When reviewers give you lemons, bench press them

Ben Marder offers early career researchers some advice on how to cope with paper rejections 

January 4, 2019
Man lifting weights in gym
Source: iStock

At the start of my academic career, I was certainly one of the lucky ones. My first job was a permanent position at a Russell Group university, which I got with an excessively ambitious list of papers “in preparation” but no research that had actually been published. 

Three years into my position, heavily burdened by publication targets and impostor syndrome, and still with no publications, my self-esteem was basically non-existent. It had been replaced by the gruesome twosome: anxiety and depression. 

I don’t think I would have felt so helpless if I hadn’t been trying so hard. I was working six days a week, long into the evenings, and the only outcome of my labour was a solid and consistent string of rejections. 

As my fellow academics know, there is only one way worse to start the week than a “sorry to inform you” email at 08:37 – and that is several of these emails before you have even finished your Coco Pops. 

Of course, I was jealous of my friends and colleagues who were getting published, but this feeling also extended to my friends in industry who were rewarded for working hard and staying late. Thinking as a quantitative researcher, what I longed for was a positive significant correlation between my work ethic and my reward. But all that I had found was a negative significant relationship between my work ethic and my mental health. 

In 2015 (also known as “the year of 15 rejections”), I developed a new ritual. On receiving the inevitable kind words from an editor that they were “sorry” to inform me that they would not be publishing my paper, which provoked a blur of negative emotions (anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration) and a fight or flee burst of energy, I would head straight to the gym. 

Here at the iron church I was able to vent my emotions and burn this excess energy through a mix of loud, angry teenage boy music (like Linkin Park) blaring through my headphones and the clinking of barbells. 

I started to spend a lot of time at the gym because I had no shortage of rejections, and it was proving a healthy way to keep my anxiety and depression at bay. Going to the gym four or five times a week, I started to see changes in my body. My self-esteem spiked when my grandma remarked on what a “strong young man” I had become.

My mindset started to shift a little bit too, although I still would have been zero help if my grandma wanted a publication in an internationally recognised journal instead of some assistance repositioning some very heavy plant pots in the garden. 

In 2019, I now have the luxury of hindsight. My critical publications drought ended in 2016 and since then my acceptances have been as frequent as London buses. Although I still go to the gym, especially when I am rejected, I go less frequently than I did in the dark days. Looking back, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, the gym was providing me with that much-needed cornerstone of well-being – a fair balance of input and output. 

Unlike the process of submitting and reviewing that goes into getting a paper published, the gym is a simple beast: the more you go, the stronger you get. With no exaggeration, I think if it wasn’t for the gym keeping my overall well-being a few centimetres off rock bottom, offsetting the relentless gravitational pull of rejection, I would have surrendered to my impostor demons and hung up my elbow-padded tweed jacket for good. 

My advice for early career researchers who are tirelessly putting the effort into publications with no reward, is to find something else in your life where there is a solid correlation between input and output. It is too easy to relinquish all our self-esteem to the job. The iron church is where I found solace, but it really could be any activity, such as drawing or charity work.

As young academics, we need to work as hard to diversify the activities in our self-esteem portfolio as we do to increase the numbers of titles in our published papers portfolio. 

Ben Marder is senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Edinburgh.

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Reader's comments (1)

How can you have 15 rejections in one year ? Since most reviews (papers, grants) use at least 2 people (sometimes 3) you are talking about 30 people assessing your work and on balance, rejecting it. Thats just soul destroying.