The title of this blog is somewhat (ok, grossly) misleading. I suspect that I am not going to reveal any profound secrets, but rather re-state a bunch of truths that we all know, but struggle to implement. None the less, it seems worthwhile to reflect on twenty years as a researcher and the tricks I use now to make it all a bit less hard.
Why the title? It comes from a seminar that I give to early career researchers about how to develop coping mechanisms for a life in research academia. Academia has a lot of rejection. Even the very best researchers are having their ideas dismissed, their grants rejected and their papers not published all the time. The peer review process has many flaws in both approach and implementation, but ultimately is the way in which research quality is judged. At its heart it is about your peers passing judgement on your ideas and it is VERY confronting.
The intent here is to articulate how to construct a set of armour to protect researchers from the slings and arrows of outrageous academia. I am struck by the number of people who are brilliant, but fundamentally find the constant rejections of academic life is hard on their sense of self-worth. This blog is for those people. In my experience a disproportionate number of people who are challenged in this way are female, which is an even more profound reason that I want to explore coping strategies.
It is supposed to be personal. If you are meant to be in academia you will be very personally invested in what you do. The best ideas, even if you set out aiming to be dispassionate, you will fall in love with. I find this particularly true of grant applications, where by the end of the time I have written a proposal I am absolutely enamoured of it. When it (almost inevitably) is not funded, then I am genuinely upset. Give yourself permission to be upset. Don’t be angry at yourself for feeling hurt. Rage at the injustices. But find ways to move on (see below). Remember that the fact that you care is a sign that this is the right job for you. Personally, I find this even worse when my students get a grant or paper rejected, or are hurt by criticism. If you are a supervisor, sit down with students (particularly after their first major rejection) and give them permission to be upset. It gets a bit easier as time goes by, but not much!!
Find ways to leave it at work. In many disciplines people put on a uniform at work (whether that is a suit, a set of overalls or a badge) and take it off when they get home. This creates a clear physical break from their workplace, and assists in shedding the psychological baggage of their work day. Academics in general are very poor at this, and allow workplace stress to bleed into their home lives. It is worth ensuring that you have an environment where you can put the stress and upset of academic rejection out of your mind. As an academic manager, I have found that taking my suit off when I get home and changing into casual clothes is a valuable part of de-stressing from the day.
Go through the stages of grieving. Ross and Kessler describe the five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Subject to all of the caveats that they describe, this is also a useful framework for dealing with academic rejection. If we accept that this feels like a personal loss or hurt, then we need to manage it like that. I can illustrate this best with my personal approach to having a paper rejected. I receive a rejection email. I open it. I get upset [GRIEF]. I close it and go home and drink wine [DENIAL]. A few days later I open it again. I started to get annoyed. I rant to my co-authors. I rage at the injustice of the peer review system. I accuse the editor (in my head) of cowardice [ANGER]. I take the comments and turn them into a table. I attempt to respond to the major comments – initially this is usually a bit of angry monologue, which morphs into a set of proposed changes [ANGER turns to BARGAINING]. I get over-whelmed by my own short-comings. The reviewers are right, this was always a terrible paper. If only I had communicated this better. Why do I always make these stupid mistakes? [DEPRESSION]. I force myself to continue to work on the table. I send the paper and the comments to a friendly face (sometimes a co-author) for some input. I identify the key weaknesses which can be addressed and do that. The ones that can’t I try and explain in a paragraph in the paper [ACCEPTANCE]. I resubmit and order some more wine. I find myself responding similarly (and perhaps more acutely) when grant applications are rejected.
Turn defeat into success. If you accept the stages that I outline above then there are some clear danger points in that pathway.
- Getting stuck at denial. The first is simply getting rejected and not being willing to accept that there is anything wrong with a paper or proposal. In my experience, any review (even a negative one) can be used to make a piece of writing better.
- Mis-directed anger. Externally focussed anger is ok. Suggesting that the reviewers and the journal are a bunch of idiots isn’t particularly helpful, but it does suggest that you have retained a sense of the value of the submitted work. Much more dangerous is anger which is self-directed (why do I always do this?) and which moves straight to depression. Those are the papers and proposals that are filed and never seen again. This may be justified, but most often it is a horrible waste. For many students (in particular) that rejection, and that unsubmitted piece of work, will hang over them for a long time, with an associated sense of guilt.
- Losing faith. Most people find it very hard to retain faith in their ideas when faced with strident criticism from their peers. There are people with the self-confidence to do this, but in my experience they are rare. Look at criticisms, try and respond to them, but also test your ideas again on a friendly audience (lab group talks are an ideal forum). Was this a BAD idea or just an idea that wasn’t explained very well? Try and re-package it.
- Not moving forward. The bargaining stage, as outlined above involves explaining away the criticisms directed at a piece of work. It is VERY hard to move to this point and it is best done in a structured way. Identify the key criticisms. Are they valid? Are they profound? Can they be responded to? Even if a paper or grant application has been rejected outright, this stage is critical to developing a better piece of work for next time. Even if you work is exceptional, but the reviewers have not understood it, then you must take responsibility for the failure of communication. Most importantly here, give yourself a deadline for when you will address the criticisms – a realistic one (a week??) but as soon as possible.
This is hard stuff, but don’t give up. I jokingly say every time that I have a grant rejected that ‘Once again the assessors have failed to recognise my brilliance’. Keep confidence in your ideas and your work, but temper that confidence with trying to understand why you weren’t successful this time around. Be sad. Be mad. But most of all get back on the horse and ensure that science benefits from your good ideas.