Never-ending rejections in academia and how to deal with them
Updated: Oct 6
Rejection is the norm in a scientist’s life. But it is not visible. Does your lab celebrate with a cake or a bottle of Prosecco every time a paper is rejected? Probably not…Do you run to post on Facebook that you didn’t get that job you were hoping to get? Nope. Do you read press releases about scientists not getting that big grant they were writingfor years? No way! Because there would not be space to write anything else! (and probably because of other reasons too ;)). To increase that rejection visibility, there are great initiatives like having a “rejection wall” (by Nick Hopwood) or the “shadow CV” by Devoney Looser (I am working on mine…). But still, when it happens to you, it hurts, EVERY SINGLE TIME. Here I want to share with you my work in progress on dealing with rejection mindfully:
Remember: it is normal, so have a plan B
I don’t know why, but I always feel comforted when other people are suffering with me…is this human nature? Not sure! Anyways, all scientists experience rejection (even if you feel it’s only you), and the more successful they are, the more rejections they have on their backs. I love the example of Fernando Maestre. He is a highly-recognized ecologist, with an astonishing publication record, including the “10 simple rules towards healthier research labs”. In twitter, he showed how for 10 articles accepted or published in Nature journals, he had 59 manuscripts rejected. Clear right? But also, often are not rejections what hurt, but our expectations. So be sure you adjust those expectations, and have a plan B …where are you submitting your paper/grant/job application in the second place?
Don’t run, face it, and get feedback
Ok, maybe first you need to cry it out. But then, instead of staying on negative thoughts, put your energy on recomposing yourself, and remember: if you were rejected, your goal was high enough, and that’s good! Then comes your opportunity to learn from this rejection. Ask WHY was it rejected. This is such an important step, and one that often we forget to ask for, or maybe we don’t forget but don’t have the energy to do it…With writing papers and grants, you usually get the feedback straight away. But for job applications, please go and ask for that feedback!
Reflect on it, and see rejection as redirection
How can you improve what you sent? But also…was this really what you wanted? This is something we can better process for job applications. You don’t want to work with someone or in a topic that does not match you or your experience. And sometimes we are not able to see that , especially if you urgently need a job to pay bills. With a scientific paper, this is more difficult to process…which harm could bring you to be published in a high impact journal right?
You are not your work
Note to yourself: that paper, that proposal, or that job is not you. Maybe is a tiny part of you, but TINY. They are not rejecting you, they are rejecting the work you have delivered (so, no even your work in general!). And a more positive side to look at it is that it hurts because you care. OK, many times I’d love to care less about things…to avoid the dissapointment, the sleepless nights, or the insecurities that rejection brings about everything else! So, when you feel like that, shift the thought of “I am not good enough” to “I am so passionate about this”. Now, I leave up to you to decide if being so passionate is too much or just fine.
We need to stop seeking other people’s approval
This is serious internal work, but let’s try! Accept that not everyone is gonna like your work, or even you...and that’s fine. Maybe what you do is not the right fit at that moment (maybe in another moment would match!). Not matching the interest of the journal or the opinions of the reviewers. Not matching what that employer was looking for. Or sometimes is matching, but the competition is fierce! So, try to be happy with your work, with your behavior. THIS is under your control, what others think, is not.
If you have never listen to or watched this ted talk from Jia Jiang “What I learned from 100 days of rejection”, you need to do it now. I still remember when I listened to it in the car, during a commute to Wageningen. It is funny and inspirational at equal parts, and I almost stopped the car to take notes! Today, years later, it had the same effect. Rejections are never ending as an academic, and the problem is that they can affect your confidence and your motivation. If you feel you want some motivation boost, check this other blog post! The good news are, you'll get better at handling rejections. And to wrap up, I'd love to leave you with this quote of the writer Toni Morrison: "You are not the work you do; you are the person you are".
And with this, I hope you remember this post when you receive your next rejection!