My PhD in rejection: 5 survival tactics

I have come to the conclusion that I qualify for a second PhD: in academic rejection.

sad train abbie-bernet-329631

Image by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

 

I have:

  • lived, breathed, and grappled with it for well over 3 years
  • formulated and discussed with colleagues numerous hypotheses (yes, it’s claimed that time spent writing unsuccessful grant applications is never wasted, but how strong is the evidence?)
  • taken a multidisciplinary approach (I’ve had not just funding applications rejected, but also papers, job and award applications)
  • collected loads of data from different sources: dozens of granting bodies, zillions of journals
  • triangulated my data (as a grant applicant, manuscript author, grant and journal peer reviewer, grant and fellowship review panel member)
  • been kept awake many nights turning over in my head the best way to analyse and interpret findings (Revise? Resubmit elsewhere? Ditch it? Give up altogether?)

– and am finally now getting around to write-up.

I promise this post is no PhD thesis. Instead (and coinciding with Australia’s current major grant rejection season), here are the results of my ‘lived experience’ virtual PhD candidature in academic rejection, distilled down into five survival tactics.

How to survive academic rejection

  1. DON’T PANIC. Academic rejections are initially hard to take, particularly for work in which you’ve invested heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears. But they are usually not career-ending (dealing with the rare exception that is will be the topic of a future post). I’ve done my share of catastrophising rejections (‘my work is crap!’, ‘my ideas have dried up!, ‘the reviewers hate me!’, ‘my career is over!’) beyond what they are – simply, a knock-back this time.
  2. When rejection first hits, I always think of the wise advice of one of my mentors: DON’T DO ANYTHING. In the immediate aftermath of a rejection notice you may be tempted to tear up/trash the idea, swear you’ll never submit another paper/grant proposal/application, stay up all night stewing on what you did wrong, write angry letters to the rejectors, draft your resignation letter, or go on a bender at the pub. Now is not the time for any of these. Instead be kind to yourself for a few days and let acceptance slink in.
  3. Remember that you are in good company (although at times like these, it’s tempting to desire to be in really, really bad company). Every academic has faced rejections – often many. Even big discoveries are sometimes initially rejected – see  some colossal rejections here.  The problem is, we don’t usually see this, because rejections are not always obvious – CVs only show the successes. It’s a brave soul who shares their rejections publicly, and I personally think we need to do this more often – as these intrepid researchers have here and here (note – my CV of failures would be considerably longer than both of these…!)
  4.  Once the initial disappointment, anger, frustration etc of a rejection wear off, it’s time to reflect. What are your options? Is the grant/paper/application suitable to consider resubmission, in the same or a different form? Is there any feedback you can take on board to improve it? Be honest and as objective as possible, and draw on the support of others whose opinions you respect to provide frank advice. Is this idea, method, team, approach truly a good one? If so what is needed to improve the chances of success? Are there others you can team up with to help? Or is it time to take a different approach, or a new one altogether? Can you ‘pivot’ to turn the work into something else? A colleague of mine recently took the initiative of taking a rejected grant application and writing up its key points as a journal commentary paper, which was then not only accepted for publication but also selected to feature in a highlight blog post.
  5. Finally, take care of yourself. This can be a hard game and while in my experience academic rejections have become easier to take over the years, they still sting. To stick in there you need good coping strategies that work for you (evidence backs exercise, social support, yoga and mindfulness for example). You also need to consciously factor in time to see people you love to see and do things you love to do outside of work. I find it particularly refreshing to spend time with people who don’t have a clue what an impact factor or a research fellowship is, and frankly couldn’t care less.

Act Now

  • Review the CV of failures linked to in this post. If you’re brave, share some of your rejections with others you trust, and encourage them to do the same. Respond supportively! To walk the talk: The first ever paper I submitted to a journal, as a fledgling PhD student, came back with a single paragraph rejection so scathing that key phrases remain burned into my mind 20 years later – the standout, ‘the journal focuses on topics of infinitely greater importance’ . I recovered.
  • Note three coping strategies/non-work activities that help to make your life more enjoyable and build resilience to rejection. Schedule in time to do these regularly over the next few months.
  • What is your ‘best’ ever rejection, or your best tip for coping with rejection? Please share in the comments below, or on Twitter – I’d love to hear them!

10 thoughts on “My PhD in rejection: 5 survival tactics

  1. I’m an experienced career researcher. It never fails to surprise me how random the peer review process is.
    Three years ago I wrote what I thought was the best paper of my career, but submitted it to a journal with a moderate impact factor, only because I thought the results would better suit the readership. It was rejected outright on the basis of the recommendation of one of four reviewers.
    Ok, I incorporated the comments from the three positive and polite reviewers and submitted it to a journal with a HIGHER impact factor. It too was rejected on the basis of a single reviewer (the same reviewer selected by the previous journal – they said that in their review).
    So I incorporated the positive feed-back from the two positive and polite reviewers and submitted to a third journal with a HIGHER impact factor again. It was accepted after a modicum of extra work.
    But here’s the rub… Both the editors from the journals that rejected the paper emailed me (and one even phoned me!), saying that any future work would be welcomed. Since then I have submitted two papers to those journals – not plain sailing, but at least this time the editors went with the majority view, and gave the work a fair hearing.
    So the moral of the story for early career researchers. The system sucks far more often than you do. Worth thinking about, next time you get despondent.

    Like

    • Thanks so much Dick for sharing this experience. The vagaries of peer review can be endlessly frustrating and I think it’s invaluable to hear these types of experiences are not uncommon and reflect a (sometimes) broken system, rather than flawed research/researchers. Well done on persevering and congratulations on the higher impact output – and on the follow-up from the other journals.

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  2. Thanks Kylie – really enjoyed this post. I recently turned a rejected fellowship application into a published original article and a commentary. Best part is that I now have published work on the topic which will make the next application so much stronger. Rejection is definitely a difficult part of academia, but so important to take on feedback and continue to be resilient!

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    • Grace well done on turning around an initial rejection into a successful outcome. I agree sometimes we require almost super-human resilience, but it helps to hear about these experiences so thank you for sharing. Best of luck with the next application!

      Like

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