How to deal with academic rejections
A critical thing about rejections is that they are part of the academic process. Chances are that every researcher you may know has already received one (perhaps many) rejection letters. Despite their ubiquitousness, we don’t talk much about rejections. Different than, say, a soccer game, in which we know who owns and who loses the match, in the academic game, we only know about the ones that have the paper accepted, the grants funded, the awards received, etc.
This view is only partial, though. More importantly, it creates the illusion that successful researchers (for instance, the ones that are invited to give talks, the ones that made the most fundamental contributions in your field, the ones who the names are often found in the academic literature) are the ones that never (or very infrequently) face a rejection. This is hardly to be the case.
Nowadays, the competition to get a paper published or to receive a grant is so fierce that, for any excellent conference or journal, authors are more likely to have a paper rejected than a paper accepted (regardless if the manuscript is good or bad). In the Software Engineering field, which I know a bit more about, the acceptance rate is often around 25% — 30%. This means that sometimes the only difference between an accepted paper and a rejected paper is that we don’t talk about the rejected one. And since we don’t talk about rejections, they become harder to digest.
Knowing these problems, some researchers started to advertise their own rejected work. For instance, Jessica Vitak created the idea of “CV of failures” (not sure if she created, but her CV was the first one I found). Opposed to traditional CVs, in a CV of failures you highlight the things that you did not achieve. That is, a paper not published, a grant not received, a job not offered, etc. I got inspired by her CV of failure, and I also created mine. By doing so, I think it became more natural for me to talk about rejections. I can also make fun of it. While others are celebrating that they have a paper accepted in a given conference (something very common on my Twitter feed), I can also celebrate that it’s time to update my CV of failure.
This CV of failure is straightforward, though; it only lists several things that I did not achieve. Moving one step further, it may be interesting to provide more context about the rejected work. My former Ph.D. advisor wrote a fantastic blog post in which he distilled the entire process of having a paper accepted (which was a journey paved with many of rejections). Even when we thought that the paper was 99% accepted (after the second round of reviews in a journal in which two of the reviewers had already accepted the work), the paper was rejected. I remember that this rejection came close to Christmas Eve, in which I was alone (with this rejection letter).
Sometimes having a paper rejected hurts. Sometimes the notification arrives in a moment that we are not feeling well (or perhaps in the middle of a pandemic). Sometimes a rejection may also limit our professional future (it may be intimidating to apply for that faculty position while your papers are not yet published). I remember when I was doing my Ph.D. that I was at the end of the third year/starting the fourth year, and I didn’t have any publications. How could I graduate if I have any publications? I did have some drafts, but the drafts might not impress the committee (even if the difference between the draft and a paper is just the acceptance letter). “How could I follow an academic career if I don’t have papers accepted?”, I thought.
To discuss a bit more about these uncertainties, in the video, I made a quick pass in this research paper, which I cannot recommend enough. As the name suggests, this paper is a summary of a panel about “Repeated Rejection, Impostor Syndrome, and Burnout” that happened in a Psychology conference. The paper reports stories about researchers that have been dealing with this subject over the years, as well as coping strategies. One of the excerpts that I found helpful is:
“There is value is knowing that other academics get rejected, experience impostor syndrome, and feel burned out. There is value in simply knowing that you are not alone.”
That is, since other researchers rarely talk about rejections, we might believe that only our work is rejected. One of the researchers that share her rejections mentioned that she submitted 45 unique manuscripts a total of 160 times, and approximately 75 of them were desk rejected. She also mentioned that some of her researcher papers took seven years to be published, and many research papers were published in the 5th or 6th attempts. Nevertheless, she also mentioned that these papers are the ones that she likes the most. I could relate here. The paper that my former advisor blogged about is also one that I like a lot.
Another fascinating observation from this paper is that some researchers take some days (sometimes weeks) away, after receiving a harsh rejection. According to them, it is crucial to recharge a bit and understand that “we are running a marathon in the forest and not a sprint from tree to tree”. Thus, self-care is critical to stay in research.
I also record my process for writing this blog post. You can see the summary of the process here: