Dealing with Rejection

Rejection is a standard part of the academic experience.  And I hate to bear bad news, but rejection sucks.  To add insult to injury, academics are not unusually skilled at breaking the news.  This is especially true in the job market, though the modal rejection experience involves research manuscripts.  I tend to go to loud, aggressive music as a means of exorcising the demons, especially stuff with biting, snarky lyrics.  One would think I would have some playlists constructed by now, but I don’t.

I also have a rule: I give myself 24 hours to throw a proper pity party.  I permit myself to mope, whine, and be generally juvenile and insufferable.  Out of respect to the human beings I encounter during such a period, I try to do as much of this as I can in my own head.  Inevitably, there is a non-trivial amount of venting and ranting that goes on during my pity parties (hence the soundtrack tending toward the punk genre).  That has, upon occasion, led to some gesticulation walking across campus when I got too lost in a rant as I silently berated the perceived object of my spleen venting.

After 24 hours, though, that’s it.  The task at hand is to figure out how you can take responsibility for the outcome.  With manuscripts this is straight forward: read the reviews and try to figure out what you did (not) say that permitted the referee to misunderstand your work.  Sometimes you will learn that you made genuine errors.  Those are easy to correct.  But a more common problem is poor presentation, which I translate into a misunderstanding of one’s audience.  Blaming referees for being idiots does not help your improve your manuscript.  Using their review as a means to figure out where and how you can improve your presentation of your research does not guarantee that you will do so, but it is damn good place to start.

The job market is different.  You want to do the same post mortem, but it is much more limited.  Years ago (when I was a grad student) Mark Lichbach offered me the following advice.  He told me to do my best to recognize that getting a job offer does not demonstrate that you “earned it” in any sense, nor does failing to get one demonstrate that you failed to “earn it.”  To be sure, it is possible to bomb on an interview.  And if you bomb, you’ll know it.  But as long as you don’t bomb, recognize it for what it is: an all expense paid trip during which you and your research are the focus of attention, and at the end of which a lottery is held which has a fantastic prize.  Everyone wants, of course, to influence the lottery.  Don’t bother.  Be yourself, and represent your work to the best of your ability.  If you get the job, you won a lottery.  If you don’t, you didn’t.  Given Mark’s advice, I counsel folks to limit the post mortem to whether they bombed (if so, what might you do differently?), and to any specific feedback you get from advisors or colleagues that suggests that folks misunderstood some aspect of your work (which could be teaching or research).

To summarize: if you can’t handle rejection, get out of the biz.  But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.

What do you do to deal with rejection?  Leave a comment.

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About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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4 Responses to Dealing with Rejection

  1. Thanks, Will. This is great.

    I’d add a couple of things, for others, that have helped me with regard to manuscripts. First, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. If you have multiple things out (at least three?), and turn rejections around quickly, the cost (in time and emotion) decreases with each rejection. I now get really antsy when I don’t have enough out and I’m not being reviewed, regardless of the decision. That’s a much better mindset than wallowing, though still stressful sometimes.

    Second, don’t think that writing is all about publication. It’s research. You want to find out the answer to something. Finding the answer is the key, and, hopefully, reviews will help you do that. If they don’t help you, well then that’s a much better frame for critiques than having your personal investment hurt. The pubs will be a byproduct of the process.

  2. John Ahlquist says:

    I reject you and your advice! 😉

    -reviewer 2

  3. Mark Crescenzi says:

    Great post (and great blog!). My pity parties tend to last at least a few days, and usually involve a thorough analysis of how wrong the reviewers are in their evaluations. When I’m done, the task becomes how to respond, and how to use the reviews to make the research better. I find that this is a good time to involve my colleagues. I know some people like to keep rejections to themselves, but bringing my colleagues into the process helps me stay objective. I suppose this requires a certain amount of trust, but I happen to work with terrific people.

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