On “Surviving” Rejection

As a mentor for the Faculty Fellowship Publication Program (FFPP) for the third year now, one of the recurring themes that keeps coming up in my groups is how to handle rejection. And although by “rejection” we may mean different things, the underlying question that our colleagues often ask is how to deal with rejection without taking it personally and in a non-emotional, objective way — so they can tackle whatever changes need to be made to their written pieces and move on.

The meritocratic ethos of the academic system makes us believe that if we work hard enough, play by the rules and do what we are asked, our lofty commitment (and sacrifices) to scholarly excellence will be acknowledged and, consequently, our jobs will be secured and the desired funding awarded. Unfortunately, that is no longer how academia works: the ongoing cuts to federal grants and the increasing pressure to publish — along with the backlash in the academic market — means that the scholarly cake has become smaller, while the number of those hungry for a piece of it keeps getting larger. Grant agencies and reputable publications are receiving many more submissions than they can possibly fund. Journals like “Nature,” as an example, currently reject more than 90% of submissions.

Not surprisingly, being rejected has many concrete effects in people’s lives and often feels deeply personal. To put it simply: Rejections sting and are either openly or secretly painful to many of us. And in my experience you can’t deal with rejection by just repeating the mantra “it’s not personal” over and over again. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: rejection feels personal because its effects can be devastating to one’s future career. After months of working hard on a grant application, a letter of rejection may lead to a frenzied panic — this may be the case for assistant professors going up for tenure as well as for senior colleagues who are counting on key external funding that will allow them to keep their laboratories and postdoctoral mentees afloat. Rejection is personal because being denied a fellowship leave may mean not being able to travel overseas to collect the precious archival data required to finish a book manuscript, just in time for the tenure application. Or it may mean not getting the invaluable release time that could lead to finishing a competitive grant before its deadline. Rejection is personal because all those weeks and months we spent working on a long project — often in isolation— meant taking time away from our families and kids, our friends and hobbies. And rejection is personal because, either openly or secretly, our academic egos are supported by the principle that our core self-worth is intrinsically dependent on the acceptance of our peers.

At the FFPP, we talk about learning how to perfect the scholarly craft of handling rejection, but we also open up about how rejection aches and how important it is to allow ourselves time to grieve and share our frustration, and get encouragement from people we trust. To that end, we are working on building a network of peer reviewers that will collectively contribute to creating a healthy community of scholars. We aim at developing strategies to enrich our intellectual and emotional lives with a view towards welcoming rejection letters as “just another day on the job” that will eventually lead to our articles and grant proposals being accepted — without hurting ourselves emotionally along the way. In fact, it is not just by learning to separate our academic work from our personal selves that we will become stronger fighters against the perils of academic rejection. It is by enriching our lives with “intellectual soul mates,” within safe and enriching spaces, that the pains of rejection are eventually turned into success.


What would be lost?

In my FFPP group, we often discuss the importance of discovering the “core” of your work–its main point–which can sometimes be hard to see after you’ve worked on a project for a long time.

There are several exercises that you can do to help identify the core of your work; one of them is developing the classic “elevator pitch.”

A couple of years ago I saw a colleague of mine ask a doctoral candidate: “if you did not complete your scholarship, what would the world lose?  What would your discipline or field lose?”

This is an amazing prompt, I think–and one that helps us see the importance of our work–and its urgency and significance.


–Carrie Hintz

On Distraction and Tomatoes

On Distraction and Tomatoes

I’m Carrie Hintz, one of the FFPP mentors; this is my second year working with the program.  I’m excited to be beginning our work in earnest this coming Friday.

I enjoyed Katherine Chen’s remarks about collaborative learning communities–and how FFPP worked for her in her early years at CUNY.  For more on writing groups–and perhaps some advice on sustaining your writing beyond FFPP–check out this practical and inspiring advice column by political theorist Claire Curtis, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Rules of Writing Group.”  Claire echoes a number of Katherine’s points and talks in very interesting ways about being held accountable by your writing group.

Today I wanted to write about distraction and carving out writing time.  A number of my colleagues, all at different stages of their careers, have been talking to me about how distracted (and of course distressed) they are by the news: glued to their Twitter feed, blown off course whenever an update comes in from the New York Times, endlessly sidetracked by stories and links popping up on their Facebook feed.  No wonder we are all feeling unable to concentrate; it feels increasingly urgent to be vigilant about what is going on at both national and local levels.  But our scholarship also calls us, and it too is urgent.

Even in happier times, it can be challenging to carve out time for your scholarship.  Many colleagues new to the profession tell me that they rely on stretches of time (holidays, mostly) where they can get some traction on their work.  Such open stretches of time are invaluable, and to be treasured, but the key to long term survival in the profession, I think, lies more in the ability to carve out smaller portions of time to write–and to not be pulled off track by email, class prep, housework, or any number of interpersonal obligations.

To do this—to seize those small increments of time–I have found the Pomodoro method invaluable.  In the Pomodoro method, you set either a kitchen timer (like one of the tomato-shaped ones that the method is named after) or a digital timer for 25 minutes, then have a break of 5 minutes, followed again by 25 minutes of work.  And so on. A video explaining the method can be found here.  You can get Pomodoro apps for your phone, tablet or laptop as well.

When I was first introduced to the Pomodoro technique, I was not sure it would work for me–but it has helped me with the following:

  1.  Conceiving of my writing as taking place in small increments of time rather than enormous, unbroken blocks of time–and that progress is absolutely possible within those smaller blocks.
  2. Resisting distractions for those 25 minute blocks of time–especially the urge to check email or the news. Often this resistance to distraction takes place 15 or 20 minutes into the writing session, where I can tell myself “only 5 or 10 minutes to go,” so no interruptions allowed.
  3. Taking regular breaks, which clears the mind and feels healthier physically and mentally.

I also find that the method works well if I am writing for long stretches and trying to “accumulate” several Pomodoros–but it works  equally well when I have a day with several meetings and classes–because maybe I can fit in one “pomodoro” writing session, which is better than nothing and makes the next day’s work easier.  This may not be the method for you, but I would certainly recommend it as one way to deal (in part) with these distracting times and get some writing done!