Five ways to recover from rejection

Articles, research grant proposals, job applications: a career in higher education offers seemingly endless opportunities to pit yourself against your peers – only to be rejected.

No matter how many times it happens, the experience cuts deep.

For early career academics, it’s often an unfamiliar phenomenon. To have reached this point, you’re likely to be highly driven, conscientious and accustomed to getting top grades and glowing feedback.

But put your foot on the first few rungs of your academic career, and you open yourself up to the brutal reality of repeated rejection. All the while, your Twitter feed seems full of other people’s prestigious awards, promotions and ever-rising citation rates.

In her article ‘Why Is Academic Rejection So Very Crushing?’, Dr Rebecca Schuman explores the pain of believing that rejection by the academic meritocracy is proof that you have no merit. She shares responses from a wide number of academics which show how raw and harrowing the experience can be. Acknowledging rather than minimising this is a helpful first step to recovery.

But the fact that it is so common (many top journals have rejection rates of up to 80%) surely shows it’s not the career-ending experience you may fear.

So how can you recover from rejection in a way that serves to build the resilience and momentum of your academic career? Here are five ideas.

  1. Remember how normal it is
    It may feel acutely, wincingly personal. But bear in mind that you are likely to be surrounded by successful academics who are highly familiar with rejection. It comes with the (stimulating, sought-after) job. In this post, Dr Stephen Heard, evolutionary ecologist and entomologist at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, lists those universities that have rejected him (70+) and those that have offered him a job (4), saying, ‘Take my failure as evidence that it’s perfectly normal to fail, and fail again, and keep on failing until you don’t. I’ve built my career on a foundation of failure. Most of us have, and that’s OK.’

  2. Reach out
    Avoid withdrawing or suffering in silence. Isolation breeds insecurity. Connect with a trusted mentor or colleague who will listen as you process, bring some steadying perspective and ask the right questions to help you move forward.

  3. Try transparency
    Cultures in which people trumpet their successes and carefully airbrush anything else out risk becoming toxic. A stronger, healthier, more vibrant academic community is possible when people share their failures honestly. You might be surprised how swift and warm the response is to such transparency. Nick Hopwood, Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney, was taken aback by the outpouring of relief and gratitude from academics across the world after he shared the #rejectionwall of letters he’d created in his office. Read more here.

  4. Persist
    Don’t give up. Consider the circumstances of your rejection. Factors such as partiality or a personal attack could provide grounds for appeal. Reviewers are human; some are inexperienced, some make mistakes. Get a second opinion, wait for your emotions to settle, then compose a polite response highlighting the flaws you’ve identified in the decision, using these tips.

  5. Repurpose
    Be creative. Can you turn your rejected application into a published article? Or convert your paper into a new blog series? There are many heartening examples of people reworking a piece that was rejected – and going on to achieve significantly higher impact and acclaim.

So, when your next rejection arrives, remember you’re in stellar company. Don’t focus on the immediate, short term outcome, but on your long term career trajectory – and where it will take you.

Further reading

Understanding ‘desk rejection’ – an Editor-in-Chief’s inside look

Turned down for the job? Eight ways to up your game and secure your next post

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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