Tis the season…..of rejection

November 19. 2015 by Lisa Meloncon

Well, every season is the season of rejection in higher education, but it always seems particularly acute at this time of the year. Maybe it’s the stress of the semester or the stress of impending holiday season, but this time of year seems to amplify the specter that academics live under: the ongoing cycle of rejection.

It’s no secret that I’m a tough love kind of person. I tend to deliver hard truths as kindly and gently as I can because I firmly believe we have to be honest with grad students, new faculty, and well, just every damn body.

And the truth of the matter is that one of the reasons this job is so hard is that much of it is about dealing with consistent and ongoing rejection. Here’s a list of some.

  • No, you can’t teach at the time you’d like.
  • No, you cannot teach the class that is in your specialty because we need this required course covered.
  • No, we do not money to fully cover your conference-funding request. (We can give you $250.00.)
  • No, we do not have money for your request for [fill in the blank here].
  • No, you cannot say no to this committee because someone has to sit on it and there is no one else.
  • No, we do not have resources to help you with [fill in the blank here].
  • No, your abstract was not accepted for [fill in the blank for whatever here]
  • No, your grant was not funded.
  • No, your proposal was not accepted for [fill in the blank for whatever here]
  • No, we will not publish your article.
  • No, we will not publish your article but if you do these two thousand things we might (also known as a revise and resubmit)

You get the idea (because this list could go on for days!).

So in the spirit of the season, I’d like to share some thoughts on how to deal with all the rejection and find ways to turn them around into more positive experiences.

For example, I do get that not everyone is born with a thick skin and it’s hard—really hard—to separate and think of the rejection and no’s as something separate from you as a person. But the key to success and happiness is developing something of a thick skin and understanding that all the rejections are not about you the person (or sometimes even your ideas), but more about other things that you have little control over.

You cannot control budgets or funding so when you’re told no about those things that truly has nothing at all to do with you or your ideas. At that point you then have to make hard decisions about what is important to you and hwo much you are willing and able to pay out of pocket to participate in those events and more importantly, how much that actually may matter to your development as a scholar.

Another example, most grants—both internal and external—have funding rates in the single digits. Let me say that again: SINGLE DIGITS. Those are extraordinary odds. Thus, it more common to be not get funded so it may be helpful to approach those as pre-writing experiences for other projects (i.e., drafts of other manuscripts, drafts of future grants, opportunities to fine-tune your objectives and aims for different grant opportunities). Shifting your own mindset is a useful strategy for preparing for eventual outcomes.

Abstracts and proposals for conferences or special issues or edited collections are something of crap shoot. So many factors are at play when you submit those, and I would encourage you to think through why you’re submitting and what you’re submitting from the outset that way you’re minimizing any sort of rejection backlash.

One does not have to attend every conference. There is an expectation that you participate in the national conferences in the field, but senior faculty are also aware of the oddities of reviews. (But in technical and professional communication we have enough conferences that there is no way you can’t consistently participate in at least one of them. So you need to pick one or two and start to call it your own and become active. More on that in another post!)

As far as the impulse to submit to every call for a special issue or edited collection, there are many—and split opinions—on this. I fall into the camp that you should only submit a proposal if it’s an area that you’re already working in and that you have a background in. This way you have something more substantial to draw on and you increase your chances of acceptance because you can write a stronger proposal.

Finally, as far as articles (and books), the publishing process is difficult and not for the faint of heart. There’s no way around that. Does it need to be improved? Hell yes. But until the time comes that the field can address some of those more systemic and structural problems, I can only tell you that when you get reviews read them and then let them sit. They need to sit for as long as it takes for you to be able to come back to them with a disconnected eye, that is, the time when it’s not so personal. When you come back to them, try to separate out any tone and then re-write what you think is valuable that you can try and incorporate into the revision. (Keep a separate list of what you’re not going to change.) All criticisms make a manuscript better because they force you to see your work in different ways. The key is finding the space to see the work differently. And therein lies the rub. Asking others to help read and interpret comments is also useful, particularly when you’re being asked to read long lists of new material.

As someone who has been fortunate and honored to be asked to review quite a bit, I can assure you that when I write a review, I’m not writing my review to you. I’m trying real hard to engage with the ideas so that my comments can improve those. I get that it’s a fine line between the ideas and the person, but it is a whole lot easier to deal with the season of rejection if you come with strategies for separating the two.

Let me just close by paying it forward with some sage advice I was once given. (Thank you and much love to Paul Heilker!) He told me and I have repeated this many times:

Believe in yourself and believe in your work.

When you can do these two things, dealing with criticism and no’s and rejection becomes much easier. How you ask? Because when you believe in yourself you know that you have the ability to do good work and to be a good colleague and to be a good teacher. The rest just follows.


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