Sunday, March 11, 2012

On rejection: or, life in academia


I guess it’s not surprising, given that I’ve written about failure in science, that I would write a post about rejection as well. Actually, I’m not so interested in writing about rejection as I am in hearing how people have learned to deal with it.  

Academia is a strange workplace. It’s stocked with bright people who’ve been successful throughout their previous academic endeavours (with some exceptions*). For the most part, they haven’t faced too much criticism of their intellectual abilities. But in academia you will spend your career being questioned and criticized, in large part by your peers. You will constantly be judged (with every submitted manuscript, grant application, or tenure review). And this is the universal truth about academia: you will be rejected. And for some (many?) people, that's a difficult thing to accept.

Rejection may be so painful in part because it can be hard to interpret. After all, it’s an old trope that rejection is a normal part of academia. But how much rejection is normal, when is it just a numbers game and when is it a sign of professional failing? Let alone the fact that rejection depends on a shifting academic landscape where available funding, journal quotas, and research caliber are always changing. So I’m curious: does the ability to deal with rejection factor into academic success? Are some people, based on personality, more likely to weather rejections successfully, and does this translate into academic success? Or is the development of a thick skin just the inevitable outcome of an academic life?

*A couple of the people I know who are generally unfazed by rejections would say that they deal well with rejection because they weren’t particularly great students and so academic failure isn’t new or frightening to them. 

10 comments:

Robin G. Marushia said...

I think the key is in (like all things ecological) The Tradeoffs. If the perceived reward for success in academia is greater relative to the hardship of the rejection, then motivation to continue seeking the reward should ultimately produce success. Granted, of course, that the probability of eventual success at each step is relatively high...!

Tanya Stemberger said...

As to whether the amount of rejection you receive is "normal" or a sign of some genuine lack: In an ideal world I think this could be solved by social input. If peers and friends are succeeding on average the same as you (the general 'you', not you in particular), then barring a streak of bad luck, you're probably on track. The problem with this is that people seem to report good news more than they report bad news, so it's hard to get a real picture of what's going on around you.

Jeremy Fox said...

Everybody gets rejected. I've even been rejected from PLoS ONE, which is kind of an achievement!

Most journals publish their rejection rates once/year, so over time you can get a sense of whether your "batting average" is typical for the journals to which you are submitting. I'd prefer that way of benchmarking yourself rather than comparing yourself with your peers, just because comparing yourself with your peers amounts to comparing one small, noisy dataset (your own track record) with another small, noisy data set (someone else's track record).

But having said that, I've never really been bothered by rejections in general, and don't worry about my rejection rate. I mean, yes, I've had numerous rejections that were incredibly frustrating (especially rejection without external review, *especially* when said paper then goes on to get glowing reviews at an equally-selective journal...) But rejections have never, individually or collectively, caused a crisis of confidence for me. I don't know that it's a matter of me having an especially thick skin when it comes to rejections (as I say, some of them really frustrate me). It's more that my confidence in myself and in my science has many sources (not least of which is the Oikos Blog and the positive feedback I receive about it). I don't rely on peer reviews for validation. Conversely, if I ever was going to wonder if I'm "failing" in some sense, I hope it wouldn't just be because I'd had a string of papers and grants rejected. Again, that's a small amount of noisy data, not the sort of thing that ought to generate a crisis of confidence.

Jeremy Fox said...

See Cassey and Blackburn 2003 TREE, who surveyed the rejection rates of leading ecologists. The average respondent had 22% of their papers rejected at least once, and 72% of respondents had at least one paper they hadn't been able to publish anywhere.

Jeremy Fox said...

This may also be relevant:

http://matt.might.net/articles/peer-fortress/

(HT Jarrett Byrnes)

Caroline Tucker said...

Thanks Jeremy! I almost posted this when I first saw it. I think it's pretty apt :)

Clarrien said...

I think for some people, yes, rejections can slide off their back pretty easily. For others of us, practice make perfect I guess... a bit of rejection is helpful to keep us in line, and the small rejections can help give us that tough skin to which you refer. Either way, rejection is indeed part of the package, so as I'm learning, better get used to it!

Jeremy Fox said...

Whoops, that should've been Cassey and Blackburn 2004 BioScience, I believe.

Anonymous said...

I've had sufficiently many rejections to cause me to change fields twice, and ultimately, to consider leaving academia altogether. I have at least four rejected papers in limbo, one of which was cited in published work. I have had papers criticized and ejected on the basis of cavalier misunderstandings, but I lack the energy at this point to revise to forestall misinterpretation. It's past the point of diminishing returns. Perhaps I have the energy to make one more switch--recognizing that it's three strikes and I'm out.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I get a feeling that reviewers tend to nit-pick. You may find out that the whole article makes some sense. Instead of suggesting some restructuring to strengthen of an argument, a reviewer would just reject everything you have written. Some of these guys can be nasty and heartless. The reviewer would ask a question, and the very same question is answered in the next paragraph. S/he does not then say “Oops! This is your answer.” Anyway, one has to learn to take these ‘bullets’ with a smile and carry on!