people’s work, as reviewers get cc’d in to the decision letter (“Bloody hell, even Professor XXX gets rejections!”). I’m not the only one, it seems, and neither are you.
How do I deal with rejection?
I feel that I have a pretty broad back when it comes to rejections. Yes, I feel crap about it for a little while. But, I try not to let it dominate my thoughts. I have a pretty good routine for dealing with rejections, which I want to briefly outline below. My process is not novel, and I remember reading something similar from someone else, but for the life of me I can’t recall where I saw it.
- When I receive the decision letter, I read the editor’s comments first (obviously). This tends to be a panic-stricken scan for the word “unfortunately” rather than a comprehensive read, but I can quickly assess the damage.
- I read through the reviewers comments once. I aim to get the broad “feel” for the issues that have been raised, but at this stage I don’t focus on the details so much.
- I put the reviews away in an email folder.
- I do not look at the reviews again for at least a couple of days. This is my “licking my wounds” phase. I try to fill it with as many positive things as I can. If I’m fortunate enough to have another paper I am working on I continue working on it during this phase. For me, this is very important and serves two purposes: to take my mind off the rejection, and to make me feel like I am still progressing (doing nothing during this time has the danger of making one feel like you’ve been rejected and there’s nothing you can do about it).
- After a few days, I return to the reviews. I often realise at this stage that the reviewers actually raised some very insightful and important points. I note all of these down.
- In a revision—either back to the same journal or in revision to submit the paper elsewhere—I make sure I deal with ALL comments. This doesn’t mean I do everything a reviewer asks for, but I do make sure I can defend why I haven’t done a particular thing.
- Craft my revision letter. This often turns into a very lengthy document. I’ve had revision letters that have been just as long as the manuscript I’m revising. I outline in detail every point that every reviewer raised, and point to where in the manuscript the change is, or—if I didn’t agree with a point—I elaborate why I haven’t included it. I want to leave no doubt in the editor’s mind that I’ve thought deeply about the issues raised, and I’ve acted in an open and responsive manner. I don’t do it for brownie-points; I do it because I take the reviewers’ comments very seriously and I want to ensure I provide a comprehensive response.
- I acknowledge the work of the reviewers in my revision letter. They’ve taken the time out of their busy research schedule to assess my work and I am always grateful for that, whether they recommend acceptance or not.
- I also try to remember some sage advice: you’re only being rejected because you’ve been productive enough to submit something.
Ironically enough, as I was writing these last points I had another rejection through (a small teaching-related grant). Time to go lick my wounds and start the cycle all over again…