How to Respond to Rejection in Academia

There is an old saying in baseball that even the best hitters fail 70% of the time, which shows the difficulty of hitting a round ball with a round bat. But while achieving a .300 batting average in baseball is becoming harder than it has been in decades, most academics would be overjoyed by a 30% success rate across all of their endeavors. This high failure rate often comes as a surprise for new graduate students, who only see the successes of faculty members and think that they never get rejected. I tweeted about this earlier this week and was asked to say more about ways to model responding to rejection.

I feel like I am approaching expert status in rejection by now (even while developing a solid CV), and I am far from the only one. Doug Webber at Temple University put together an impressive CV of his failures, and here are some of mine:

  • I applied to about twenty PhD programs in economics straight out of college, and was only accepted by one of them (Wisconsin). I then promptly ended up on academic probation, got off of probation, failed the micro theory prelim twice, and was unceremoniously dismissed with a terminal master’s degree. Failing out of that program was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally, as many econ PhD programs are known for being brutal on students’ mental health (mine included). I then applied to the ed policy PhD program at Wisconsin and had a great experience there.
  • I applied for multiple dissertation fellowships and was rejected by all of them.
  • I applied to about 80 tenure-track jobs while finishing my dissertation. I never even heard back from about half of them and only had one flyout (which thankfully worked out). And I’m one of the small percentage of interested PhD students who got a tenure-track position!
  • My first eight external grant applications were all rejected.
  • Journals have rejected my submissions 39 times over the last six years using a number of methods. Quick desk rejections (in which the editor says submissions don’t meet the journal’s standards or are outside their area of focus) are always appreciated, as are timely (2-4 month) rejections with helpful feedback. But I have had papers rejected in far worse ways: revise and resubmits rejected after I made every requested change, papers rejected without feedback because reviewers never responded, and delayed (8-12 month) rejections with snarky or unhelpful comments.
  • Every early career award that I have been nominated for (or applied for) has ended with a rejection to this point. C’est la vie.

So how can established academics model how to respond to rejection for graduate students and junior scholars? I offer four suggestions.

(1) Be transparent about failures as well as successes. Doug’s failure CV is a great example of how academics can show the many potholes on the road to success. It is important for us to talk more about our failures (and not just in the form of snarky comments or tweets). There is an element of randomness in nearly every process in higher education (I have had mediocre articles get easily accepted, while better ones have struggled), and we need to do a better job of communicating that reality.

(2) Share the odds of success and how to learn from failures. The fact that I struck out on my first eight grant applications sounds terrible to almost any person new to the field of higher education. But being below the Mendoza line (a .200 batting average) is typical for many funding agencies, which often fund less than one in ten applicants. Rejected grant applications often do not come with feedback, which is frustrating. But getting rejected by a selective journal (conditional on getting past the editor’s desk and out for review) usually results in useful feedback that can result in an acceptance by the next journal. And since there is that element of randomness in acceptances, it is often worthwhile to send a paper to a journal that offers a low likelihood of publication. Sharing this information with rising scholars provides useful context into academic life.

(3) Be there to support colleagues and students during difficult times. Aside from teaching, academics often do much of their work in isolation. And rejections (particularly the first few) can be even more devastating in isolation. Part of mentoring new scholars should include being there to just listen while people vent about being rejected.

(4) Be considerate while rejecting people. For those of us in the position to reject a large percentage of people (search committee chairs, journal reviewers, and the like), it is important to be as compassionate as possible in the process. As a job applicant, it was nice to get some confirmation that I was out of the running for a position—even though it was pretty clear by a given point that I was not the candidate. However, HR policies at some campuses make that difficult or impossible. On the journal side, reviewers need to think about how to shape comments to the author(s) versus their confidential comments to the editor. It’s okay to tell the editor that the paper falls far below the expectations for that journal or that the paper should have been desk rejected, but try to provide author(s) with at least some constructive feedback.

One final note: Even after been rejected dozens of times, the sting never fully goes away. I don’t think it ever will, but as long as the rejection is reasonably considerate, I finally feel comfortable trying again without too much self-doubt. And that is important given that sometimes my efforts feel as futile as trying to hit an eephus pitch!

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

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