Monday, May 2, 2011

57. Rejection is routine.

No one likes rejection, but everyone encounters it. Graduate students encounter it frequently. You often feel the sting of rejection before you even start. Just to get into a graduate program, you have to pass through the gate-keeping admissions process. You can be admitted to one program, while being rejected by three others—and those rejections can linger in your memory longer than you might expect. But that is only the beginning. Once you are in a graduate program, you will find yourself applying for fellowships, assistantships, grants, conferences, research awards, travel awards, and all manner of funding, not only to keep yourself afloat, but to add lines to your all-important CV (see Reason 38). Some of those many applications will be rejected, and some rejections hurt more than others. It does not help that you are in competition with your colleagues (see Reason 2).

Then there is the problem of publishing. In the publishing business, the overwhelming majority of what writers submit to publishers is rejected. Of course, academe requires that you publish. Unlike regular publishing, academic publishing is the result of the peer-review process, which involves the time-consuming subjection of your work to the evaluation of independent experts (one hopes) who help editors decide if your work is worthy of appearing in an academic journal, or as a book published by a university press. Peer review is important for maintaining the quality of what is published as academic research, but the process can feel quite arbitrary, especially from the writer’s point of view. Academic writing is tremendously taxing (see Reason 28), so when your work is rejected (as it will be), the feeling can be quite discouraging. After experiencing years of various kinds of rejection as a graduate student, you then place yourself on the academic job market, where rejections greatly outnumber job offers (see Reason 55). All of this is to be expected in an environment in which far too many people are competing for the same opportunities, in the context of an academic hierarchy defined by exclusivity (see Reason 3).


  1. Let's not forget the Journal of Universal Rejection, where "all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected."

    Found here:

  2. I disagree with this one. Being rejected happens to everyone, in every field and in every walk of life, all the time. Learning to deal with this and improve the quality of one's submissions, as well as learning not to take rejection of one's work product as a personal rejection is a good lesson, and I don't see this as a bad thing at all. If you were writing a list of reasons why grad school is worth doing, I would write this same entry as "You learn to deal with rejection."

  3. It took me my entire undergraduate experience to get over my rejection from my primary interest of application to undergrad/college.

    I only got over it when I realized:

    a) My student loans would have been even more horrific (it was another private school),
    b) It was run by the same dying, lunatic religious order (the Jesuits) as the school I actually attended, who were even worse at the school I wanted to attend, and
    c) Given the school (within the university) I applied for at said undergraduate institution, I would have been at least and likely more lost in terms of a career had I actually been accepted.

    Any bitterness now is that no one told me during high school that attending a private school and racking up student loans does not make sense with great public schools as an alternative.

  4. I agree with Shaw on this one... a lot of the other reasons are specific to grad school, but rejection is something that you have to get used to, AND it makes you stronger and better in everything you do.

    Especially if you aspire to anything outside of academia, then rejection is often just a sign that you need to step your game up and improve.

  5. Usually when comments naysay the validity of one of these 100 Reasons I roll my eyes. This is the first Reason that I'm afraid I'm going to have to veto myself (not bad though, all the way to 57).

    A colleague of mine recently complained a few times about rejection. The award/grant applications s/he applied for took her TIME and EFFORT that didn't pan out! This person comes from a pretty privileged background, and of course I couldn't help smirking internally. Essentially the complaint came to not getting what s/he wanted 100% of the time, or a simplistic assumption that if you try you should always win.

    This is spoiled and naive. If anything, it's easier to get published academically than creatively, given that there's an even greater glut of creative writers than academic ones. Consider that peer review is actually a good thing. Someone qualified is reading your work--yes, maybe quickly, yes, maybe taking a long time to do so, yes, maybe the comments do seem arbitrary--but at least you're not at the bottom of some slushpile that's been delegated to Who Knows Who (or perhaps Who Knows Who's kid) to cull. And sorry folks, but academic publishing doesn't really require much real writing talent--if anything, a flair for language will count against you. Rigor, not talent, is the game here, and that can be acquired.

    For those of you who enjoy visual media, watch/listen to the DVD making of special features and/or commentary on a couple of films. Or pick up an industry rag. What? This film took a decade to sell and produce?!? Production was halted three times? Creator of TV show X worked for a year straight on a pitch that was sure to get greenlit, but a week before the pitch the studio exec who had shepherded the project through development got canned or kicked upstairs and now the project is a non-starter? Screenwriter Y had her screenplay butchered by subsequent writers and didn't even get credit on the final film?

    Prominent science fiction writer Octavia Butler thought she had it made after selling her first short story. She worked crappy jobs and collected rejection slips for the next FIVE YEARS with no glimmer of hope. Talk to a few people outside of academia and you'll find that not only is rejection universal, but often folks outside of academia have it even harder than we do.

  6. I definitely agree with Shaw and Anonymous 6:44 on this one that rejection is universal in and outside academia and it helps strengthen a person's abilities...But, I think part of the frustration with rejection in grad school comes from the fact that it can be so arbitrary. Rejection, and success, in academia is often more based on politics, connections, what's "trendy," etc. It's far from a meritocratic system where the best are rewarded and the rest just need to improve their game.

  7. But aren't other fields also "far from a meritocratic system where the best are rewarded and the rest just need to improve their game?" Rejection outside of academia isn't necessarily less arbitrary, I think - at least, not to any measurable degree. Who you know still matters, politics are still a factor, etc. Learning to get back up is an extremely valuable skill.

    I think bizarre publishing requirements and few job opportunities count as their own (very valid) reasons, but I don't think risk of rejection in itself is a reason not to do anything.

  8. I think you are missing the point, Anon. 9:43; this is a mosaic of misery, and some of these reasons stand alone while others work better in concert. So "rejection" would go well with the "post graduate work environment" or "getting into grad school" or "submitting ideas to the advisor."

  9. Huge points to Streinikov for using "mosaic of misery" to describe the grad school experience!

    I guess this is also a case of keeping in mind the target audience of this blog--people considering grad school. Many bright undergrads have been consistently rewarded and encouraged throughout their UG career--even if they're merely competent that puts them miles ahead of most of the glassy-eyed mouth breathers. Having our Beloved Blogger point out that this reinforcement will not continue past the meet-n-greet is a good thing, even if academics aren't the only ones to get beaten by the Rejection Stick (and I agree that many others, particularly in the arts have it equally as bad if not worse).

  10. While it's true that people in other professions have to deal with rejection, I'd like to play devil's advocate and argue that that don't have to deal with it as frequently, or in the ugly way that many grad students do.

    As this post points out, grad students must constantly apply for opportunities (fellowships, conferences, publication, etc.). On the other hand, someone working a 9-5 job doesn't need to apply for anything, unless they are trying to advance or change jobs. My parents are both middle-management types in a state-run organization and a for-profit corporation, and to my knowlege, they've never had to apply for anything in the last 5 years--perhaps even 10. So I would argue it's rare that someone in this type of job has to deal with rejection, as compared to grad students, who may be rejected on a monthly basis, depending on what they're applying for and how proactive about applying they are.

    Secondly, I'd like to point out that many rejections that people receive in academia are qualitatively different in tone than those received in the "real world." Because review is blind in academia (though not double-blind, in many cases!), evaluators often write reviews that are unjust and just plain mean, since they know that no ill repercussions will come of it. It's one thing to be told that you aren't the right person for the job (whatever the reasons may be), but it's another to be told that your work is "pushing the field backwards" (as I was told in a recent review. And, as many have pointed out, another repercussion of non-double-blind review is that people who have an established reputation are more likely to be favored than the up-and-coming, as are people who have a good pedigree or come from a highly respected program or institution.

  11. The worst part is being rejected for something and knowing the person who gets it instead. It's not so bad if you think he deserves it, but when it is somebody awful, it is really hard not to start questioning your own self-worth.

  12. Using artistic fields as an example of a "real world" field where one gets rejected a lot seems to be exactly the point of this post. Art is judged and valued on an arbitrary scale that changes with the times in very violent swings. You are subject to some random person's opinion about where things "ought" to go, even if it isn't a consensus in the field, or if it would be "marketable" to lots of people.

    Other fields have plenty of rejection, this is true. But, you know, in most other fields you usually will get straightforward tasks, with a clear goal, and useful advice about what needs to be done. So you would know in advance what a "success" would entail. Rather than continuously picking something that seems interesting to you and constantly getting shot down until you are lucky or build a reputation.

    Maybe those other fields where goals are concrete are "drudgery," and research is more "fun" because of the intellectual freedom, but it is something to keep in mind.

    Not everyone is cut out personality wise to deal with academic careers. Just like not everyone is cut out to be a hockey player, a manager, a call center operator, etc. Having fair warning about the skills one needs to survive academia is a good thing to have.

  13. "But, you know, in most other fields you usually will get straightforward tasks, with a clear goal, and useful advice about what needs to be done. So you would know in advance what a 'success' would entail."

    Hmm...I'm not sure that any of my corporate friends would agree. Their lives look a bit more like the screenplay from Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" than the rational, straightforward world you describe. Same petty fiefdoms, scapegoating, abuse, sabotage, whimsical reversals of opinion, and powerplays as in academia.

    I think it makes sense to point out the obvious (academia = frequent rejection, which blows) given the ostensible purpose of this blog (warn off undergrads considering grad school so they don't consign themselves to this "mosaic of misery"). What I take exception to is the idea that rejection is somehow more frequent or worse for grad students/academics than workers in other fields. I think it's more helpful to elucidate the particular ways that academic life is horrible, than to make claims that it is the mostest horriblest of all. We can discuss how we've been rooked and shafted by the unfulfilled promise of academia without taking an elitist position.

    Talk to your non-academic friends about the downsides of academia (don't have any? make some!). Watch their faces. That expression means, "Yeah, I know, I've been telling you about those kind of shenanigans at my workplace for years."

  14. Anonymous 7:33, you made the point I was trying to make, but you put it much more eloquently.

    I can definitely appreciate the "mosaic of misery" concept (also nicely put), but I'm not sure I think rejection should qualify as a reason not to go to graduate school, since it's a reason that would also disqualify so many other prospective fields. I know that this list of reasons is compounded, but I think that if a reason for "why you shouldn't go to graduate school" is essentially the same as "why you shouldn't pursue a challenging career," then it doesn't quite fly.

    Maybe this reason should be titled "Rejection is highly personal and particularly brutal..."

  15. Yup, yup, total agreement, 7:52! I have a lot of friends in both the arts and corporate life, and when I get too myopic they are quick to give me a reality check and remind me that my academic agony isn't unique.

    My partner worked on an intensive project for years--nights, weekends, the works. Our first vacation in three years and the higher-ups call him/her in and cancel the project the night before our trip so s/he "had time to think about it while away." Ruined our "vacation," needless to say. On another note, my friend's agent told her that if she couldn't whittle herself down to 80 pounds he'd never be able to get her any work as an actress. She was already spectral, but never quite managed to starve herself enough. These are different types of rejection than mean-spirited comments on a journal article, but I'm not convinced that they are are less brutal.

  16. I think the point is: before graduate school, your assignments contribute somehow to your grade. This is not the case in graduate school. Graduate school is not a school per se! Someone may just overthrow your past miserable months of experiments and works... Unless you live on self-satisfaction? And I agree that real world is crueler. But maybe you are more ready for rejection in real world.

  17. I absolutely think it's worse in academia than in the "real world." In academia, you have to beg for every aspect of your existence and livelihood - to get in the program, exams, papers, grants, fellowships, assistanceships, publications, etc.

    In the "real world" you might be rejected getting that initial job, but once you land it, you're pretty much set for a while, at least as far as your livelihood is concerned. You don't have to beg every week for another paycheck.

  18. Really? Have you met anyone in "the real world"? The self-employed, independent contractors, anyone in the arts? They have to beg for every job, every contract. And people in service related fields know that every customer/client/patient interaction serves as an audition for the next appointment--a next appointment that is in no way guaranteed, but rather is contingent on a variety of factors which may not be in their control.

    Okay, now let's play Who Gets "Rejected" Faster:

    A) the housecleaner who breaks a vase or does a less-than-perfect job on the toilets


    B) the grad student who doesn't bother to show up for his/her prof's lectures or weekly meetings, shines on office hours, acts belligerent with her/his peers?

    B gets the next paycheck (or in my department, gets rewarded in a variety of ways). A gets the sack.

    I think it's important to point out the many ways in which academia blows. It's less cool to prove how much academics themselves blow by imagining that we are the most vulnerable, put-on workers out there. Rejection in academia is sucky and is non-stop, but it's far from unique, and it's not worse than in many other fields.

    1. But most of the people considering being grad students haven't thought of being a house cleaner

    2. I received my graduate degree, and never got a job in my field despite years of prior work experience, some actual skills, and a good academic record.

      Now I'm looking at cleaning toilets for the next year, and maybe several years after that.

      I still owe student loans on classes that haven't done a damn thing for me.

      I'm now in my 40s.

  19. Yes, any rewarding career is full of a lot of disappointment, bad bosses, rejection, fruitless wastes of time, etc. And I agree that we shouldn't be trying to say that these negatives are somehow absent from "real world" jobs.

    However, with the exception of the arts or related fields, perhaps the rejection isn't quite so personal. Then again, maybe I just don't know enough about the "real world" to be a good judge. But I've talked to a lot of people with regular jobs where although their projects may not get the green light, they aren't routinely ridiculed for having the idea in the first place, or belittled and condescended to on quite as grand a scale.

    I have so many stories of professors and advisers ridiculing their students or other scholars in ways that suggest they have no respect for the others intelligence or right to an opinion. Sure there probably are people like that in any profession, but I doubt that sort of conduct is condoned en mass in industry or bred into the training.

  20. It depends what sort of job you're comparing it to.
    If it's a typical job where you're paid for your time, by the hour, by a company, etc. then there is not as much rejection there because once you have the job you can usually just do the bare minimum and not get fired or have to see go through any rejection.

    But if you're paid for results, i.e. you have your own business/company or you are a freelancer then you get loads of rejection. Just read anything about anyone starting their own business and the amount of rejection you HAVE to face is staggering. And freelancers have to face a lot of rejection as they have to keep getting hired from pay check to pay check.

    1. As a freelancer, what I loved was the experience of getting called in to deliver on extremely short notice, then having my work "appropriated" by someone else, then being made to feel like a beggar for months asking where the hell my compensation had gone.:
      "That's not how we do it."
      "We don't have your personal information."
      "We don't have your name."
      "We don't have your social security number."
      "We don't have your name or your social security number."
      "You're not in the system."
      "You're not on the approved list."
      "I was out of the office and unaware that you had been hired."

  21. it's not just freelancers and the self-employed, either. the key word in Robbie's post is "results." performance and "rejection" may look differently in other fields than they do in academia, but it's ignorant and arrogant to assert that they are more prevalent in academia. let's stick with arguing that rejection is constant in academia without overreaching and stating that we have it worse than anyone else. that's the kind of myopic snobbery that contributes to non-academics finding us laughable, irrelevant, and/or loathsome.

  22. If you have ever worked for a scholarly journal and have seen readers' reports on manuscripts that have been sent out for peer review, you know just how arbitrary the results can be. The same article that one reader hates will be praised by another.

    Editors are put in difficult situations sometimes when they have two (or more) expert readers disagreeing on the merits of an article submitted for consideration. The experience of working for a journal undermined my confidence in peer review.

  23. I couldn't agree more with Anon 11:55. My last book chapter was apparently one of the strongest in the volume AND a grad student hack job that should be cut according to two separate reviewers.

    Academia is a scam. The only ones who don't know it (or profess not to) are the ones who have climbed to the top through some combination of luck, connections, and outright aggression.

  24. Here's proof that while academics have it bad in terms of rejection, others have it equally bad if not worse:

    On its website, the journal "Nature" is reporting about an 8% acceptance rate for submissions. You know, "Nature," one of the top two academic journals in the world? On the other hand, top notch and even second tier literary journals receive so many submissions that they have a <1% acceptance rate. It would probably be easier to go earn a STEM field PhD, become a leader in your research area, and get published in "Nature" than it would be to get published in "The New Yorker" as a tremendously talented non-celebrity creative writer.

  25. As I read this, I have faced two rejections this week. One of the potential supervisors has rejected my PhD proposal claiming it doesn't make a cut. Two, another professor of mine has discouraged me from making a grant application. It sucks,am tired. I think I will make do with a masters.

  26. It's funny that so many commenters are saying that rejection happens in the "real world", so this reason isn't a valid one. It's especially funny, when this post starts out with "No one likes rejection, but everyone encounters it. Graduate students encounter it frequently."

    The point of these posts aren't to say "grad school sucks, because it's so different from real life!" but to make everyone considering grad school aware of what to expect as a grad student!

    So, yes, some fields (but not all) experience more rejection than grad students. But the reality is that life in academia can have more than its share of rejection!

    (As a math grad, I didn't encounter a whole lot of rejection, personally, but I didn't have the need to apply to many things, either.)

  27. I think it's an issue of threshold. If a given Reason appears to apply to any and all jobs, or any and all challenging occupations, then it's not particularly valid. If it's especially (though not necessarily exclusively) true of academia or the grad school experience then it makes sense.

    I think this Reason is a border case--academics certainly experience a lot of rejection. A lot of professionals in other careers, artistic and otherwise, suffer a lot of rejection too. But it's ignorant (and I think offensive) to assert that academics have it worst of all. Our blogger doesn't make this claim, but some posters have.

    I think part of what's being objected to here is the Millennial generation's overinflated sense of self-worth. The same entitled behaviors we see in our undergrad students are rearing their ugly heads in the younger grad student cohorts as the Millennials sign up for grad school. I routinely encounter younger grad students who are outraged by anything less than fawning adulation, simply because they were raised to receive awards for pooping in their pants.

  28. On the subject of rejection in academia, there is a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a professor who was denied tenure. Here is an excerpt:

    "When does that journey end? I have mixed news to report: The pain of rejection is like a scar that never completely heals. Those who aspire to join the academy have spent their lives doing really, really well at school—and being denied tenure is about the loudest F one can earn. The sense of failure never goes away."

    ...and that was written by a man who had a new job within a week. More commonly, tenure denial is a career death sentence.

  29. So true and something that should be taken into account. If you are sentitive about your ideas and hate when others critic your ideas and commentary, then you will be fucked. Of course that happens in every industry, but the academy is runned by theory and ideals. But, what I am trying to get at is this: if your self-esteem is hit by rejection and it emotional eats at you then really, really, really think about not going to grad school.

    Most importantly is this: you are rejected before even stepping a foot in the door. All undergrads (me included) had these great ideas of being accepted not only into grad school, but the best grad school in the country/world for our major. Of course, that fact that only 5-10% (random percentage) get in didn't deter us. Because of course, that would not be me! I would get in the program and get all this great funding and be recognized by the best and brightest in our field. Of course, that would be me!

    Delusional, anyone?

    Undergrads believe this, believe that they will be the one's with that success and change the world and change their field. Their delusions get fueled by comments of "well, this wasn't me" that we see on above comments. Comments that include "this isn't a valid reason because in my field (usually STEM, which is completely not a social science or humanities, although some jackass will disagree and argue my point)....". There's nothing wrong in being positive, is it just that my classmates and I were naive and ignorant.

    But, back to my point: You can spend time researching schools, programs and look at potential advisors and not really admit to yourself that that awesome program isn't going to accept you. Rejection sucks, doesn't it when you realize that the best school in the country/world for that field didn't want you. And this pain is made worse by the fact that you apply to more schools and they all reject you. I have seen this happen in my department and it is brutal to hear, never mind having lived through it.

    As for funding, yes you might (will) face rejection and it will hurt. Yes, that awesome professor, the best in their field, might reject you and will not want to be your advisor. Yes, that school will say no thank-you or even worse accept you and give you no funding (a polite rejection if you will that if you don't know how to read will get you $100,000+ in debt before you even know it). And yes, you may decide to go because it is X University (because of course, it ranked 5th, etc) and people have gotten funding second semester or something as mentioned in previous comments so that will be me! goes through your head and we're back to undergrad delusions that I mentioned above.

    To be fair, this might be you, you bright genius; however, do your research, be honest with yourself and take with a grain of salt those soft praises thrown your way-make sure that they're not telling you what you want to hear. However, it is better to be honest with yourself and wonder what will you do if this is isn't you? And then, if you decide to take the plunge at least you know what you were signing up for.