Monday, February 17, 2014

Working Through Rejection

Okay, so isn't that one of the coolest photos ever? Well, maybe not for that homeowner.

That huge boulder rolled through and demolished a big section of a house in Italy in January. Another boulder, even bigger than the one pictured above, rolled toward another house and stopped just shy of ramming its way through. Here's the story if you want to read about it. When I saw that image, I knew it was going to make its way over to the old blog, and I knew the context.

I've been thinking a lot about rejection lately. Don't worry: This isn't going to be a whiny post about how difficult it is to get research published or anything like that. Don't get me wrong, though. Wanting to take some time to complain to friends and close colleagues about such rejections is a perfectly legitimate activity. It's healthy, even.

Instead, this post is about what can/could/should (?) happen after rejection. Last year, I went through and managed to survive the most catastrophic activity any academic can experience. I went on the job market for a tenure-track position. I am fortunate that the market in my field, as opposed to most academic areas of specialization, is quite robust. Here's a very cool visual representation maintained by Jim Ridolfo from the University of Cincinnati to strengthen my point. That's a lot of little arrows, people.

Anyone who has ever been on the academic job market, whether successful in securing a tenure-track position or not, knows the barrage of rejection that comes with that particular activity. Here I am, a year later, and I still occasionally get a Human Resources auto-generated rejection email from jobs I applied for sixteen months ago. Just a little reminder, the email seems to say, we still don't want you. That's more a quirk of software than an actual rejection, but as Geoffrey Pullam recently noted, these automated systems are sending communications to actual human beings. In fairness, some of the rejections I received were heartfelt notes from department and search committee chairs that reminded me that human beings were deeply involved in this process.

So, yeah. You get rejected a lot on the job market. Some of those rejections hurt more than others. And when you're sending out work for publication, you get rejected. Journals are complex ecological systems that answer to different groups, that have different budgetary needs, etc etc, all of which to say: just because a journal rejects your article doesn't mean your work doesn't have merit.

So I tell myself. After all, this post is about working through rejection. And I just had an article I've been working on for a long time rejected by a big journal in my field. I was not surprised by the rejection, but who wouldn't feel discouraged? To that end, here's a little timeline I've been thinking through for working through rejections of this sort.

Day 1: Sulk. Feel sorry for yourself. Question whether you should quit and go get a job at Blockbuster Video (if those even still exist). Complain to a close group of friends, colleagues, mentors, spouses, whoever. In other words, let yourself actually feel the sting.

A point on professional etiquette: Respond to the rejection to thank the editor/search committee chair/any non-automated-email-sending-entity for his or her time. And really mean it. These people don't like rejecting you any more than you like rejecting them. I like to do this on Day 1 because it prepares me to remember what I need to on Day 2. Speaking of which...

Day 2: Remember that you are a professional and an adult who has learned how to handle rejection. If you didn't read through the reviewers' comments (if it's an article) or you just scanned that initial email for the "we regret to inform you" language and then cast your eyes to the sky and bellowed "Why me?" over and over again (for a refresher, see Day 1 of this schedule), then Day 2 is an excellent time to read through that material more carefully. Just read it. Don't work on it. Just read it.

Day 3: Get back to work. If it's a manuscript, start making plans for revising and targeting a new publishing venue. (Better yet, have a back-up plan in place to begin with. I've already gotten that rejected article to another journal because I had that plan ready to go.) If it's a grant, remember that there isn't just one fiscal year ever and start making plans to try again. If it's a job, well...Maybe go back to Day 1 and work through this again. That's a tough one.

The principle is simple, and I know I am far from the only person to say it, but it bears repeating. When you get rejected, you "feel the feels," as the current vernacular seems to go, and then you get back to work. That house ain't rebuilding itself. And really, how often can your house get plowed down by a freak geological incident? (Don't answer that question.)

Because as professionals, we are not defined by rejections. We are defined by what we do.


  1. Absolutely. A grad school friend coined this phrase for when articles get rejected: "buy more stamps." Give yourself a half-day to feel bad and then just keep hammering away.

  2. Good advice. I've been rejected by academic journals as well as literary ones--in my former life as a creative writer. The great thing about rejections from academic journals is that they give very specific reasons, ones I agree with almost instantly once they're pointed out. I try to focus on that and keep the anxiety, self-doubt, and anger in perspective.