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Dealing with Rejection in Academia

In this repost, Staci Zavattaro, reflects on rejection in academia and gives 6 tips on how to manage the inevitable rejections that are part of academic life.

This post originally appeared on Regions eZine [1]and LSE Impact [2].

I just graduated from my doctoral program and was attending my discipline’s annual conference. That week, I had gotten several papers rejected in a row. Back to back. I began to question if this job was even right for me. So what did I do? Cried in the elevator of course. The doors opened and standing there, oddly enough, was my dissertation chair. He asked what was wrong so I told him. He basically said, “Oh that’s all?” Looking back now I can see he was right. In the moment I thought, “Well this is totally serious, and he needs to take it as such!”

Rejection is a part of academic life, just as it is part of the corporate world, nonprofit sector, and things we do every single day. Somehow though, rejection in academia seems personal because someone, usually a total stranger, is judging your work. You might write a course paper that receives a lower grade than you wanted. You might not pass your comprehensive exams on the first try. Your first dissertation proposal surely will have major revisions. Your first article… I could go on, but you see my point..

My colleague Shannon Orr [3] and I edited a book called Reflections on Academic Lives [4]. In it, we start with what we called an ode to rejection because, believe it or not, rejection can actually be a positive thing if you let it. In that volume, we have 70 academics of all levels – from doctoral students to a retired provost – giving their best advice for surviving academia (or removing yourself from it). One reflection that is pertinent here comes from Steven R. Shaw from McGill University [5]. Some of you might know him as @Shawpsych [6] on Twitter. In our book, Steven writes about the “shadow CV,” meaning what you do not see is all the failure behind the success. That article? You do not see that it was rejected three times before. The grants? You do not see the countless rejections and revisions each went through. His message is to look beyond the success to see the silver lining in rejections.

Here I share with you some advice that has helped me cope with rejection. This list is not exhaustive, and some of the things might not work for you. I would be thrilled to hear other tips and tricks you have learned that can also support me with continued rejection.

I do encourage all of you to normalize rejection in your classrooms. Be open with your students about this omnipresent academic reality. I like to walk my students through the ways in which I revised a paper. I also tell them when I had to simply let a project languish. It is okay to admit that something did not work out the first time. Or even the second time.

I know I am getting better at handling rejection because I no longer cry in elevators.


About the author

Staci M. Zavattaro, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public administration and a research associate with the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management. Her books include Cities for Sale, Place Branding