Failing better: How to live with academic rejection

Academics’ deep identification with their work means that the failure of a book proposal, grant application or promotion request can cut deeply. But in a competitive profession, such knock-backs are inevitable. Here, six academics recall their most traumatic rejection – and how they got over it

十月 31, 2019
Source: Reuters

‘It probably took me another year to be able to talk to anyone important about the book again’

When I was asked to write about my experiences with academic rejection, my first thought was: “Where do I start?” Beginning in graduate school, I learned quickly that rejection is one of the few guarantees in a career as an academic. For every job I have been offered, every fellowship I have been awarded, every piece of research I have published, I have probably been rejected several times before achieving success.

My most recent round of rejections has come while working on my book project. I spent several years on the research and writing and was excited to finally get to the point of discussing the work as a book. Unfortunately, my excitement initially blinded me to the realities of the world of academic publishing.

The first time I pitched my manuscript to an editor, I was told that I had no theory and no original contribution. I was completely crushed. How could someone be so harsh about something I was working so hard on? Several glasses of wine followed and, honestly, the meeting weighed so heavily on me that it probably took me another year to be able to talk to anyone important about the book again.

I eventually returned to writing, hired a professional editor and reconfigured the manuscript. But even though my second search for a publisher went much more smoothly, it was still not without rejection. A particularly low moment came when I was rejected within an hour, before I even had time to finish my morning coffee. It took me a day of sitting in a dark room watching Sex and the City to be able to move forward and get back to writing.

My book does now have a publisher and I am grateful to have found an editor who is supportive of my work. Yet, as I write, the rejections still get to me. They have been so exhausting that, some days, each page I write and edit feels weighed down by anxiety.

Why is academic rejection so painful? Perhaps it is because most of us have put all we can into our work. This does not mean that it’s perfect, but if you are in a graduate programme or working in a faculty position, chances are you have excelled at many things in your life. You are not a slouch and your goal is probably to do good work and stand out among your peers.

Academic rejection strikes right at the heart of that ambition. Referees and editors identify even the smallest of flaws and magnify them in a way that can make you feel so small and insignificant. As one of only a handful of faculty of colour at my university, rejections can carry an additional weight for me. Failure feels like it is not an option because if I do not succeed there will be one diverse face fewer in the academy.

So how do we keep going in the face of the inevitable, sometimes heart-wrenching rejections? I am not sure I have the answer, but when I need inspiration I look to one of my favourite writers, Kiese Laymon. A few years ago, I saw him speak about his work and the series of painful rejections he endured before publishing his first book. Now the University of Mississippi professor is one of the most successful writers in the US, and his work has won numerous awards, including the Andrew Carnegie Medal.

So, be kind to yourself and keep moving – because you never know what is on the other side.

Jessica Welburn Paige is assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Iowa.

horse fallling

‘The job was re-advertised partway through the process, which a wiser person would have taken as a hint’

Even after King Arthur had cut off both of his arms, Monty Python’s Black Knight dismissed the blow as “just a flesh wound” – adding, when one of his legs had also been severed, that he remained “invincible”.

But, for those of us who lack that lunatic level of self-confidence, rejection constitutes more than just a scratch: less Black Knight and more dark night of the soul. And with success rates for grants and fellowships falling below 20 per cent, with top journals becoming increasingly selective, and with ever more applicants for job openings, rejection is inevitable in academia.

Experiencing successive knock-backs doesn’t make the initial pain any less sharp, but what’s helped me is getting used to the emotional pathway that unfolds subsequently. I visualise it as travelling along what I call the “upside-down rainbow”: the opposite of a real rainbow, in that it has mostly dark shades and it descends before it rises up again.

The worst rejection I ever got was when I applied for a position in which I had been acting for a prolonged period. The funny thing was that the job was re-advertised partway through the process, which a wiser person would have taken as a hint. But, like the Black Knight, my sunny young self didn’t know when he was beaten, and fought on, still confident of victory. But, although I kept my limbs, I came off second best. Welcome to the upside-down rainbow.

The first colour you drop through is a sort of deep crimson of disbelief and outrage, like the first two of the famous five stages of grief. “How can this be?” you ask yourself. “Is it a mistake? Will it be corrected?” No.

Down you slide. But, gradually, the anger subsides. Because while Gough Whitlam might have famously urged his supporters to “maintain your rage” after being dismissed as Australian prime minister by the governor-general in 1975, doing so is actually very hard.

The next colour on the upside-down rainbow is a sort of dirty brown of acceptance. With some rejections, nothing material changes – you just miss out on a prize, for example. With this one, I didn’t get to continue in the job. This was a jolt. Emails dried up. I was out of the loop. I was no longer contributing to decisions. So the brown took longer than usual to appear. But appear it did.

The next step is to confide in a few trusted friends. You can’t wear your heart on your sleeve, but there are usually some people whom you trust and who you know will understand. This consolatory period is a sort of burnt orange, and indicates that the upside-down rainbow is levelling out.

Because suddenly there is a sort of release. In my case, I’d been committed and loyal in my acting role, but now I was free. The blocking of one path meant that I had to take another. And perhaps it would be a better one. The only way was up.

Faint tinges of dawn-pink are now visible. Life has not stopped. Everyday routines continue. And there is time again to reinvest in priorities that were pushed aside during the pursuit of the prior goal. You haven’t changed – only your circumstances have. The rainbow takes you to a new place, where you emerge into bright yellow sunlight.

To me, one of the most useful things about gaining experience and ageing is that I now know how long this journey typically takes. I don’t like rejection but I do know that the darkness doesn’t last for long. I actually find it very hard to stay gloomy for more than a few days. I also know that it ultimately provides a bit of a boost, in that it moves you out of your comfort zone and reveals new opportunities.

To finish the story, I soon moved on to a new position in a new institution. I made lots of new friends while maintaining old friendships, and I was able to drive many new initiatives, sometimes even enjoying out-jousting former colleagues in the process.

So maybe the Black Knight wasn’t such a loony after all.

Merlin Crossley is deputy vice-chancellor academic and professor of molecular biology at UNSW Sydney.


Usain Bolt falling

‘The last thing I needed was more reasons to enter a downward spiral of negative thoughts’

When I applied for a postdoctoral position, I never heard back from two of the investigators I contacted. Furthermore, my adviser told me he had spoken to them, so it was clear that they had wanted to follow up – but then chose not to even give me the time of day directly.

This initially left me feeling inadequate as a postdoctoral applicant and wondering what my adviser might have said that took me out of the running. I was nearing the end of a long PhD, during which I had felt increasingly burned out and demoralised. In an effort to rekindle my excitement about doing science, I had been trying through my choice of postdoc to move into biology from physical chemistry, and the effort had indeed been rejuvenating – up until this point. The last thing I needed was more reasons to enter a downward spiral of negative thoughts about my capabilities and my future. Especially since, even after exploring other career options like industry and consulting, I still wanted to give academia my best shot.

While my emotions can get the better of me, I am a pragmatist. My way of making myself feel better is to break down a problem objectively (as much as I can, anyway) and find something to do about it. To stem the self-defeating tide of bad feelings, I tried to take away constructive lessons from the rejection.

In the future, I would be more specific and focused in my applications about how I could potentially contribute, both scientifically and monetarily. I would consult with advisers and mentors more closely so that I would know where I stood with them (I did not have a close mentoring relationship with my PhD adviser and I did all my job searches completely independently). Overall, I had been reminded of a general and very critical area for improvement (one that I am still working on): overcoming my pride and asking for help and feedback.

This experience continues to have an impact, affecting how I advise my own students as they try to take the next step in their careers. I suggest to them what they can do to put their best foot forward and tell them clearly how I will advocate for them. And I often offer guidance without being asked, because students are often uncomfortable asking for help from busy advisers – or may not even know what to ask for. I prod them often about building their network, nurturing relationships with potential mentors or advocates (besides me!), and becoming more comfortable with asking for and receiving advice. I try to be the kind of resource I wish I had taken the trouble to find before I embarked on such an important career move.

I did finally take a postdoc position in a superb lab, so there was a clear happy ending (which, of course, also makes it easier to see the rejections in a positive light). But, more importantly, the experience made me more proactive in my own career and positively impacted how I try to further my trainees’ careers.

Jessica Seeliger is associate professor in the department of pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook University, New York.

‘Academic rejections are so wounding because the aspirations are so absurdly high’

“Whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.” Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim might strike more than one academic as a bit rich. After all, Nietzsche lasted scarcely 10 years as a professor, eventually ditching his position at the University of Basel because of his fraying health.

Did a rejection by a promotion and tenure committee cause Nietzsche’s debilitating migraines? A revise and resubmit from an editor for The Birth of Tragedy? Who can say? But it is not hard to imagine what a rebuff from a colleague at Basel might have wrought. As he teetered on the brink of insanity, Nietzsche himself observed that he would rather be a university professor than God, but lacked the requisite ego.

During my 30 years as an academic, I cannot help but conclude that whatever does not kill you in this profession risks making you bitter, not stronger. Who among us has not spent time in faculty meetings with colleagues who not only bear but repeatedly bare the festering wounds caused by a rejection? While academic politics, as Henry Kissinger famously observed, may be so vicious because the stakes are so small, it may well be that academic rejections are so wounding because the aspirations are so absurdly high.

Of course, there is nothing absurd in the desire to become a professor, or in applying for teaching positions. For young PhDs, job rejections are, if not an existential matter, certainly a weighty concern. Instead, the absurdity results from the nature of the market: although openings steadily dwindle, our graduate schools continue to pump new candidates into the job market. I sympathise with the lot of adjuncts in our profession, but I also remind myself that they entered it with their eyes open.

The absurdity I have in mind is, instead, the pursuit of academic glory. Last year, I received a rejection of my application for an endowed fellowship at my place of work. It stung all the more as it was not the first time, or even the second time, that I had applied. I can now say with absolute certainty that the third time is not necessarily the charm. In fact, when it comes to old chestnuts, what about “Burned once, shame on you; burned twice, shame on me; burned thrice, shut me up in a psychiatric ward”? If a sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but always expecting a different result, then I clearly qualify.

In my defence, I repeatedly tried to repair what I thought was the reason for each rejection. The first time around, I had monographs, peer-reviewed articles and translations to my credit. Too narrow, it seemed. The second time around, I added trade books, textbooks and literary essays to the résumé. Too broad, it appeared. The third time, I tossed in three books, all published by Harvard, as well as advance contracts with Chicago and Basic Books. By way of seasoning, I included several articles and op-eds I had written for international and national papers and magazines. Once again, I was applauded for the quality of my work and apprised that I had failed to make the final cut.

What have I learned from an experience that oddly resembles Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence? Most immediately, I learned not to apply a fourth time. More importantly, though, I recalled Albert Camus’ remark that while there is no reason for hope, that is no reason for despair.

Friends, family and students past and present top the list of non-reasons for despair. Not all fellowships, after all, require honorifics or titles.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor in the Honors College, University of Houston.



‘No matter how small and quiet I made myself, I was still tagged as a troublemaker’

The first time I was turned down for academic promotion, it felt like the world had ended. Prior to that, I had skipped up the lower rungs of the early career ladder relatively quickly, assisted by some very powerful mentors – mostly elderly white men nearing retirement.

As a Māori woman with radically different worldviews from theirs, those workplace alliances were a little surprising. But my colleagues were personally committed to supporting the careers of newcomers to academia, and I think they quite enjoyed having an outspoken Māori woman in the department. Although they often shook their heads over what I had to say in staff meetings, they always had my back.

That was a lifeline for me. Being the first in my family to go to university, I had no idea what a tenured position would involve and I didn’t know the secret handshakes or social codes of university life. Over cups of tea in the staffroom and long, meandering conversations in the corridor at the end of the day, they taught me how to survive in the cut-throat world of academia.

Shortly after the last of these colleagues retired, however, came that promotion refusal. My application was returned through the internal mail system stained with coffee and smelling like someone had eaten a tuna sandwich as they read it. Five handwritten words were scrawled across the front page, “Not up to scratch. Declined.”

It was devastating – and I didn’t understand what had gone wrong. By then – the early 2000s – the academic world was changing. People with managerialist approaches to leadership were coming to the helm, and my clear views about race, gender and power increasingly became a source of tension and unease in departmental discussions and debates.

At the same time, neoliberal reform of higher education in New Zealand was placing constraints on our academic role as critics and conscience of society. That role is enshrined in legislation, but on-the-ground practice was subject to an increasing number of conditions and contingencies. Universities became less open to voices of dissent.

I started to speak less forthrightly in meetings and was more guarded in my workplace interactions. Yet no matter how small and quiet I made myself, no matter how willing and compliant I became, I was still tagged as a troublemaker. It shook my confidence – and the next time my promotion application was declined without explanation, I didn’t apply again for another seven years.

Academia can be brutal and while rejections are part of academic life, they affect minority groups in particular ways. It’s important for department heads to recognise this.

Mentoring is particularly important for early career academics of colour, Indigenous people, or those who are first in their family to go to university. Many fall by the wayside because there are not always people to advise or advocate for them. Nowadays, I try to play that role for my newly appointed Māori colleagues, passing on to them the learning points from my own mistakes.

Most crucially, I tell them to value their scholarship and protect their academic selves. I tell them not to give in to their impostor syndrome and to apply for promotions whenever they come up. And I tell them never to be intimidated into silence.

Ultimately, I regained my own voice, and, this month, I begin my new role as professor of Māori education. But my progress into the senior ranks was unnecessarily slow, and my priority is to hold the door open more widely for those who come behind me – and to make damn sure that they are heard.

Joanna Kidman is professor of Māori education at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

‘I spent several sleepless nights contemplating my ruined career and convincing myself that I would never get over it’

Grant rejection didn’t improve my scientific output, but it did improve my scientific career.

I had a reasonably frictionless track from undergraduate to principal investigator. I attributed this to my personal brilliance and dashing good looks, but it was more likely a combination of hard work, luck and privilege.

I had some setbacks along the way, but nothing that felt derailing. There were rejected papers, but, by and large, these always found a home – even if it was a less prestigious one than I’d hoped. I also made a few speculative job applications for posts that I was dramatically underqualified for, and was rightly turned down. But, in essence, I got to lecturer largely unscathed.

But after the pride came the fall. As a freshly minted PI, flushed with self-confidence, I submitted a research grant to a popular medical funder. It came back with what I thought were reasonable scores and so I answered the reviewers’ comments, resubmitted and went to a conference in Thailand (an important detail: I’m really not humblebragging!).

On day two of the conference, I made the terrible mistake of opening my inbox. “We regret to inform you…”

Cue full-on meltdown. To quote Nick Hornby, “I lost the plot for a while, then the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits and the exit sign.”

I attribute this to several factors. It was the first big thing I had applied for that I hadn’t got. And being young, inexperienced and somewhat melodramatic, I completely overestimated the importance of any single piece of research funding on my academic career. Eight hours out of sync and 6,000 miles away from my support network in a pre-Skype era, I spent several sleepless nights contemplating my ruined career and convincing myself that I would never get over it.

I did get over it.

And while I wouldn’t go as far as to describe the experience as a blessing in disguise, having “been there” enabled me to sympathise better with other people undergoing grant rejection. Moreover, still finding myself employed in the wake of that knock-back – not to mention many subsequent ones – makes each individual rejection feel less make-or-break.

I now have a broader perspective, which allows me to recognise that some of my ideas are just plain bad and don’t deserve to be funded (though obviously none of the ones currently under consideration fall into that category). Other ideas are worth fighting for so that they get done, one way or another. Perhaps I sent them to the wrong funder initially – but that can be rectified.

So while I still fail, I fail better. There is still a mourning period, which may sound like a strong term but I think is appropriate – if you don’t care enough about a grant, you are never going to submit it in the first place. For me, mourning consists of stamping around the house, avoiding human interactions and playing my Xbox obsessively. But I have managed to contract this period to 24 hours.

After that, I try to step back and take on the reviewers’ feedback as constructive. This is a challenge, but I have made progress since writing profanities about each referee’s parentage on a grant and then accidentally leaving the tirade on my desk for my students to see.

Getting my grants rejected is still tricky – but never as traumatic as that first time.

John Tregoning is reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London.


Print headline: How to fail better



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Reader's comments (3)

What is one to make of this piece? Is it about the human cost of systems that promote competition - if so, what's the point? Not every competitor can win. Is it about human resiliance in the face of defeat - not really, too many of these contributors are (now) winners not losers. It is most certainly not about failing better - Beckett wrote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This was not a message of hope and this article is not about living with failure.
I heard hope in these stories. All lived with failure for a time but had the courage to try again. Failure is devastating and assaults one's self-identity but managing to survive, accept and persist can make eventual success in whatever form it takes all the sweeter.
This piece individualises rejection rather than locating is as part of a wider neo-liberal competitive system which we should all be resisting. Hearing, as we have in this article, from those who have been rejected lots and lots times then won at the game is not helpful at all. It reinforces the idea that we should all just keep working, keep working harder, keep putting in grant applications, keep writing papers, keep proposing books and we'll 'get there' in the end. But one has to ask what is the 'there' that we get to (professorship? dean? VC?), does everyone want to get 'there', and what is the cost along the way of getting there?