Teaching Students About Rejection

I recently read a great piece in the Chronicle about how to survive rejection as an author. It starts with this statement (which I am sure we are all familiar with):

“To write is to be rejected.”

Yep. That is 100% true.

Rejection rears it’s head in many forms. The obvious is when you get a manuscript rejected, or a book proposal, or  a grant proposal. As a graduate student, rejection might also look like when your adviser or committee gives you additional revisions to make on a paper or proposal or your dissertation.

Theresa MacPhail, author of the Chronicle piece, argues that we better get used to rejection. However, in citing Kim Liao, she also makes the following point:

“To seek out rejection is to seek out success…More rejections equals more successes.”

Helping Students Deal with Rejection

In my experience, doctoral students are afraid of rejection, often interpret feedback (from myself or reviewers) as a form of rejection (as in the piece is not perfect), and can be paralyzed by it. So it’s important to think how we work with them in class not only to understand that rejection is normal but also how to keep going when it’s not a question of IF you will be rejected but WHEN.

Here are some of my thoughts on how to help:

  • Make rejection normal. Share your own experiences with rejection. That’s not enough though. Sometimes this discourages students. I have had students basically say to me, “If you get rejected then I don’t have a chance.” So share a wide variety of rejection experiences. The Liao piece I linked to above has some you can use.
  • Talk about positive ways to deal with rejection. MacPhail shares an example where a professor said he doesn’t spend more than a day brooding over rejection. I also share that policy. It’s ok to be sad/angry/whatever. But you have to move on. So be whatever you’re going to be for one  day – two days tops – and then start making a plan for moving on.
  • Know what feedback to consider to make the piece better. Here’s how I approach making use of reviewer feedback:
    • If I agree with them, I automatically make the change
    • If I left out a key piece of information, I add it in
    • If two or more reviewers share the same view, I make the change
    • If I don’t like what you said, and you’re the only one who said it, I do nothing. Most likely a different set of reviewers is going to say something else anyways.

MacPhail also points out that the more you submit the more rejections you might get, but yourejection will also start to get some acceptances. It’s a numbers game. If the quality is there, you will hit the sweet spot at some point. I had a professor explain this to me when, as an assistant professor, I was feeling very down by a string of grant rejections. If the project is good, he told me, it will eventually get some funding from somewhere. I’ve always followed this advice – both for grants and publications – and it has never been wrong.

Now, the key to this advice working is that the work does need to be of quality. So within this discussion about rejection, we also have to help doctoral students learn to evaluate -honestly – the quality of the work they are sending out. Because if that work is poor then it might never see the light of day.

I think the thing to remember is that while it is important to teach doctoral students how to write in academia, and how the publication process works, we also have to teach them about how to deal with critique of their work and the rejection experience. They need to know how to get a manuscript from conception to publication, but they also have to know that a normal part of that process is rejection.

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