global politics, relationally

Dealing with Rejection in Academia

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Lets talk about rejection and the head spinning process of feedback in academia.  Adding blogging to the Professor’s arsenal of communication has been enlightening in that we now seem to have a venue to talk about many topics that were taboo before.  We did talk about these things, but among ourselves, at bars, late at night.  Now people have gone very public about such topics as tenure denials, quitting, the importance of diversity, work-life balance, gender issues, and perhaps most importantly of all, depression.

There are many things about our jobs as researchers that are wonderful – the flexibility in hours, the intellectual fulfillment, doing something you love – but there are also things that can be an incredible drain on our spirit.  The ups and downs combined with the delay of positive feedback versus the immediacy of rejection can be more than many of us are prepared to deal with.  My focus today will be on rejection and the constant alternation between highs and lows in academia.

Put simply, academia breeds a feeling of bipolarity.  Not in the clinical sense, but in perspectives.  Just about everything we do comes with the potential for intense highs and lows.  Teaching can be exhilarating one day and soul crushing the next.  One day your students get everything, come with great questions, and the discussion goes in interesting and new places.  Other times a class session can feel like an exercise if futility.  The student does not grasp the concept and the instructor has no idea how to fix the problem.  Nothing can ruin my day, week, or month like a very bad class.

For some, the main thing we focus on is research, and this process alone comes with intense highs and lows.  The process of research itself can be wonderful, free flowing, improvisational, and transcendent.  Yet, when done we can be faced with the inevitable rejection that comes along with the process.  The best journals, the journals we want to be in and that are valued in the profession, only accept anywhere from 3 to 9 percent of the work that is submitted.  Thinking about the selection dynamics in that process alone makes that statistic even more problematic.  You would first have to be a PhD. or be an advanced graduate student to even consider publishing.  You would also have to be bold enough to submit your work and care enough to put it in the style that might gain acceptance for a major journal.  Not to mention you have to be relatively successful in your research in order to write up something publishable.

The real sad thing about this process of rejection is that it never ends.  It never goes away.  There is never a time when you ever really figure it out and things always click.  Your batting average goes up, some at the top schools, might hit .500, but they are skilled at what they do and selective about their projects.  Most probably hit somewhere near .100 to .200, below the proverbial Mendoza line.

Even those that have careers that might be enviable to others still go through this constant bipolar period that vacillates between rejection and acceptance.  Every month, on average, I have two positive and two negative work related things happen.  There will be things that are rejected that seemed simple and things that were tough that were accepted.  The process of submitting our work to journals, publishers, review boards, grant boards, and internal University reviews always seems to produce this sort of high and low extremes that never end.  The nature of the job requires this.  Only the best should be accepted, allowed to move forward, pushed to see the light of day.  Otherwise we would flood the market with too much information, too much bad work, which would then devalue the entire currency of what we do.

So how do we handle this constant movement between the highs and lows?  I personally have moved beyond caring.  I don’t even notice it much anymore.  Positive things are great and negative things barely faze me.  In psychological terms, this might be called avoidance.  What it is that I am doing, I would think it is astronomically healthier than dwelling on the rejection and the negative.

A young scholar recently asked me how to deal with the rejection.  I am not sure I have the right answer, but I think focusing on what makes you happy outside of work is important.  Rather than living and dying by a journal or book acceptance, other things have be important to you.  Your life goals should not be orientated around publications, grants, or promotion.  Rather, it should be orientated towards the things you have much more ability to control.  I would think the best analogy is that academia is a hurdle race.  We have to pass many hurdles to survive.  But when we stop, or just walk off the track, is our choice.  The goal is of our own making.  That is what is great about this job, rather than letting others determine your happiness and success, you determine it.

So let’s talk about rejection and the highs and lows of academia.  How do you deal with it?  How do you cope?

Author: Brandon Valeriano

Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren Chair of Armed Politics at the Marine Corps University.