Dealing with academic rejection

Eric Gilbert
aug 2013

A few months after I arrived at Georgia Tech, the school asked me to sit on a panel and talk about life as an academic. I was the youngest person in the group. I said some things; I don't remember them. During Q&A, a grad student asked us, "What's the hardest part about life as an academic?" A senior, very accomplished faculty member (someone I really respect) responded right away: "The overwhelming amount of rejection you have to deal with. Ask anybody."

I followed him out into the hall. I confessed that I had been tracking my global success rate across all my submissions for years, and that it sadly hovered around 45-50%. He told me that was actually pretty good compared to his own, which was around 33%. (Mine has since gone down as I submit more grants.) I admired this guy and his CV, and yet two out of every three things he ever submitted resulted in a rejection email.

It happens to everyone—a lot. Might as well have some coping strategies on hand. Following some handy advice I heard years ago (but have nevertheless ignored ever since), I decided to write up a few things I tell my students about dealing with it.

1. Give yourself some defined amount of time to be upset. After a particularly surprising grant proposal rejection recently (I really thought we had it, and had invested quite a lot of time), I just took the rest of the day off. I answered email, but didn't try to do anything else productive. All I could think about was getting rejected, anyway. I went home, played with my kids, and later went grocery shopping. I think that night my wife and I binged on Freaks and Geeks (side benefit: I was able to channel my anger into the inevitable "How on earth did this show get cancelled?!?"). Adjust the time appropriately for where you are in your career. Paper rejections sting less now than they used to, for example, and only require an hour-long walk.

2. Now, get back to work on something else. For many reasons, I find it useful to have multiple projects in progress all the time; this is one of them. I have a hard time going directly back to the thing that just got rejected. At the same time, I have personally witnessed paper rejections ruin many students for weeks (while in grad school mainly). Switching to something else (an IRB protocol, data analysis, another paper) lets me get work done while some part of my subconscious deals with the rejection I just received. Given how many you can expect to receive, you really can't afford to let rejections interfere much with your ongoing work.

3. Resist the urge to complain too much. This is especially true if you find yourself on Twitter and Facebook a lot. (In fact, for many academics, the very people who reviewed you are probably listening.) Since everyone gets rejected so much, complaining loudly about how stupid R2 didn't get your brilliant paper/proposal/system (this may very well be true) simply makes you look like an amateur. I like to grab a beer with a close friend, often someone who works in something completely unlike what I do. Pretty often, I am reminded that—despite all the rejection—I have one of the best jobs in the world.

4. After some time goes by, come back to the reviews. If I can, I like to let a few weeks go by where I don't even look at the reviews. As in: immediately upon understanding it's a reject, I file it away without reading further. After a few weeks, I can approach the reviews less emotionally, and really use them to make my work better. Because reviewers sometimes do not observe basic professional courtesy when they write their reviews, I open a new document in my project directory called todo.txt. In it, I triage the reviewers' comments in my own words. If I'm ready, I get to work on them.

Eric Gilbert wrote this post by typing HTML into Vim.