Three ways to turn the page after your first paper rejection

Three ways to turn the page after your first paper rejection

My first paper rejection came as a shock. When it came to submissions, I was feeling pretty confident as my supervisors and colleagues were happy.

We can’t all be wrong about our paper – can we? Eight years later, I still remember opening that rejection e-mail alone in my office in Zurich, Switzerland. I felt like I had failed. But the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is that a paper rejection is just a setback, not a failure. You can still submit your paper elsewhere, or continue working on it.

The problem I faced in learning to accept rejection is that other people’s disapproval is almost always invisible. One of my recent papers – my eighth – received five desk rejections by the editors, one rejection after review, one rejected appeal, and major revisions before finally being accepted, the seventh journal my co-authors and I tried. But if you look at the paper just published, there is nothing to indicate that it was rejected at all.

The same is true of every polished CV and personal web page. Very few researchers share the news of all their rejections, but the reality is, for many journals, you are more likely to be rejected than accepted. Even accepted papers are often sent back with a ‘but’: “We liked your paper, but you need to make all these changes, and we can’t guarantee that if you do.” Even if it is, it will be accepted.”

Although academic rejections are normal, it doesn’t necessarily make them less painful. There will always be a rejection, or series of rejections, that hits you hard – no matter how long you’ve been in academia. So how do you deal with these knock-backs? Here are some tips that have helped me.

Take care of yourself

Rejection is demoralizing and can hurt (literally). Recognize your feelings. Remember that it’s just your paper that got rejected – not you personally. Try to boost your mood and self-esteem by reviewing your strengths and things you’re grateful for, or your small achievements. It can be easy to forget everything you’ve accomplished each month, especially after a rejection.

Try to give yourself the space and time needed to heal. For me, sometimes a walk in the park is enough to make me feel better, but if I need a long break, I try to take it. Your mental health, and therefore your productivity, will improve in the long run if you take the time needed to recover.

Reflect on your goals

Think about what you can learn from the experience. Why am I doing this? What is it about my research that fascinates me? Reminding yourself of your underlying motivations can help you move forward. When you feel ready, ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. Can I reinforce or clarify my work, or use it to encourage new ideas, or can I just learn how not to be like Reviewer 2? This is not an exercise in self-criticism. Rejection is a sign that you are challenging yourself.

If you stay completely within your comfort zone and don’t take any risks, you won’t get rejections, but neither will you move on. Look at the big picture and try not to get lost in the specifics. I often wait a day or two to read detailed comments from reviewers, especially with hard rejections: it can be counterproductive to immerse yourself in such comments when you’re not ready. Peer review is a wonderful process, but it’s also inherently subjective, which means rejection can just be bad luck.

share your experience

It’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected after receiving a rejection. Sharing your experiences with coworkers or peers will not only help you get through rejection, but it will also help others deal with their own. Simply chatting over a coffee, or sharing advice or resources that help you bounce back, can make a difference in someone else’s work life. It may still be a struggle, but it will get easier.

And, if it doesn’t, there’s no shame in asking for help. Your friends, family, coworkers and mental-health services are all there to help you. For me, I wrote a career column to help me deal with rejection, and then it was rejected. This is attempt number two (version 25). I hope it helps you.

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