4 Reasons Why Academic Rejection Is So Awful And 1 Principle To Keep Bouncing Forward
Rejection “burns off everything irrelevant. And then you’re left with the purity of what’s important”
Faculty hiring has come to a screeching halt around the world due to Covid-19. Many universities are laying off adjunct and non-tenured faculty. Thousands of new PhDs are entering the job market. And thousands of now unemployed faculty are re-entering the market too. Essentially, this all translates to more competition for fewer jobs.
So anyone facing this abysmal job market is likely navigating a good amount of rejection. Or more likely at this stage, even finding opportunities to get rejected is becoming harder.
I’m seeing more pieces being published about the collapse of the academic job market too. Think pieces with cheery titles like “The Bleak Job Landscape of Adjunctopia for Ph.D.s,” “Academe’s Extinction Event,” and “For Would-Be Academics, Now Is the Time to Get Serious About Plan B.”
“Let me offer would-be faculty members some advice that I wish someone had told me early on,” writes academic-turned-entrepreneur L. Maren Wood: “Academe may be your Plan A, but this is no time to hold off on creating and pursuing a Plan B”:
“The bottom line: Ph.D.s and graduate students who have the misfortune to be on the job market this year or next will need as many career options as they can get. Those career options will be in the private sector, not in academe.”
When you’ve devoted your entire adult life to Plan A —getting a job as a professor — it’s daunting to plan out, let alone actually embark on a Plan B.
As for me, a recent Ph.D. grad moving from temporary postdoc to postdoc, I’m still pursuing Plan A. But the collapse of the academic job market during the pandemic has made me rethink my strategy. I now realize, all too clearly, that having a Plan B (or several plan Bs) is crucial.
Sticking with my Plan A to find a secure academic position involves digging in for the next couple of years to weather the storm in the trenches of the academic job search. At this point, I’m still sending out applications for postdoc positions each hiring cycle, and scouring the interwebs for any leads for new TT (tenure-track) positions.
But I also realize even formerly secure positions, like tenure faculty positions, in academia are no longer a sure thing. As one recent article in the Wall Street Journal writes: “Hit by Covid-19, Colleges Do the Unthinkable and Cut Tenure.” Or another in the New York Times paints this bright picture: “As the Virus Deepens Financial Trouble, Colleges Turn to Layoffs”
As I fill out yet another job application, I’m reminded of the patient who tells their doctor “It hurts when I do this,” to which the doctor replies, “Well, stop doing that.”
This seems like sound advice. Especially when I read advice from former academics like L. Maren Wood. Here’s something she wrote that sticks with me:
“Don’t do what I did. After I earned my Ph.D., I pieced together adjunct work, tried to publish, and hoped for an improvement that never materialized in the tenure-track market. I thought a Ph.D. would bring me “the life of the mind” — instead, it left me with debt, depression, no health insurance, and uncertain employment prospects. Like so many Ph.D.s, I was ill-equipped to make a career transition out of academe. Was I even good at anything else?”
Yikes. That sounds a little too close to home for me.
I’d like to move on quickly to the light at the end of the tunnel, and offer up some helpful tips for dealing with rejection in a professionally productive manner. But first, I think it’s helpful to delve a bit deeper into the fascinating science behind the enduring question: why is rejection (and academic rejection in particular) so fu*king crushing.
4 Scientific Explanations For Why Rejection Sucks So Much
Of course, rejection sucks. But how does it suck exactly?
Unsurprisingly, there are a few successful Plan A academics who are studying this very question. A range of creative psychological experiments have helped unpack this question. ‘Rejection Researchers’ have arrived at four basic explanations for why rejection hurts so much.
1. We’re biologically wired for rejection to hurt
The most common explanation for why rejection sucks so much–why we feel so worthless after being rejected–is in terms of evolution, psychologist Adam Grant explains:
“In prehistoric times, if being rejected didn’t bother you, you could end up on your own, with no food and no group to protect you from being mauled by a tiger. Which would make it awfully difficult to pass on your genes. Even though rejection rarely has life or death consequences today, we’re still wired to have those intense reactions. Neuroscientists argue that rejection actually causes physical pain.”
And as academics, we get to experience all sorts of new and interesting ways to trigger our evolutionary emotion-center of rejection-inducing pain!
2. Academic rejection is unusually brutal
To research her blog post, “Why Is Academic Rejection So Very Crushing?” writer Rebecca Schuman sent out a call to academics to submit their war stories of rejection. Her aim was to shed some light on the unique kind of pain inflicted on those languishing in the academic job market. Soon, the responses came pouring in.
For example, one responder, posting under the name ‘Werner Herzog’s Bear,’ writes about the torturous waiting period academics endure ‘flaying their soul’ on the job market:
“The worst thing for me was having to undergo the flaying of my soul over and over again. I went on the market six times, and only two of those tries were successful…Every August and September, as I started getting ready and looking for the ads, I would get anxiety attacks and couldn’t sleep. Rejection exists in other fields, but not to the point that it becomes a yearly ritual of self-hatred and emotional pain. Pretty much from September through May every year for six years I had a constant knot in my stomach. That’s no way to live and I honestly think that it’s taken three years now for me to finally recover.”
3. Rejection means ‘you don’t fit’
Another reason rejection is so rough is the feeling of not fitting in anywhere.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described his experience of this version of rejection:
“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”
When so many qualified candidates are competing for a single position, rejection letters often talk about ending up selecting a candidate who ‘most aligns with’ or ‘fits’ the position. This is understandable of course. But when you receive enough letters saying you don’t fit–you don’t align–you begin to wonder whether aligning is something you’ll ever do.
For example, here’s an excerpt from a recent rejection email I received:
“We reviewed your cover letter and CV and have decided to make an offer to another candidate who was more aligned with our current research program. We received dozens of qualified applications, including yours, which made it very competitive.”
Another blogger writes academic rejection is a special kind of hurt because if we believe that the academy is a meritocracy, “Being rejected by a pure meritocracy simply translates into believing that you truly have no merit whatsoever.”
If you receive rejection letter after rejection letter saying that you don’t fit– you don’t align– “it means being told that you don’t fit in anywhere,” writes Schuman.
4. Rejection threatens your identity
Finally, rejection also hurts because it threatens our identity.
This goes for most who are not just academics, but anyone who views their work as a reflection of their innermost being.
So when the work you’ve poured your soul into is rejected, whether by a job search committee or a critic, you can come away wondering if you’re made for the cut. The common feeling of imposter syndrome is exacerbated by the fairly narrow view of what most academics consider academic success: the TT job.
“academe isolates you, cutting you off from other (more reasonable and more varied) perspectives on how to define success or how to value the self. Without those outside variations, it’s so easy to see only two possible career outcomes: success on the TT (tenure track), or complete and utter failure.”
Adam Grant suggests that people who put all of their eggs in one identity basket, linking the whole of who they are to a single career identity, become less resilient in the face of rejection. He says,
“the reality is, we all have multiple identities. Psychologists have found that this can be a source of resilience. When one identity is threatened, we can lean on a different identity.”
Takeaway? Rejection is a fire that “burns off everything irrelevant”
The writer Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) has been called the ‘Maestro of Failure.’ That’s because Beckett “came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed,” writes the journalist Chris Power.
As an author intimately familiar with failure — Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy is famous for being one of the most rejected books of all time — Beckett figured out a way to carry on, even with fits and starts: “ …you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” (Samuel Becket, in The Unnamable).
Powers goes on to say that “Beckett had already experienced plenty of artistic failure by the time he developed it into a poetics.” But despite his endless failures, Beckett is most famous for writing this line:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
His quote above has become wildly popular over the years as a mantra in almost every field of professional life, from business to sports.
And it’s clear why.
“Fail better” inspires people to persevere through failure and rejection no matter what, suggesting failure is a learning experience that can teach us to ‘fail better’ next time.
But Beckett doesn’t give us much traction to work with, other than fiery-eyed grit and determination. And as I know all too well, willpower is a finite resource that depletes rapidly each new day. So how can I recharge my willpower after rejection inevitably hits again…and again?
Here’s one thing that helps me.
In an interview with M. Night Shyamalan, psychologist Adam Grant explores the question of ‘how to bounce back from rejection’ with the filmmaker. The whole episode is worth listening to (see below), but I found Grant’s takeaway to be some of the most useful and practically applicable advice on bouncing forward from rejection I’ve come across yet:
Adam Grant: “When you face rejection, remember that it’s not you being rejected by everyone. It’s just one audience rejecting a sample of your work: a résumé or cover letter you submitted, an interview you gave, a product you produced. With some distance, you can see it as an opportunity to get better, which gives you less to fear and more room to grow. Because rejection …”
M. Night Shyamalan: “…burns off everything irrelevant. And then you’re left with the purity of what’s important.”