Braindumping on Rejection

I’m on a PhD life advice roll. So, here we go.

Handling rejection is quite possibly the most horrible part of life in academia, whether as a grad student or a faculty member (I assume :D).

But, actually, is it?

I realized recently, that it’s really one of the most awesome parts of academia, even though it doesn’t always seem that way, when it happens.

I’ll explain why . . . with an anecdote!

I wrote a paper about a year ago, that was something I put my heart and soul into (and a notable amount of personal finances, but I digress). I submitted it — rejected.

I then tried to turn this same paper into my MS thesis. I presented it — edits requested.

It hurts, it really does, to have something that you worked hard on, that you feel proud of, and that you’ve spent a significant amount of time on, potentially at the expense of other things in your life.

And, oh, it did hurt. But, I realized I was thinking about the whole process of peer review the wrong way.

When we, or at least I, get rejected, the go-to response is often a feeling of worthlessness, frustration, or maybe even anger. But, you know what? In reality, rejection means some of the smartest people on the planet, with the most expertise in the exact area of my research, took the time to read my work and criticize the living $#!^ out of me. That might not sound like a privilege, but it is.

We have the privilege of playing in the big leagues, especially in when we swing for the fence. And sometimes, aiming for the fence means we miss. But, it also means that we have a whole panel of the most esteemed and qualified “coaches” (the program committee) telling us why we missed.

Submitting a publication, and ultimately getting a PhD, are not “gatekeeper” experiences. When we submit a publication, or we pursue a PhD, we basically get to sit in an astronomy class, taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, and ask if our ideas make sense. Even if they don’t, you receive feedback from two preeminent thinkers in the field — which is usually more like five preeminent thinkers, on a program committee. And with their feedback, you get to ask them, even if only briefly, to participate in your research, and improve it.

Similarly, getting a PhD is not about having three papers published as quickly as possible, stapling them, and riding into the sunset. It’s about improvement, and becoming the best researcher you can become, which involves a lot of struggle, criticism, and rejection. (At least, so far, it has for me. If not for you, share your secret. :D)

Back to my anecdote: I’m glad my paper was rejected. I’m glad I was asked to edit it. What it is now is much better than what it was, or what it could have been, without the feedback of the program committee and my thesis committee. And who I am now, as a researcher, is much better than who I was, or who I could have been, without the feedback of these same people. For instance, I now know WAY more about statistics, mainly because my anger drove me to dig deeper, and prove my reviewers wrong (which I did not: they’re experts, after all).

So, the next time you get rejected — which you will, and so will I — don’t be tempted to put down the bat. Accept that even negative feedback is an honor, take the steps to improve your swing, and walk back up to the plate. (Thanks, Jacob Sorber, for the baseball analogy.)