More on Academic Rejection: What If I’m in a Wrong Profession?

Reader Anthony left a great comment to one of my posts on academic rejection. The comment expresses feelings that many young academics, including myself, often experience. Here is an excerpt from the comment that you can read in full here:

After 11 straight rejections I think I am done. I have been submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals since May 2009 and until today nothing has worked out. My tenure is now in serious danger. The point is that I do not want to fool myself any further,the brutal truth is that I am just not good enough. It is normal to find excuses, to complain about the peer-review system, but probably it is just me. . . There is something very very sad about all of this. I am a very hard-working and honest person. I work as hard as I can and put all of myself into what I do. Nonetheless, it is not enough. Getting published is not about how hard you work, it is about how clever and original you are. . . My struggle now is to reach the point is which I am truly totally honest. I am not looking to a strategic way to consider my situation, I only want the truth. A part of me still hopes that may be I am good enough. This part scares me; I feel this part is the voice of my delusion and dishonesty. I feel that this voice is the voice of arrogance, the arrogance of a person who refuses to see his limitation and to say: I am not good.

Thank you for sharing, Anthony. I think I know how you feel, even though my problem is a little different from yours. I think I am clever and original but not very hard-working, so the clever ideas I have always end up delivered in a shoddy, careless fashion. It’s very hard to figure out on one’s own whether one is good enough in research. Maybe let’s try to figure this out together.

First, a few questions:

1) Have you ever gotten published? How many times, when and where?
2) These 11 rejections, how many articles are we talking about?
3) When you are writing or working on your research, how does that make you feel? Like it’s something you do out of a sense of obligation? Or do you enjoy the process?
4) Have you asked senior colleagues in your field to provide feedback?

I don’t know what field you are in but if you are in Humanities or Social Sciences, I can recommend an academic who could look at your work and tell you objectively whether it is hopeless or not. This is somebody who keeps publishing academic books that get extremely high reviews and that come out every 15 minutes. 🙂 Here is his blog. He helps people improve their writing and get organized in their research as a side-line.

And this is an article from another highly successful academic who got more rejections than you.

And this is about all those academics and athletes who do everything and achieve all of their successes effortlessly.

I honestly don’t think you can decide on your own if you are good enough. (“You” here is not personal, of course, I include myself, too). You need feedback from people who know your field and are successful in it. After they tell you whether your stuff is worthless or not, you can start figuring out what it is you are doing wrong.

It’s crucial to ask people who will be able to be brutally honest for feedback. It’s no use asking friends and people who are close to you because they will not tell you the truth for fear of hurting your feelings. Too much damage has been done to me and too much time stolen from me by well-meaning, kind, caring folks who kept praising my writing in order to be “nice.” I believed them because I’m not a native speaker of English and I simply relied on the opinions of these nice native speakers. Until finally an honest friend said, “I’m sorry but are you aware that your writing is really bad?” Until the day I die, I will be grateful to this wonderful person who helped me so much by being honest.

I don’t know a single leading academic who doesn’t have a bunch of rejections to their name. But I also realize that sometimes you just choose a profession (a relationship, a friendship, a pursuit, a hobby) that is wrong for you. You keep putting your best into it but it simply isn’t there. In that case, when the realization begins to dawn that you might have made a mistake and will have to pull out of this field (profession, relationship, etc.), I think you need to start preparing a backup plan as soon as possible. Withdrawing from a field after investing years of your life into it can be crushing. There needs to be something else to soften the blow on your self-esteem.

Many academics are reading this blog. Please share your insights and stories with Anthony and me. When should a person give up pursuing a dream? When should you say, “I’m done. This obviously isn’t for me, so I should go do something else with my life”?

21 thoughts on “More on Academic Rejection: What If I’m in a Wrong Profession?

  1. May 2009 to now is not very long.

    1. Submit one thing to a journal like PMLA that *always* gives extensive feedback.
    2. Submit something else to a journal that is peer reviewed but that has a high acceptance rate.
    3. Repeat 1 and 2, with variations.

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    1. Great suggestions!

      I think it’s important for one to start trying to get published as early as possible in grad school. Then, you have at least 5 years to figure out if you can do it and need to continue on to a TT position. Sadly, many grad programs promote the idea that you are not ready to try before you defend the dissertation, which, I think, is decidedly stupid.

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      1. My father, a more successful academic than I, didn’t even think graduate students should write seminar papers before the dissertation. I am convinced it was all a gatekeeping scheme.

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  2. I am not in the humanities, so I am not aware of all the nuances when it comes to publishing in these fields. But I know several people in various physical science fields who almost didn’t or actually didn’t get tenure because they didn’t publish enough, and I can tell you a bit about what their problems were. One was a physics prof who was for some reason holding on to data until he was ready to make a big splash; he didn’t, wasn’t able to get into the journal he envisioned, and it was already year 4 on the TT. Also, honestly, the fact that nobody in his department told him before year 4 “Dude, you will not get tenure. You have to have multiple students and multiple projects and several publications a year. What have you been doing so far?” Another was a person in math education who also met tenure year with subpar publication record, but in this case the department has loaded them with too much teaching that certainly didn’t help, but the fault was with the candidate who didn’t write or submit enough.

    These were both smart people, but there is a strategy to getting a good record. First, never ever have all your eggs in one basket. That’s a recipe for disaster. In my first few years on the tenure track, I had several collaborative projects and a pet project of my own (I am a theorist). That last one took me several years and probably 6-7 rejections and iterations to publish. I was devastated with the initial rejections (I received news of acceptance of a major grant on the same day as yet another rejection of my pet manuscript; I kid you not, I was not happy about the grant at all, that’s how personally it affected me). Anyway, you have to diversify, have parallel projects if at all possible. Some of my parallel projects from that time (I wasn’t particularly in love with them) are now extremely well cited.

    Also, I constantly battle rejections of grant proposals. I often turn to my husband to ask “What if I never again in my life receive another grant?” That is always a possibility. But I simply have to keep on keeping on. Submitting to different agencies, refining my ideas, dropping some altogether no matter how dear they are to me. This year I got many, many rejections but I also two small grants, which means I am good to stay afloat with the group size I currently have. But I have to keep at it, because the alternative if closing up shop (can’t pay students, can’t do research).

    My attitude is that in academia you must be relentless. Self-doubt is a luxury you cannot afford to indulge in for an extended period of time. A smart person can learn how to do almost anything well. Learn what it is that you are doing wrong, and then fix it. I refuse to believe that it’s just that Anthony doesn’t have what it takes, having what it takes is such a nebulous concept — the hiring cte must have seen something in him or they wouldn’t have hired him. I am more of the mind that he has not been taught what he needs to fix and that he hasn’t been taught what the best practices for ensuring publication are (from the choice to topic(s), diversifying one’s portfolio, choosing appropriate publication venues, staggering submissions, engaging in collaborations to increase output, etc.)
    It looks like the first order of business, as Clarissa suggested, is to ask people for input (in my experience, men are notoriously bad when it comes to requesting feedback on their work) — give his work to anybody who is willing to read, the more removed (emotionally) from him, the better. Get lots and lots of feedback. Pay for it if need be. Take peer review from rejected manuscripts to heart and try to learn from it. Look for common themes in the feedback of different people.

    Anthony, I bet there are tangible things you can improve in how you write and how you strategize in the publication game; being hard-working and honest is never enough, you have to play the game well. Don’t declare defeat until you have exhausted absolutely all avenues for improvement.

    This comment turned out to be too long and all over the place… But no time for a serious edit. To summarize: be relentless, get feedback, fix how you do things and adopt best practices of the trade, and don’t wallow in self-doubt. It ain’t over yet.

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    1. This is such a great comment, GMP. I’m very happy you decided not to edit it down.

      “My attitude is that in academia you must be relentless. Self-doubt is a luxury you cannot afford to indulge in for an extended period of time. A smart person can learn how to do almost anything well. ”

      – I think you are absolutely right. In my experience, people who win at this game are the ones who have this steely determination and insane relentlessness. The emotional and psychological aspects of rejection are usually the ones that bring most people down. This is why, I believe, it is crucial to figure out strategies that will compensate for that.

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  3. I echo many of GMPs comments – multiple baskets, being relentless, pursuing collaborations, etc. Also one thing I’ve seen which may or may not be your issue is the “golden egg” problem. This happens when you’re looking for that one pub that will shine and glow and make up for a lower number. This can work – in science a single Science or Nature paper is worth more on the market or in tenure than a several smaller ones – but something is better than nothing. So if you’re getting rejections from the top-notch journals it may be time to send your ms to some lower tiered ones. These can be good journals but nonetheless have a much higher rate of acceptance. I’ve seen this happen to a couple colleagues who published a couple of high profile papers early on and didn’t realize that it wasn’t always going to work that way. They couldn’t imagine sending a paper to “Pretty good journal on topic X” and so spent years chasing journals out of the reach of their current data set. So – everything GMP said, including asking for (or paying for) very critical feedback AND throw one of those rejects at a smaller journal and see what happens. Better to published in a mediocre journal than to be unpublished and it the experience may help you evaluate how you feel about the field. If you’re excited to get the work out (wherever it goes) than that’s a good sign the field is for you. Sometimes we just need some good news to feel revived.
    Good luck!

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  4. Dear All,

    Thank you very much for all your comments and insights. I put my further thoughts in bullet points.

    1. My field is Classics
    2. These 11 rejections refer to 4 articles on quite different topics. Every time I got a rejection, I took the reviewer’s comments seriously and modified my papers.
    3. Unfortunately my senior colleagues are not helpful at all. They do read my papers, but they have no experience at all with research. They all got tenure a long time ago when the college where I work was mainly interested in teaching. My senior colleagues like my papers very much, but they do not give me any real feedback.
    4. My PhD advisor is totally unhelpful; he did not read my dissertation while I did my PhD and now he claims that he has no time for me.
    5. The strange thing is that every time I present a paper at a conference, people receive my work very positively. Sometimes, they single me out just to compliment me.
    6. Recently I worked as a vising professor at a good University. During this period I completed two papers which were read and discussed by several scholars; my work was very well received. The people who read my work, however, were not experts in my specific area of research.
    7. The comments I got from the reviewers who rejected my articles have been a mixed bag. Although my articles did not get published, some reviewers were very impressed with my ideas, writing-style, and research abilities. The reason for rejection varied from lack of “complete” originality and disagreement with my ideas and/or approach. Sometimes, I feel that my work is solid but not “fashionable.”
    8. I do have some publications behind my back. While I was in graduate school I published several articles. Two articles appeared in peered-reviewed journals (though not top journals) and others were published book chapters.
    9. I recently submitted two book proposals to very prestigious presses. The editors liked my projects, now it is all in the hands of the reviewers who are reading my book chapters

    I am sorry for dry style, but I wanted to addresses all of your questions.

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    1. 1. My field is Classics Well, that might be part of the problem right there. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Classics seems like a field where academic journals are few and new ones are not appearing on a regular basis. This might be on objective factor that makes it harder to publish in this field.
      2. These 11 rejections refer to 4 articles on quite different topics. Every time I got a rejection, I took the reviewer’s comments seriously and modified my papers. People, please give insights on this. My impression is that 3 rejections per paper is not that uncommon.
      3. Unfortunately my senior colleagues are not helpful at all. They do read my papers, but they have no experience at all with research. They all got tenure a long time ago when the college where I work was mainly interested in teaching. My senior colleagues like my papers very much, but they do not give me any real feedback. I know what you mean. You might need to start branching out to other institutions. If colleagues at your department are not people with active research agendas, you might want to look at people who do work actively in research and get published a lot in your field.
      4. My PhD advisor is totally unhelpful; he did not read my dissertation while I did my PhD and now he claims that he has no time for me. This is very sad. But I’ve seen enough of such cases to know that this is a real phenomenon. 😦
      5. The strange thing is that every time I present a paper at a conference, people receive my work very positively. Sometimes, they single me out just to compliment me. It sounds like you are my twin, or something. 🙂 This is evidence that your ideas are interesting. Now, maybe there is a problem with translating ideas into a full-fledged article. There might be problems with executing the brilliant ideas you have in an article format.
      6. Recently I worked as a vising professor at a good University. During this period I completed two papers which were read and discussed by several scholars; my work was very well received. The people who read my work, however, were not experts in my specific area of research. Again, it sounds like you are me. 🙂 Maybe it makes sense for you to start branching into interdisciplinary journals?
      7. The comments I got from the reviewers who rejected my articles have been a mixed bag. Although my articles did not get published, some reviewers were very impressed with my ideas, writing-style, and research abilities. The reason for rejection varied from lack of “complete” originality and disagreement with my ideas and/or approach. Sometimes, I feel that my work is solid but not “fashionable.” OK, now I know you are me. 🙂 I’ve got this exact same kind of feedback. And I’m not in Classics. Huh.
      8. I do have some publications behind my back. While I was in graduate school I published several articles. Two articles appeared in peered-reviewed journals (though not top journals) and others were published book chapters. OK, so you know that you can get published. This is good.
      9. I recently submitted two book proposals to very prestigious presses. The editors liked my projects, now it is all in the hands of the reviewers who are reading my book chapters Good luck!

      Overall, it sounds like you are feeling a lot more hopeless than the situation merits objectively. Are there really academics who never had these doubts at the start of their career? This is not a rhetorical question. I’d like for people to keep sharing their experiences.

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  5. Academic writing is definitely not for me, at least not at this stage in my life. I’m not motivated to produce it and the reason seems to be that I still have too much fight in me and too much need for adventure to calm down enough in order to write something that would be appealing to liberals — the majority of academic readers.

    Once I have burned off this energy and lived a lot more, I imagine academic articles could easily formulate themselves without as much effort from me. I could be cool and dry, by that stage and speak in a collected, academic manner.

    Right now, though, I don’t have that in me. My mind flits around like a butterfly. I’m far too intrigued by too many aspects of life to want to settle down and write for an audience who can already anticipate much of what I’m likely to say to them.

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  6. Also, reader maturity, which Nietzsche (more than) touches on in the url above, is a huge issue that isn’t often addressed. Having been writing for a number of years, with all sorts of feedback, one point stands out most significantly: If the reader finds your perspectives harmonious with his or her own, s/he will generally proclaim to have found “good writing”. If your perspectives deviate from those, the writing will often be proclaimed bad or suspect.

    Dealing with the prejudices of readers and interpreting them correctly is one of the most difficult features of self-development. The more controversial ones topic happens to be, the more one is likely to become lost in a snowstorm of confusing and contradictory criticism. One cannot take it all to heart. I’ve had overwhelming compliments for writing that appealed to people’s nationalist and patriotic sentiments in a trivial way, yet as I’m matured and delved much more deeply into things, the less the compliments are forthcoming. This suggests that most readers, from those who are relatively naive to those who are more sophisticated, desire above all to have their prejudices confirmed in their reading and prefer to avoid written constructs that pose difficulty to them.

    I imagine this is also why academics whose areas are less controversial can often find it easier to succeed than those who deviate from an expected route.

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  7. “My paper has just been rejected. What should I do?
    I have a lot of experience with the mental state you must be in, so I have three pieces
    of advice:
    a) Don’t read the referee reports. They are likely to depress you. Even if they are
    potentially useful, you are not in a state of mind to enjoy them.
    b) Find comfort with my motto: “A paper that has not been rejected should not be
    published.”
    But beware of the faulty logic in assuming that “every paper that has been rejected
    should be published.”
    c) If the report was really idiotic, do a service to the profession by following my
    example and posting it on your website.”

    From: http://arielrubinstein.tau.ac.il/8QA.pdf

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  8. I think that Anthony also may need to consider that perhaps none of journal editors do not agree with something fundamental that he’s discussed in his articles. These rejections could really indicate that they don’t like what he’s written/argued. Perhaps they really don’t agree with his theoretical stance, methodological or intellectual perspective/tradition? If he’s in the humanities and the social sciences these sorts of issues do matter. I wonder whether this might be possible given that he’s had 11 rejections and not single acceptance. He needs to consider this possibility if he discovers from a good friend that his grammar/style of writing is good. If he is disagreeing with the status quo in his discipline then he may find it impossible to get anything accepted as an article.

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  9. @Anthony. Clarissa is right, objectively it is not so bad. It’s actually good – you’ve got publications, manuscripts, books under review, this is great. And/but I am not in Classics and so I don’t have specific enough things to say, but I have a couple of friends in Classics who have had stories that sound exactly like yours, and it’s meant they have always been in less good positions than, in my inexpert opinion, they actually appear to deserve. As I say I don’t know enough about it to say for sure that it sounds to me as though this field is run even more nepotistically than some others. I think those book proposals are going to make it — but do you have any friends from graduate school who are now in any kind of position of power, and could you possibly get one of them to act as a kind of mafioso Godfather???

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  10. It sounds like a case where Anthony really needs an experienced mentor in his own field. Perhaps a senior person who responded positively to a conference paper? In a small field like classics it is going to be hard to go against the status quo,especially if, perhaps, you don’t even know that you are going against the status quo. If there are eleven rejections of 4 articles it shows that there is something going on that’s not just random rejection.

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  11. Dear All,

    I just want to express my deepest gratitude for your posts and comments. The really helped me to get things into a different perspective. I will come back with more comments soon.

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  12. Three more suggestions:
    1) Before you submit your next article, consider writing a query letter to the journal before hand. Include the title and abstract of the article. Ask the editor if they think your article is a good fit.
    2) Consider securing the services of a professional editor – one accustomed to working with academics. This may cost between $150 and $200, and could be well worth the expense.
    3) Consider buying or borrowing Wendy Belcher’s “Writing a Journal Article in 12 weeks” Replete with useful suggestions.

    And, yes, Clarissa, I have received three rejections on several of my articles now published in top journals.

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