And this has shaped my view of academia.
As I write the title of this essay, I realize how terrified I am to say this truth out loud. I recently got my Ph.D. in Oceanography and afterward secured a post-doc position for one year. These two events should bring me some sort of validation, but the only thing in my mind is that if someone were to google me or search my resume, they would see, clear as a day, I have no publications yet. Not for lack of trying. I submitted my first paper to a journal a year ago, over nine months before my defense date. After three rounds of revisions, they rejected the manuscript right around the time I was defending. I did not convince one reviewer — one out of three — and the editor decided it was not worth accepting. There was no explanation, no statement of why he did not agree with the other two reviewers that accepted it “as is.” The decision email was just a standard rejection letter. The submission was a single-blind peer-review type. The reviewers knew who I was, but I didn’t know who they were. They acknowledged I was a student in their comments, and they addressed the fact that English was not my first language.
I spent so much energy and time wondering how things could have been different — wondering mostly if my work was not good enough. Did the editor even read the two positive reviewers’ comments? Did it catch him in a bad time? Did they just quickly look me up and decided I didn’t have enough academic pedigree to pass some random threshold? Or too busy to summarize the main reason they objectively sided with the one negative reviewer and decided not to consider my response to their critique? Regardless of the real reason, I already internalized this rejection. Now, I’m searching for a way of getting over it, and it is not easy. It is not easy in a world that is constantly reminding me I’m not worth anything if I don’t have published work, a fellowship, or a prestigious university in my resume.
As I read and study published papers for my current work. I can’t help but fixate in the mistakes in others’ work. The same mistakes that caused a reviewer to reject my work, a typo in a formula or a method section with minimum explanation and justification — that aroused suspicion in my work but somehow appears to be sufficient in others’ work. I even observed discriminatory and unprofessional remarks that have passed the scrutiny of peer-review in the past (for one example of many, google Tijuana Boundary Conditions for internal wave studies). Was it luck that my paper did not make it through the guarded “objective” gates of academia? Similarly, I also fixate in manuscripts that are far superior to mine and shame myself for not creating the same quality work. So I throw myself in an endless loop of self-deprecation, with brief moments of empowerment that inevitably spiral down a rabbit hole of isolation. After a while, I can climb out of that hole and calmly analyze the situation. I have read enough about biases in science and in the peer-review process to know that my last name and my gender could have influenced the reviewer not to give me the benefit of the doubt they bestow to others. I also understand that it might have been more than reasonable for our manuscript to be rejected and should simply focus on improving this work, which is what I have been doing in the last five months. With the help of my co-authors, who are also stressed by their work and deadlines, I have rewritten the paper to show the same results as before, which I genuinely believe are relevant and accurate, in a more compelling way. However, there is no more excitement in sharing this research, just a constant dread. Is this normal? If it is, should it be normal? How far behind am I compared to my peers?
No matter how I analyze and perceive this rejection, the damage is done. Even though I’m actively involved in two research projects, done over five research cruises, and have presented in multiple international conferences, when measured with the academic success stick, I fall short. I have been turned down from two fellowships explicitly because I haven’t published. I have been on probation in my job until I publish, and as time passes, I slowly lose academic capital, becoming less and less competitive.
We have all heard it everywhere, right? Publish or perish. So I’m perishing, slowly and painfully. I see my friends and colleagues on the right track, racing to an imaginary finish line (tenure track position), while I’m slowly drowning in this quicksand of expectations not fulfilled. I walk through the halls fighting the feeling of shame, and that shame stops my voice for taking part in meetings or seminars. And when I do manage to gather the confidence needed to participate or try to fight for space in a conversation, one quick inquiry to my resume and I become irrelevant to our community, someone who “doesn’t have what it takes” for our profession. It is not “Imposter Syndrome.” A term that I genuinely dislike. I do not have a syndrome; academic culture has a syndrome. This community has made it clear that no matter what we do, we are only worth what the status-quo has deemed as valuable. If I don’t “produce,” and if I don’t sound and look like an academic, the feedback that I receive is that I don’t BELONG here. Not until I assimilate to the program. How is this only in my mind? How is this something that I need to heal? My job depends on the number of papers, citations, and grants I generate, and all of them are highly correlated. All of them are heavily guarded by the same group of people that are now labeling me “not good enough.” It does not depend on the quality of my research, my mentorship of students, my teaching ability, my leadership in the fieldwork, my commitment to open source science and social justice. Even if a job description says it does, we all know what it really comes down to when decisions have to be made. The only logical conclusion I arrive at is that I do not belong in academia or at least not in these current terms.
Now that I have submitted an improved version of the manuscript, I wake up every morning dreading to see, there again in my inbox, a rejection later. I was planning to submit the paper to a lesser-known journal to improve my odds of publishing, oh, but wait! The name and prestige of the journal are as relevant as the content of the manuscript (if not more). So I must submit to a renowned journal, we all follow those impact-factors, don’t we? And when I finally make it and publish my work, somewhere, what would I have gained? The ability to jump through hoops. Of course, I understand the importance of sharing our discoveries, and in the end, this should be our main purpose, communicating science, but are we truly doing this? Are we truly objectively pushing the science forward with honesty, compassion, and selfless motivation? (and free access?) I don’t think this is always the case. Not that I don’t trust academia, it’s that I don’t believe it is open to all, and I definitely don’t believe it is a just system. Sadly, I have played the game too. When reading a paper, I quickly look to see who wrote it, from which university they come from, and in which journal it appears. It influences my decision to read it, to trust their work, to share it, and to cite it. Where did I learn to be like this? Can we change this? If the goal is to be objective and fair as a community, should these factors even matter?
So I end this letter asking for a favor. When you catch yourself checking someone’s university affiliation, wondering which country they are from, who was their thesis advisor, or how many papers they have written, ask yourself, why do you care? Maybe there is a specific reason. You may want to know what lab they are in, or check out what other works they have done so you can learn more. However, I think we are all smart enough to know when we are doing it to measure someone’s success and decide if it’s even worth a second look. Maybe you can’t follow their explanation, or it is not as clear as it can be. Their lack of an impressive resume should not decide if their science is correct or not. That is not science, that is a subjective decision, which is controlled by biases, prejudgment, and personal experiences. Would you treat a well-known senior scientist in the same way? Don’t teach your students and mentees to be like this; teach them to be open-minded, critical, but constructive, to treat each applicant, paper submission, and seminar presentation with the same respect, humility, and curiosity. I’m sure we have all made mistakes, and we have all seen others’ mistakes, we should act accordingly. Maybe, slowly we can become a more genuinely diverse community that permits the advancement of science fueled by a more transparent, equitable, and trustworthy system.