On rejection

Graduate school is great at weeding people out.  For the most part, it does what it should: it lets the independent thinkers through.  Theoretically, if you are capable of making decisions, thinking critically, and you actually put the effort in, grad school should train you to use those abilities in a specific field.  And then you graduate.

Practically, graduate school selects for other traits as well.  One of these is the ability to overcome the fear and dread of rejection.

Let’s face it.  Rejection is a normal part of the academic experience.  If you do a quick internet search on “academic rejection”, a host of articles will appear on all aspects of rejection.  Rejection in writing.  Rejection in grants.  How to handle rejection as a academic.  Dealing with the emotional side of rejection.  Dealing with the professional side of rejection.  And on and on and on.

As a grad student, you don’t really need to know all these nuances at first.  What you do need to know is that you WILL get rejected.  Often.  And it will almost always have nothing to do with you.

Now that you know what’s coming, here are some reasons why rejection is not your fault.

Academia is NOT a meritocracy.  We like to think that academia is set up to reward the best of us.  That the smartest become the most successful.  That job offers go to the best qualified candidate.  Well, that’s not the case.  No matter how hard you work or how smart you are, luck plays a bigger role.  Are you lucky enough to pick the one project with the surprising result that gets published in a top journal?  Maybe you just pick what you find interesting and publish the rather ordinary results in a mid-tier journal.  Even worse, maybe the subject you love turns difficult and neither you nor your supervisor nor anyone else can get the experiment to work.

The problem with luck in academia is that it tends to compound.  Lucky enough to get a first paper in a top journal?  Then you probably end up getting a good postdoc position or get your next grant funded.  The more good luck you have, the more people believe you are worth it, and the more you get from it.  On the reverse side, if you have a project that is a complete and total flop, people tend to project that failure back onto you.  And then you face rejection.

But none of this has anything to do with you and your skills as a researcher.  Any rejection you may face is a rejection of an idea, of a project, of results that didn’t wow the audience.  It isn’t personal.

The great PhD surplus.  Across all fields, there are more PhD holders than there are jobs designed for them.  Consider the “traditional” PhD career path.  Once you obtain your doctorate, you go for a professorship, eventually obtaining tenure.  On average, you may start taking on graduate students when you are 35-40 years old.  You continue holding the same position as a professor, advising graduate students, until you retire, or even after.  Let’s say you spend, at a minimum, 20 years advising students.

Source: The Atlantic

Now think of the professors you know.  Some of them have only one graduate student at a time.  Others have many.  If we go with a low estimate, each professor will train 4 graduate students in the PhD program, intending them to also become professors.  So for every job in academia at the professor level, there would be at least 4 respectable candidates.  Even if they are all great researchers and teachers, its only possible for 25% of them to get a job.

Thus we see the great problem of training too many people for the same job.  True, the number of professorship positions may increase with time, but keep in mind that most professors train a lot more than 4 grad students each. Top tier universities receive hundreds of applications for every open faculty position.  At these numbers it becomes a lot less about who is qualified and more about other factors, such as if the committee has eaten lunch yet, how your name sounds, and worst, any implicit biases.  Rejection from a job hurts, but it does not mean it has anything to do with how good you are.

The “safe” response to something new.  Finally, if you think in terms of publishing papers, or writing grants, remember that you are doing something new.  Often the most innovative and ground-breaking ideas are the ones that sound the most ridiculous at first.  And they are the ones most likely to be rejected.  Rejection in this case doesn’t come about specifically because the idea is bad, or the research is bad.  Rather it is a suggestion to better explain a new idea or research results so that backing it isn’t so risky.  Your research may be good, but funding agencies and publishers are more interested in whether or not you can prove that to them.  Rejection is their safest move.

Even though rejection is not your fault, you still need to prepare yourself to face it.  Here’s some thoughts on how to get started:

Take care of yourself emotionally.  Everyone handles emotional obstacles differently.  If you know and understand how you deal with negative emotions and what to do to recover, you can handle rejection that much better.  For example, emotions hit me pretty hard.  I need several hours to process and reason through what I’m feeling.  If I get hit by something negative, like rejection, I know to take the evening off and relax.  I let myself indulge a bit to feel better without going over the top.

Find out what you need to do to help yourself through the negative feelings, and then don’t feel guilty about taking the time to do that.  If you are already stressed out about work and deadlines, taking the time to emotionally recover may seem like time wasted.  However, everything goes smoother and faster when you are in a better place.  And it almost always more than makes up for the time you “lost” by recovering.

Learn how to properly respond.  Once you learn to convince yourself that rejection isn’t about you, you can respond properly.  In general, a paper once submitted will almost always be published.  It’s just a matter of submitting to the right journal and re-writing to appease the reviewers.  The correct response is perseverance.  Take the emotion out and look at the reviewer’s suggestions rationally.  If there’s something you can do to make the paper better, then do it.  If the reviewer misunderstood, then explain to the reviewer AND re-write the explanation in the paper to be clearer.  If the reviewer is dead wrong, come up with a clear, rational explanation why, and then address that concern in the paper as well.  Each time your paper is rejected, it gets better and better, as long as you persevere.

Know you are not alone.  Realize that when you look at others in your field, the only part of them you see is the successful part.  There isn’t a section on c.v.’s for how many grants were rejected, or the number of times a paper had to be re-written, or even the number of failed non-published experiments.  Everyone, absolutely everyone, in academia is rejected multiple times.  They all know how it feels and they all deal with it in their own way.  It isn’t something that is brought up often, since no matter how experienced you are, rejection still hurts.  But if you need to hear first hand from someone who’s been there, talk to your advisor or mentor about their experience.

In the end, rejection is inevitable.  It is a large part of academic life, more so than in other professions.  And to succeed in academia, you need to accept that rejection isn’t your fault, address it properly, then move on.

If possible, don’t let rejection be the reason you leave grad school, or academia in general.  If you can handle the emotions associated with rejection and successfully convince yourself that it’s not your fault, you should be able to manage fairly well.  Rejection will always be a negative aspect of academic life you have to deal with.  Think about how much you like the work you do in grad school and decide for yourself if the positives are enough to outweigh the negatives.

To some, the emotional toll of rejection, even with coping strategies, will be too much.  Keep your eyes open for other opportunities such as teaching, educating, writing, working in industry, working as a lab manager, etc…  There are lots of “non-traditional” job options for graduate students that aren’t always talked about by professors.

So how have you managed facing rejection in the past?  Any tips or strategies for other graduate students?