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.