How to deal with rejection in 5 easy steps?

An academic career is an art of dealing with uncertainty and rejection. Would you agree?  

Being a competitive profession, rejection in academia is inevitable. It’s rather brutal as we often identify rejection of our academic work with personal failure.  

To stay motivated and become a successful academic, you need to develop a defence and coping mechanisms to deal with the uncertainty of outcomes and academic rejection. 

Although I briefly mentioned this in my previous article titled 5 ways to deal with common PhD challenges, I feel that this is an essential subject for PhD students and early career researchers like yourself. 

I learnt the meaning of rejection in the early stages of my education. At that time, I got really interested in art and social sciences and decided to put my application to a high school that was inclined towards such subjects. 

Unfortunately, I literally scored 1 point below the minimum required score that year and ended up in the high school that was inclined towards maths, geography and chemistry. 

At that time, I felt like a failure. Such rejection hit me really hard. I was devastated and did not know what to do with my career. 

Reflecting on this experience from the perspective of more than 15 years, I am grateful that I scored 1 less point on that exam! If it had not been for this rejection, I would not have been where I am now!  

Rejection isn’t easy!

Why is rejection good for you? 

I agree that no one wants to be rejected. Yet by joining academia, you expose yourself on a continuous influx of feedback, mostly from unknown peer reviewers, who judge your research papers and proposals for research projects. 

Rejection hurts, even if you have a couple of years of academic experience and are an expert in your field. My work gets rejected from time to time. Despite several successful proposals and accepted papers earlier this year, I recently got a few small project proposals rejected in a row.

So how you can stay motivated and keep on pushing the boundaries of knowledge in such a competitive and uncertain environment, especially when you are a PhD student or early-career researcher?

What helped me was the understanding that everyone gets rejected from time to time. It is challenging, if not impossible, to maintain a 100% success rate. 

Hence, as I mentioned in my earlier article titled How to be positive, motivated and productive by self-aware procrastination, motivation changes over time. And rejection is the critical aspect of being an academic that may influence your self-esteem and motivation. 

This may seem strange, but I want you to understand one important thing about why rejection is good for you. 

As your proposals and papers get rejected, these usually expose the weaknesses of your work that you were not aware of (aka. blindspots). Unless the peer-reviewers are just mean or biased. Assuming they were not, such rejection provides you with a focus on how to improve your work and try again. 

I published my most cited research papers after they had been initially rejected by other journals. The same applies to my most successful proposals. For example, I applied for a fellowship at the end of my PhD. Unfortunately, it was rejected regardless of receiving high scores. Yet, I pushed myself to consider the feedback from the reviewers to significantly improved it. A couple of months later it was approved for funding – happy days! 

Learn how to deal with rejection!

Understand your emotions to deal with rejection

As you now understand that rejection is an inherent part of being an academic, you may want to know how to deal with it. 

Before I get to the 5 steps I use to deal with rejection, I want you to understand that rejection per se does not influence your motivation. It is the associated emotions that affect your self-esteem and how you feel about it. 

Broadly speaking, each of us (including myself!) goes through 5 stages of rejection grief. This is known as the Kübler-Ross grief cycle. Although it is most commonly applied to those experiencing severe health issues or death, it is equally applicable to the academic environment. 

Although it can be considered outdated in clinical practice, it can give you an insight into your response to rejection and, more importantly, how to deal with it. 

The 5 stages of rejection grief in an academic context include: 

  1. Denial – at the initial stage, you tend to question the accuracy of the review and deny that it is accurate. After all, you have put so much work in your research paper or proposal and made sure it is as good as possible before submission. 
  2. Anger – as you recognise that you cannot deny this outcome anymore, you get frustrated usually with reviewer comments. You may question their objectivity and understanding of your field, and ask yourself “why this happened to me?” 
  3. Bargaining – at this stage, you start acknowledging that the reviewers may have some valid points on how you can improve some aspects of your work. Yet, you still stand firm behind several critical points that, for example, would need you to repeat some of the experiments or rewrite your proposal entirely. 
  4. Depression – at some point, you may get overwhelmed by the feedback you received and start asking yourself “what is the point of doing this” or “why should you bother at all”. At this point, your motivation is nearly non-existent, you do not have the energy to continue. 
  5. Acceptance – finally, you get yourself together and accept that your work has been rejected. Such a realisation gives a boost to your motivation to improve your work and to try again. 

So why it is crucial to understand your emotional response to rejection? In my view, such realisation enables you to move through subsequent stages, or even bypass some of these stages, to reach the last stage faster. 

Accepting that rejection is as natural in academic life as writing research papers will improve your resilience and enable you to achieve a sustainable motivation over a long period. 

How to deal with rejection?

If you got to this point of this article, you now know that rejection is an inherent part of academic life and you should understand how you respond to it. 

This knowledge should give you a powerful weapon to deal with rejection! 

So do not allow rejection to really get into your head and influence your motivation by applying these 5 easy steps: 

  1. Do not panic and do not take rejection personally – that’s right. Any form of feedback in academia is gold as it enables you to improve your work and, as a result, become even a better researcher or academic than you are now! Take it as something that can add value to your work, not destroy it, regardless of how difficult to accept it may be. 
  2. If you can, step back and reflect – if you are not pressed by the deadline to resubmit your work, I always find it useful to step back and reflect on the feedback. Let it sink in for a couple of days or weeks before you take any action. This will help you to clear your mind and start with a more positive attitude. 
  3. Ask others (not involved previously) for feedback – if you are not sure about the validity or accuracy of the feedback, ask your colleagues, fellow students or mentors to go through it. By doing so, you will receive even more valuable feedback! 
  4. Learn from this experience and draw conclusions – even if your work is rejected, there is some learning to take from it. Make sure you apply such lessons learnt in your future work. Make sure you approach rejection as an opportunity to learn.  
  5. Improve and try again – this is an important step. As you reflected on the feedback on your work, asked others for their opinions and drawn conclusions, you need to apply the gathered information to improve your work. Once you do so, you need not worry about putting the improved versions your ideas out there again. 

I use these 5 steps regularly. I found them helpful to motivate myself to keep working on the particular idea even though it has been initially rejected. As I mentioned above, this approach helped me to get my most cited paper published and successfully bid for research projects. 

This approach resembles Gibbs reflective cycle – you can read more about it over here.

A final word…

Being a competitive profession, rejection in academia is inevitable. 

However, the sooner you accept this as a fact, the more resilient to rejection you will become. 

Rejection is not always as bad as it may seem. In an academic setting, it usually comes with feedback on your research paper or proposal. 

Use it in a smart way to improve your work and you will see your research paper or research proposal accepted! 

I encourage you to apply the following 5-step approach to keep yourself motivated and deliver high-quality research: 

  1. Do not panic and do not take rejection personally 
  2. If you can, step back and reflect 
  3. Ask others for feedback 
  4. Learn from this experience and draw conclusions 
  5. Improve and try again 

I would love to hear your ways to deal with rejection. Do you have any specific habits, approaches or processes? Share them in the comment! 

While you are here, I would like to encourage you to join Motivated Academic newsletter to be the first to hear about our new plans and products. You will also receive a free ebook on 25 ways to share your research. 

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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