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Coping with Rejection in Academia

Graduate schools are failing miserably to prepare Ph.D. students for the onslaught of rejections that they will inevitably face in their academic careers. Most Ph.D. students have never tasted the bitterness of rejection. After all, they ended up in grad school because they were the crème de la crème, above the 90th percentile of their class. But when they enter academia, in an instant, they suddenly find themselves in the bottom 10th percentile as they are now compared with more experienced senior academics.


Rejection is so common in academia that I think it’s fair to say it’s the norm, even for the most successful academics. It is non-stop and it is relentless. It comes from all different directions: editors, reviewers, research councils, foundations, hiring committees, promotion committees, students. All of them sing the same refrain over and over again: “You are not good enough.” This is a hard message for most people to hear periodically, but it can become soul destroying for those who hear it as frequently as we do.


I had four grant applications rejected in the last month. Each time, I thought to myself, “At least I have three/two/one left.” When I read the last rejection letter today, I felt my heart sink deep into my gut. What made it worse is that they reported a 28 percent success rate in this round. The odds were in my favor, but I still fell short. I wasn’t good enough.


I would not be surprised if many of you reading this blog feel like you’re cursed. You’re not, and I’m not either. This is just the nature of our career. There is not enough grant money to go around, meaning that great ideas are going unfunded. We all want to get published in that top journals, but it only accepted a limited number of articles per issue. Most people will fail when they go up for promotion even though, inevitably, they can point to people with lesser CVs that have been successful at the level you’re targeting. In the academic labor market, literally hundreds of academics apply for one coveted spot. It’s like a game of musical chairs, but for every 100 academics marching around in circles, there are only a handful of seats. That’s why we jostle for positions and stab each other in the back during peer review.


I wish I could say that someday there will be enough money to go around and a 100 percent acceptance rate in the top journals. Sadly, I can’t. As common as rejection is today, I fear it is only likely to get worse in the future. Realistically, if you want to survive in academia, you have to learn how to cope with the rejection. It’s a sad state of affairs that we accept the epic battle we face for resources and ideas and instead focus on building personal resilience against the insanity. But let’s not be naïve. Survival in this field means allowing yourself to be hurt, but not destroyed. It means picking yourself up at the end of each day and simply reminding yourself that they cannot define you, nor defeat you. In the end, you will emerge beaten and bloodied, but you will emerge.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start working on my next grant application.


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Andrew R. Timming

May 2019

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Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

© 2020 by Andrew R. Timming.

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