Career and Personal Development

How a First Year PhD Student is Preparing for Rejection in Academia

My first PhD class is still months away, but I am no stranger to “academic rejection.” Just in the last year, I lost out on a job opportunity, was rejected from one PhD Program, and received two manuscripts denials from peer-review journals.  Here’s the thing, I know it’s only going to get worse, and that’s okay.

Even the most successful academic career is filled with rejection–hiring, promotion, and publication. Each of these processes are deeply judgmental, out of our control, and are often a reflection of the most important parts of soul. I have received a lot of advice, since my faculty colleagues learned of my PhD acceptance, and most centered around the “brutal, unrelenting rejection” ahead of me.

“Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.”

I’ve chosen “Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods” as a motto for the next five years of my life. Ultimately, I want to teach. For this, I need a doctoral degree, teaching experience, and academic publications. For example, here are some of my goals in the next five years:

  1. I need teaching experience before I graduate. I’m hoping this is in the form of a TA in the School of Business–but, if I get rejected, then perhaps a tutor-level position or a TA in another school will suffice until another opportunity opens up.
  2. I need to publish in a top-tier journal in the next five years. I can work from lower and mid-tier journals to start to give myself a good foundation. Find good collaborators and co-authors in my own institution and in competitor institutions. I also can join the Editorial Board of a journal to get more experience from the reviewer-side of the conversation.
  3. I need a doctoral degree to teach. I outlined several schools, applied, and then spoke with the Department Chair of each school to ensure my dissertation topic and goals were a good fit. Of the programs that accepted me, I found the perfect program for my professional and personal needs. I’ve outlined the next five years of my academic life, professional life, and personal life to ensure success.

I know there will be rejection and failure, but this is part of the process. And it’s a wonderful thing. Yes, that’s right. I said “academic rejection and failure is a wonderful thing,” because it means that competition is tight, it means that we’re surrounded by the most creative, intelligent, and driven people in this world and only the very best will be accepted. Every paper and job application that I submit is compared against others who are just as smart, hard-working, and motivated as I am. And the key here is to see this as a good thing–to know, truly know that you and I are working alongside (and against) the very best, and that makes us all the better for it.

I am well aware that I won’t succeed right away. But, I’ll get there eventually. I had two papers denied this year, but one was accepted. I have five more ‘on the burner’ simmering and waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

I’ve read a lot about ‘academic failure’ in preparation for this article, and I think the true crux of the argument is to make sure you don’t derive your identity — your sense of self — from ‘being smart.’ Everyone on this planet has more to their true self than just being smart–even Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang is amazing).

A fellow blogger once wrote “A Letter to My Younger Self About Dealing with Rejection in Academia” and he ended with these 6 tips of advice:

1. Don’t take yourself (or your reviewers) so seriously. But, remember, it’s not about you. Mostlikely, you were not able to adequately communicate your message.

2. Remember that you don’t need to sprint to the finish line — whatever that is. For every paper you don’t publish now, you’re falling behind the illusion of your ideal self and your peers. Keep in mind that your true purpose is to do great, timeless work — publishing is just a reflection of that.

3. Focus on process, not outcomes. The reality of the situation is that timing sometimes does matter. In other words, don’t focus on the outcome of your work. Focus only on the process. Focus on doing good work. Everything else will follow. I promise.

4. Know that it’s not just you. About 20% of papers submitted get accepted. Be happy for that 20%. They’ve probably felt the same feelings of inadequacy that you are currently feeling, but they’ve managed to work through those feelings and experience great success. Don’t resent that. Celebrate it. One day, that’ll be you.

5. It’s okay to feel bad about this. You poured so much of your time and soul into producing this 10-page document, and to hear that it’s not good enough is crushing. And it should be crushing. Don’t fight that feeling. Accept it. Learn from it. Then harness it to do better. Use it as your fuel.

6. Embrace, don’t fear. Rejection sucks, yes. Failure sucks, yes. But don’t fear rejection or failure. The more you fear rejection, the less likely you’ll be to expose yourself to opportunities that can change your life for the better. Embrace rejection. Revel in the challenge. If there was no risk in putting your work out there, there would be no reward.

Remember to be stubborn about your goals, but flexible about your methods. Remember that rejection is just part of the improvement cycle, and it’s a sign that you’re getting better and better. Be optimistic and keep the faith, just keep going and one day, you’ll do great things.


Article publié pour la première fois le 07/08/2018

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