Thursday, July 11, 2013

Amelia from Abilene Asks a Big Thirsty About Handling Rejection.

If you are like me, you spend at least some of your precious summer time doing work for your regular job, just with a more flexible schedule and for no money. (Sidenote - next person who says "I sure wish I could take every summer off!" gets a free smack courtesy of Dr. Amelia, LLC).

A lot of that is research time for me in the first half of the summer, and then course prep in the second half.

But I was really, really good last spring and got stuff submitted during the semester. Which means now I am reaping the fruits of those efforts in the form of responses from various journals and contest which, in the last two days, brought two rejections. One could best be described as "scathing" and the contest I had to find out about from the person who won, since the organizers didn't even bother to issue rejections.

I am torn between two inclinations - the "take a few weeks off to lick wounds and regroup" inclination and the "take the reviews, make improvements and send stuff out as quickly as possible" inclination.

I know the second is better, career-wise, but it's hard to cheerfully look rejection in the eye.

Q: How do you handle rejection in your work?


  1. When I was a young grad student, any rejection would make me jump up and down and scream, "NOOOO!!!" Since then, this has happened so many times---I sent out over 150 applications over 9 years when searching for tenure-track jobs---I usually now just say, "Aw shit."

    As I tell students, if you have serious problems coping with rejection, research in astronomy is not the game for you. Hubble Space Telescope is typically oversubscribed by a factor of 8: in other words, they normally get applications each year for 8 times more telescope time than there is for them to award. If you count only the good proposals, it comes to about 4 to 1.

    So, what do you do if you know you have a good proposal, which time allocations committees will acknowledge by writing "Good proposal, but not as good as some others we've seen," not very helpfully? You submit it four or more times. Sometimes it simply takes time for a committee to get used to an idea, even a good one.

    Like you, sometimes I get a referee report that is unnecessarily snotty. The first time it happened to me, I wanted to find out who the committee members were and let the air out of all of their tires, no matter that I'd have to travel around the world to do it. (Didn't Jay and Silent Bob do something like that on one of their films?)

    Experience has taught me that Option 2, "take the reviews, make improvements and send stuff out as quickly as possible," is almost always the way to go. I also tell students: NEVER say ANYTHING about the referees' MOTHERS.

    1. I'm told that your approach to getting Hubble time also works for NEH grants (which are similarly scarce, and getting more so): just keep sending the darn thing in (admittedly, I haven't been doing this, but I probably should be).

  2. I mope/decompress for maybe a weekend at most, and then brainstorm a game plan for what's next. Most recently, I had what was a series of rejected articles, taken from the diss, that I then decided to pitch instead all together as a book--which then got published (after several rejections in its own right, of course).

    So, depending on your discipline, the first question to ask yourself is whether you have shaped your work for the right outlet. In my case, no matter how many times I tried to carve articles out of my dissertation, the topic just never fit that model. It needed more space to develop over several key ideas. (Granted, this is far less an issue for my STEM prof partner, for whom the idea of turning work into a book would be borderline ridiculous and definitely not supported by our article-loving adminiflakes.)

    But if you're confident that the article you have really *should* be an article, first take any good-faith reader comments to heart as you revise and reformat the paper, then submit it elsewhere ASAP. However, this will require you to determine which comments are actually about your work and which reflect your reader's own dark twisted psyche. Sometimes this distinction is easy, but not always...

  3. "But if you're confident that the article you have really *should* be an article, first take any good-faith reader comments to heart as you revise and reformat the paper, then submit it elsewhere ASAP."

    This is great advice, but of course it's often hard to apply. The damage to your morale can make it hard to tackle the revisions; the referee's report could be useless or batshit crazy; etc. Just turn the article around as best you can and keep submitting.

    It's important, though, to figure out where your "line" is - that is, how far down the "food chain" of journals will you go? I've got a friend who got tenure on the basis of two articles in frankly dreadful journals - he knows they're pieces of shit, but they were acceptable at his institution. When submitting, he could afford to go for (relatively) easy acceptance at a lower-end journal. And, then, on the other hand, I have a friend at an institution of such a nature that he just can't do that - if he's not publishing in some relatively well-respected journals, he might as well not be publishing at all, as far as his tenure committee will be concerned.

    So you need to be sensitive to what kind of standards are held by the hiring and/or tenure committees at the schools you're aiming to work for, because there are advantages to be reaped from aiming at lower-tier journals; aside from a better chance of acceptance, many of them have faster turn-around times. If you think a given journal will satisfy the folks at one of your target institutions, I say "go for it," even if it's not the most prestigious of publications.

    Now, this may strike some as a very cynical approach to scholarship. I say fuck 'em. Look, you gotta get/keep a job. And if your work is good, it's good, no matter where it gets published.

    1. I think this is good advice, with the caveat that tenure is not the only judgement you face as a researcher. Your colleagues' opinions of you matter too. They can resent you if you are publishing below their standards. Whether that matters to you personally or professionally depends on your circumstances.

    2. This is an excellent point that I sometimes forget, as I am the only person in my discipline at my current institution (I'm part of a larger department that is mostly a different discipline). It can really annoy your colleagues if you have half again as many pubs but in poorer-quality journals... ESPECIALLY if the administration doesn't get the distinction.

    3. I'm still fairly new to the publishing game (research goes slowly when you're teaching a lot), but, at least in my field, there appears to be a distinction between poor-quality and obscure/very narrowly-focused but still decent journals. Obviously, it's best to publish in the big-name journals (which tend to be both well-known and fairly broad in scope), but, if that doesn't work out, there are a number of good-quality, but highly specialized (e.g. devoted to a very particular author, region, or time period) journals to try. While they don't carry the prestige of the big names, I don't think there's any shame in publishing in them, either (and you end up networking with people who share your interests, admittedly sometimes to a slightly scary extent).

      It's also worth noting that, in this day of electronic databases, it may matter as much where a journal is archived and/or indexed as how much respect the journal qua journal receives. This is especially true if you're interested in garnering citations. An article I wrote years ago for a grad student journal (admittedly one coming out of a fairly prestigious school) has received a number of citations recently, because it became available c. 5 years ago through one of the major databases in my field (and wended its way from there onto google scholar). People seem to take the darn thing seriously (more seriously than my dissertation, which, as far as I know, has served only as a straw man for some legal scholar's argument about the significance of one of the key texts about which I wrote, which he seems to think I considered unimportant. I didn't; instead, I think it was extremely influential, but sometimes in negative ways).

      On the other hand, there are some really, really shitty journals out there, apparently run by some of our former undergrads who understood the concept of peer review (and the desperation of proffies to publish) just well enough to monetize it. They also tend to be very, very broadly interdisciplinary (e.g. International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, which I think is a real title that has landed in my mailbox, and which I'm pretty sure on the basis of the name alone is highly questionable, though I'm willing to be corrected), so as to snare the widest number of unwitting victims. That might be another argument for going obscure and specific if courtship with bigger names doesn't work out.

  4. There are a couple of stories that make me feel better when it comes to rejection. Neither of them are academic in nature, but still. One involves Kristin Chenoweth, the Broadway actress who won a Tony for her role as Sally Brown in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and went on to star as Glinda in Wicked. Just prior to her getting the role as Sally, she was at an audition for a different role, and it did not seem to go well. Then, she was in the bathroom when two other much more successful actresses came in and proceeded to rip her to shreds, asking who did this dumb, no-talent-ass-clown think she was and whatnot. As she sat there wondering whether to come out or wait 'till they were gone, she felt like she hit bottom in terms of being rejected, and was just about to go home to Oklahoma. She decided to come out, and the two beeatches were not even all that chagrined (they probably knew damn well she was in there). Anyway, she ended up not going back to Oklahoma just yet, got the part as Sally after a different audition, won a Tony for it, and inspired the creator of Wicked to write the songs for Glinda with her in mind. So much for the naysayers. There are tons of stories from the acting world like that, but that one particularly gets me.

    The second story is one that hits closer to home in terms of my actual experience. Stephen King - a pretty good story teller, but not such a great writer. Still, I'd love to be a fraction of an inch as successful as he is; who wouldn't? As he relates in his book On Writing (a book I would recommend), Stephen King papered his wall with rejection slips from sci fi rags. Rejection after rejection after rejection, and he hung them all up on his wall, because to him they were badges of honor. I like that thinking. Those suckers ARE DAMN WELL badges of f'ing honor. Hang them on your damn wall. I do.

    And when my book gets published, I'll find a way to let all of you know that its me!!!!!

    1. I saved the one rejection letter I got from a grad school program, just in case I ever work for that program. At this point, it seems unlikely (still my field, but a very prestigious program, albeit at a school that has an apparently well-deserved reputation for being about 4 decades behind the times in terms of sexual equality), but I haven't thrown it out. Should I find myself there, I'll frame it and hang it prominently on my office wall.

  5. spending the weekend on the bar stool between Bubba and Stella.

  6. Every time I get a rejection, I think to myself, 'Remember how this feels when you get an acceptance. Then you won't get a big head." And when I get an acceptance, I do the same thing. We all get rejected all the time, or at least we all have, even if most of us don't like to admit it. Keep going, revising, and working, because, other than drink, what else would you do?

  7. You must have perspective. How many middling academics (just like me) are also out there applying for grants, trying to publish journal articles, or looking for gigs. It's daunting. It's not personal 99% of the time.

    It sometimes feels like winning the lottery to gain a tiny ducat in this profession, but in this case it's a lottery you probably have to play.

  8. I was passed up for a yearly award in my department, after being nominated many times, in favor of someone no one likes, who has never published anything, isn't on a tenure line, and doesn't have a doctorate. I didn't mind losing previously to peers I respected, but this was hard. The award was not bestowed by the administration (in which case I could have tsk-tsked it) but voted upon by my colleagues. We were the only two nominated. Everyone else I knew had already received the award--so I had a sort of epiphany about what my peers as a whole thought of me.

    Friends tried to make me feel better--one even said that she thought the winner had cheated. Another said I don't promote myself enough and the winner lobbied for it (lobbying for awards is not in my nature). Neither of these suggestions made me feel much better.

    It was years ago and it still smarts. Even to this day it hurts my feelings. I "dealt" with it by mentally and emotionally pulling back quite a bit, and in general vowing never again to go above and beyond the call of duty for departmental stuff. Individuals, yes. Department as a whole, no. So far, so good.

    This is not really possible with scholarly publication, unfortunately. As for "scathing" reviews, it is wise to keep in mind that academics are mean by nature, and that anonymity brings out the worst in people. Also, I would never consider a journal that doesn't use double-blind sumbission.

    Or, you could simply do what my friend did when she didn't get the campus visit she wanted. Get some mesquite kettle chips and a whole pint of sour cream and sit in front of your favorite movie until it's all gone.

  9. I'm so sorry. I'm a journal editor and send out 80% rejections and revise/resubmit letters, just because of the very small number of articles we have space for relative to the volume we receive. Often when I reject, it's not that the piece in question is terrible; it's just that it's not a good fit for the current direction of the journal. Of the 20% I send out to readers, at least half get reports advising that the piece not be published. When I get a scathing report (i.e., disrespectful -- negative is fine), I make a note not to use that reader again, and I provide a cover letter detailing the article's strengths as well as weaknesses -- a scathing review reflects badly on my choice of readers. The only time I myself ever get chilly is when someone sends in a piece and has clearly a) never read our journal, or b) has sent something that in no way resembles an academic article. I presume you don't fit into either category!

    So, my advice is: lick your wounds for a bit, as rejection is never fun. Don't revise for journals that have rejected you; make only the changes that seem like fair and general criticism. Then send the work right back out there. You have to get a lot of "no's" to get a "yes."

  10. On addition to what F&T says, sometimes stern if not scathing criticism is necessary. In my experience as French poetry reviewer, sometimes an article submitted has fundamental flaws: misreading of the theory he's trying to use, obvious counter-textuality, ignorance of the historical background... In this case, a shit sandwich (praise - criticism - praise) may make the author believe that the article can be salvaged, and have him waste his time.

    (On the use of masculine pronoun -- my school's policy is that feminine pronoun are to be used by default, but not if the example presents that person under a bad light. Ils sont fous ces americains! :P )

  11. I hate being rejected, but as a creative writer I'm pretty used to it. Once or twice I've had a scathing rejection, and it bugs me for a couple days. But shit, I send out so many pieces, if I got upset by every rejection I'd never be anything but upset. I guess it's getting over it through excessive volume. Also, my particular field of creative writing is glutted with authors, so I just keep my expectations realistic: I figure I'll be rejected, especially if it's a new market I've never published with before.

    My academic work is pretty much the same. I assume that my work, which is a fairly niche interest in a tiny subfield of a largely ignored main field, will come back rejected more often than not.

  12. "... a fairly niche interest in a tiny subfield of a largely ignored main field..."
    Are you me? :)


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