A big part of academia involves making a case for yourself, I hesitate to say selling, when you apply for a graduate program, grant, job, or submit to a conference or journal. Eventually, this comes down to someone saying “yes” or “no”. For many people in academia, who have been quite successful in their life, it can come as a shock when they eventually reach a point where “yes” is no longer a foregone conclusion.
Everyone Hears No Sometimes
Reaching this point is a great thing, as it’s an indicator you’re no longer a “big fish in a small pond”. It’s easily possible, and I know people who have done so, to never challenge yourself and live an easy life below what you’re capable of. I think this is a mistake. I’ve been involved with a NSF grant with a very prestigious academic (dancing around Nobel prize caliber work). This grant was rejected and the reviewers were EXTRAORDINARILY polite in their rejection, but they still said no.
At a conference recently, we were out at dinner at one point and a senior academic who is a friend-of-a-friend was bemoaning a nasty review her and one of her recent graduate student had gotten. Unfortunately, this is something you’ll be dealing with for your whole career, so it’s worthwhile figuring out how to deal with it productively.
Poor Ways of Dealing With It
In the case of the prestigious academic above, he dismissed the rejection saying “they don’t understand my work”. Both myself and another member of the group felt their criticism really got to the heart of the issues with the work and were quite insightful, so it was unfortunate that he was unwilling to hear what they had to say. Many academics adopt this defense mechanism: anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. It’s very limiting. How do you improve your work (and recover from dead ends) if you won’t listen to people pointing out problems?
On Mr. Money Mustache, a personal finance blog, he calls some of his readers “complainypants“, which I think is my favourite postmanteau. This term refers to people who encounter his philosophy, then come up with an endless string of excuses about why it won’t work for them. The senior academic mentioned in the 2nd paragraph above was taking this approach, basically complaining about the mean reviewers who had hurt her grad student’s feelings. Often the excuses seems very good, I had one friend who had a reviewer tell him he needed to define false positive, which is ridiculous.
A friend of mine was recommended by his Masters adviser for a PhD at a prestigious university. After he went down and met with the potential supervisors, he got polite e-mails from them saying that they weren’t taking on PhD students at that time. Instead of realizing this was a face saving excuse that really meant they weren’t interested in working with him, he sent off an emotional e-mail blasting them for wasting his time having him come down to meet them. In the end, his Masters adviser took him on for a PhD, AFTER she’d chewed him out for embarrassing her in front of her colleagues.
There was an amazing study that is being called the NIPS consistency experiment. Basically, for their conference, they set up 2 separate review committees who independently reviewed all submissions. After the peer-review was completed, they compared the results for each submission. They found that half the submissions were clear rejects and rejected by both committees. 6 or 7% were clear accepts and were accepted by both committees and for the remaining 44% (the bulk of the accepted papers) it was a coin toss whether it was accepted or not.
A poor reaction to this would be to submit garbage (since it’s a coin toss whether or not it’s accepted) or to spend large amounts of time railing against the peer-review process.
A Healthier Way to Approach Rejections
As you get further along in an academic career, you realize someone criticizing your work isn’t the least desirable reaction, having them ignore it is far worse.
My feeling, and I’ve heard the same thing from a number of colleagues, is that by the time you’ve gone on a number of academic interviews, you get pretty good at them. It sucks to not get a job offer, but one view is that going through the process has made you better at interviewing and you’ll be more likely to get the next job you interview at. This is one of the exceptions in my previous article about not applying for jobs before you defend your thesis. I believe a similar view should be taken on grant applications and publication submissions.
My general view, which I still try to cultivate further, is that a rejection is a far deeper consideration than you will normally get from anyone. For my Ph.D. defense, it was the single moment in time when I’ve had a number of very smart people consider my work deeply, then discuss it with me for an extended period of time. Reviewers are a lighter version of the same thing, they think through what I’ve done and actually say something informed about it.
It would, of course, be marvelous if their reaction was always “this is the best thing I’ve ever seen”. In reality though, having specific problems (that might not have been considered) pointed out and having some thoughtful response to the work is pretty great. Even if it means you’re not going to get the publication / grant / job.