How we are not dealing with rejection in academia

Failure is always an option. Adam Savage

This photo is altered and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Original uploader was Porkrind at en.wikipedia

Adam Savage is one of the hosts of the Mythbusters, a popular show on Discovery Channel. After stuff literally blew up in his face multiple times he made the phrase “Failure is always an option” his credo. Now, of course things going wrong is not necessary a bad thing when you are a TV host and your failure essentially entertains your audience. However, Savage is not planning these mishaps, they happen despite solid work and thinking about the projects and experiments conducted in the show. What he learned is that things will go wrong, if they can go wrong – no matter what. Most importantly, he is outspoken about it even though he could simply cut things out through a little TV magic. But in Adam Savage’s understanding failure builds character and he is willingly sharing this experience and the failure publicly!

In the academic world were the average rejection rate of journals is some 90 per cent and that of the top journals even 98 per cent failure is not just an option, it is inevitable! All of us in this field experience rejection of articles, book proposals, jobs, projects on a regular basis. Yet, we do not talk about it. Do we? I know I didn’t!

Rejection sucks

Just before summer I sent out an article that I had worked on for over a year by then. I was really happy with the result and my supervisors as well. I sent it out to the big journal that I dreamed of publishing in. Not shy of confidence that this paper is going a long way I proudly shared my excitement about the submission on twitter.

The paper came back within three days without even haven been sent out for review! Devastating, but well, I had a plan B. I pulled myself up and one week later I sent it out again to the second journal on my list. Bang…it came back within a week – rejected. Not even sent for review. Frankly, I was prepared to being trashed and harassed by possible reviewers. But having submitted the paper twice without it even being sent out for review?! WTF … is it that bad? Didn’t I follow all the advice that i read on how to write and sharpen your article? How to write for the right audience?

Probably I did. Probably the paper is good. But maybe I simply was aiming to high or aiming at the wrong target. All these things are possible and likely. But no matter how reasonable – rejections suck! But they are part of this business, and they will happen at any level in academia! You know that, but you seldom hear it.

Now, I am not the first to write about rejection in academia. There are multiple articles that discuss rejection and how it hurts and how to get back on track or how to make it less likely. I really like this piece by Rebecca Schuman: Why Is Academic Rejection So Very Crushing? Losing out on a job, tenure, or publication can be a unique agony. The cure is not success, it’s compassion. I think she is right, but I think compassion is not the only thing that is important in dealing with rejection. The problem is the silence! Who of us talks about their rejections?

The Facebook problem

An article in the Economist from some years ago referenced several studies that just found out that Facebook is bad for you. This is, as researchers argue, because “the most common emotion aroused by using Facebook is envy. Endlessly comparing themselves with peers who have doctored their photographs, amplified their achievements and plagiarised their bons mots can leave Facebook’s users more than a little green-eyed.” It seems that most people share on Facebook only the most positive events in their life, giving the readers a perception that everyone else’s life is just perfect without much hustle and failures.

Academic culture in most circles is very similar. We do not share the failure with others, even though we know that it is there. What we do – I my self – is to present only the perfect picture academic. I publish, you perish…

Sadly the only time that rejections actually might be discussed is in very small circles when you meet those few outstanding academics. Raul Pacheco-Vega‘s experience that he describes in his blog post about rejection seems to confirm my concern:

In talking with a number of senior scholars at the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) Conference in Fujiyoshida-shi, Japan, they reminded me of Elinor Ostrom and what she said about rejection letters – they’re part of academia. In fact, when I first met Lin, I do remember that she did say that – something to the extent of “if you only knew the kind of rejection letters I’ve received for my manuscripts!“. So I felt much better. If even Elinor Ostrom got papers rejected (or grants), and look the kind of academic impact she had in the world, I should learn to deal with rejection and accept it as part-and-parcel of academic life.

Share the shame!

Now, not all of us have had the chance to meet these few outstanding academics like Elinor Ostrom, which share the shame and make us feel empowered. And with the silence about rejections, I think, we produce and reproduce a culture in which only success counts. Similar to the problem that people experience when using Facebook, this culture is creating envy, isolation, social pressure, and depression. I have met brilliant colleagues over the last years that have become paralysed by rejections, up to the point that they do not send their work out in the anticipation of it being erected. Is this the culture academia should really be? I don’t think so!

Instead we should change this culture! We as scholars should celebrate academic success especially because the way there was rocky and hard. In most cases the published article is the result of several rejections, some with outrages reviews and unfair outbursts. However, it got published! With social media it is easier than ever to share our experience and the true picture of academic life with our colleagues. Through twitter hashtags such as #phdchat, #ecrchat, and #acwri enable us to share our story easily with the community. We should start to share the shame! Let us in our everyday professional lives have the courage to stand up and acknowledge that “Failure is always an option!”

In the meantime I have sent my paper out again – to the third journal. Failure is always an option…but I am confident it will get published at some point in a good journal. And I have no problem in sharing the struggle it will take that paper to get there through my twitter page! How about you?

Florian Krampe is a peace researcher at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University where he is working on peacebuilding, climate change and peacebuilding, environmental security in Kosovo, Nepal and Afghanistan. Since 2014 he is Director/Coordinator of the Forum for South Asia Studies at Uppsala University. You can follow him also on twitter @floriankrampe.


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